IN HIS REVIEW of 1998's Godzilla, the New Yorker's Anthony Lane mocked the media blitz preceding the film's premiere: "The marketing machine has been chugging away for months, its strategy being to seduce us with details--the wink of an eye, a cheeky tremor of foot. The true, overwhelming appearance of le tout Godzilla was left to our imaginations. As a friend of mine thoughtfully remarked, 'But we know what it looks like. It looks like a big f--ing lizard.'"
Cloverfield took a similar tack, but had the advantage of birthing a brand new giant monster. Copying Godzilla's marketing strategy, producer J.J. Abrams gave viewers nary a glimpse of what was headed towards Manhattan. Oh, something bad, to be sure; something big enough to rip the head off the Statue of Liberty and chuck it halfway across Manhattan. But what the monster was, or how it came to New York, remained hidden. A coy viral marketing campaign took place on the Internet, but little hard information was available to even the most dedicated Web junkie. Finally, the day is here, the wait is over. You can go to the theater and see the beastie for yourself.
It looks like a big f--ing lizard.
But Cloverfield is a successful film because the monster doesn't really matter. Like most great films set against a tragic backdrop, Cloverfield focuses on people doing what they can to survive in the midst of an unimaginable horror. Patton worked because it drove home the effects of World War II on a single soldier-slapping, Montgomery-hating general. Similarly, United 93 didn't get bogged down in the totality of 9/11, focusing instead on a tiny band of heroes committed to doing what limited good they could on a day unlike any other.
Director Matt Reeves immerses Cloverfield's audience in the lives of several New York hipsters who have gathered to celebrate the departure of their friend, Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl David), for Japan. Seen through the first person view of a handheld camera, Cloverfield is not the story of the destruction of New York City. That's not to say that New York City isn't destroyed. But the actual devastation is never the film's central focus; it's little more than a plot device. After the monster attacks, cameraman Hud (T.J. Miller), Rob, Rob's brother and brother's girlfriend (Mike Vogel and Jessica Lucas, respectively), and Hud's would-be love interest, Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) head for the hills. Panicked, but alive, the group is almost off Manhattan when Rob gets a call from a trapped and injured Beth (Odette Yustman)--a girl Rob has loved since college, but bedded only recently.
From there, the film really gets going. Will they escape, or stay on the island to find their wounded friend? Can Rob redeem himself for treating Beth badly at the beginning of the film? Will any of them get out of this thing alive?
Much will be made of the film's cinematography, and for good reason; it's like The Blair Witch Project on steroids. Those who got motion sickness from that film will have a hard time with the first twenty minutes or so of this movie--in addition to a constantly jiggling camera, faces routinely fill the entire widescreen frame, further discomfiting the viewer. It is an interesting technique, something akin to neorealism in the age of YouTube and TMZ. And it becomes apparent as the movie goes along that Rob and his merry band aren't the only amateurs documenting the event; everywhere they go, fellow New Yorkers are snapping pictures and shooting video on cell phone cameras. It also makes for an incredibly immersive experience; when the characters run into a military convoy unloading its arsenal on the creature, the resultant chaos--the shoulder fired missiles, the tank firing its guns, the rocket batteries going full bore--is as intense as that of any film not named Saving Private Ryan.
While Cloverfield is replete with 9/11 imagery--New York City remains Hollywood's favorite city to destroy, but it's impossible to do so without conjuring up memories from that day--the movie isn't all death, destruction, and heartache. Rob's best friend Hud provides some needed comic relief. Every time the movie got too intense, his comments provoked a ripple of laughter in the theater. Writer Drew Goddard and director Reeves capture the New York hipster sensibility about as well as a big budget production ever has. And the cast of unknowns successfully creates a mood of anxiety and uncertainty on this, the worst day of their lives. While the film certainly has a resolution, some in the audience may be disappointed by the lack of exposition; we never really find out what Department of Defense designate Cloverfield is. But we find out who Ben and Beth are. And they're what this movie is really about.
Sonny Bunch is assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STADNARD.