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'Cloverfield's' Monster Also Behind the Lens

By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 18, 2008

Brace yourselves. It's become something of a common occurrence, but every few years Hollywood feels a compulsive need to blow up New York. Why? People in the industry apparently need to get something out of their systems, perhaps a lingering bitterness over never having seen "Cats." With CGI, of course, it's become child's play to blow the head off the Statue of Liberty, reduce the Brooklyn Bridge to rubble and turn Midtown into a moonscape. All, of course, in good fun.

Whether one finds "Cloverfield" fun, however, may depend on one's susceptibility to cerebral hemorrhage. The conceit in this Drew Goddard-scripted, Matt Reeves-directed and J.J. ("Lost") Abrams-produced thriller is that the entire attack and destruction of the city is seen through the viewfinder of a Manhattan partygoer's camera. Imagine a wedding video shot by the drunkest guy at the reception -- who at the same time is under attack by a lumbering-yet-slithering 90-foot tadpole, from which molt crablike man-eating subordinates. (Bride or groom? We don't know . . .)

The motiveless monster, stomping around America's most valuable real estate, is a pretty great effect. He (she? it?) suggests some of the major creatures of cheesy Japanese horror (Mothra, Rodan, Godzilla). By extension the film brings to mind a Japanese obsession with picture-taking, i.e. the life-on-film (or tape or disc) ethos that governs the tenacious picture-taking of "Cloverfield." Our hero as such is Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who's being given a going-away party before his new job starts in Japan. (See? There is a connection!) Apparently miffed for not having been invited to the soiree, the monster starts lobbing bombs around Lower Manhattan, knocking down buildings and sending Lady Liberty's head bang-crashing into the street. The partygoers, in an eerie/exploitative recollection of Sept. 11 (would people still stand around gaping until the dust cloud came?) eventually become part of a mass exodus heading for the bridge. Which ends up in the East River.

Having become, by default, the party's camera guy, the thick-witted Hud (T.J. Miller) ranks among the greatest war photographers in the history of the medium. At no time -- not in the darkest subway tunnels of New York, or on its shakiest streets, or in an out-of-control helicopter, or while scrambling up to the 39th floor of a tilting apartment building to rescue Rob's girlfriend, Beth (Odette Yustman) -- does he fail to keep an image on the screen. For this critic, it became imperative for the monster to stomp Hud into jelly, if only to stabilize the picture. But, again, different viewers have different thresholds of pain.

What "Cloverfield" may mean in the greater (as in Hollywood) scheme of things is the development of product that can be viewed most comfortably on the smallest screen. If people are going to watch movies on an iPhone, the reasoning may go, give them movies that look as if they were shot on an iPhone. Projected on a building-size screen, "Cloverfield" is an aggressive, relentless, I-thought-my-eyeballs-were-bleeding exercise in visual disorientation. Is this the future? Imagine, if you will, being a cinematographer, training at film school, apprenticing as a grip and eventually being given the chance to shoot your own film. And then Paramount Pictures, which has about as much financial clout as the United Arab Emirates, puts out a movie that looks as if it were shot by accident. Doesn't seem right. Neither does spending $9 for a ticket.

And neither does much of "Cloverfield," despite director Reeves's tenacious grip on the film's visual signature, the not-so-novel DV view of the world (which has been a fixture in independent film for years). The gimmick is less plausible at some times than others. If the crab creatures were gnawing on me, for instance, yes, I'd drop the camera. Not Hud. But maybe that's why he's made out to be a bit dull at the beginning of the film.

"Whatever it is," a soldier says -- taking the time to explain things to our heroes, as if they were the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- "it's winning."

Bad taste? Dialogue that consists largely of "Oh my God!!!!!"? The anti-cinematic aesthetic that is coming to govern our visual lives? "Cloverfield" is all of the above, plus another slimy monster, engaged in an extreme makeover of Manhattan.

Cloverfield (85 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence, terror and disturbing images.

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