To say that J.J. Abrams is a hot commodity right now is like saying the New England Patriots had a pretty good regular season. The creative genius behind the hit television shows “Alias” and “Lost” is also the man charged in bringing new life to the Star Trek franchise with his look back at Kirk, Spock, and McCoy back in their Starfleet days.
In the meantime, Abrams has had this little project going on, a movie that has been creating nothing but buzz since its ambiguous trailer premiered last summer during the movie “Transformers”. The grainy, jerky, hand held camera point of view of partygoes being interrupted by a huge explosion, followed by the head of the Statue of Liberty rolling up the street immediately had everyone’s interest. What was it? An alien invasion? War? A giant monster? And what was the name of the movie? All we were told was that it was coming out in January, and was currently known only as “Untitled J.J. Abrams project”.
Later, it was given the temporary name of “Cloverfield”, and news leaked out that it was indeed about a monster. The name means nothing, as Abrams just picked the name of a street near his studio, but given all of the buzz connected to it, “Cloverfield” has stuck, and that’s the movie that is now being foisted upon a waiting audience.
And it is indeed up to the hype as something completely original and unique. Unlike other special effects movies, where the all-seeing camera takes you to multiple locations to make sure you have the complete picture of the unfolding events, “Cloverfield” is told 100% through the camera lens of a single group of young people as they try to survive the evening.
It’s a bit confusing, and somewhat boring during the first 20 minutes of its sparse 84 minute run-time. A young man points the camera lens down into Central Park from the 39th floor of the posh apartment of his girlfriend’s parents. There are some light bantering going back and forth between the two lovers as they discuss going to Coney Park, and then the tape suddenly shifts. Now we are seeing another couple, preparing for a going away party for Jason’s (Mike Vogel) brother Rob (Michael Stahl-David), as he is about to leave for a job in Japan. Against the wishes of Jason’s girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas), Jason pawns off the camera to Rob’s best friend Hud (T. J. Miller), a guy who is not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer.
Hud documents some obligatory “testimonials” for Rob from his friends, a tactic Abrams and director Matt Reeves uses to set up the characters and their backstories. Rob is upset that the girl he was filming in the first part, Beth, is with another guy at the party. She is upset that he’s leaving. Hud is making things worse by being a busybody. And I was getting bored out of my skull.
That’s when things kick into gear, as a loud rumbling is heard, and the lights flicker. Going up on the roof, they are startled to see buildings exploding in a huge fireball. Running onto the street, they are confronted with the aforementioned statue decapitation, and from there, it’s non-stop action as Rob, Jason, Lily, Hud, and Marlene, a girl Hud had been hitting on during the party, try to make their escape. Hud continues taping the entire time (using what must be the strongest camera battery ever manufactured), because “people are going to want to know how it all went down.
Due to the use of the single point of view, the revealing of the monster is delayed, and never focused on as clearly as you want, as once someone sees it, they aren’t going to be wanting to stand around getting close-ups, they are going to want to get the hell out of Dodge. But their escape plans are altered after Rob gets a frantic message from Beth…she is trapped and bleeding back at her apartment. Rob decides he has to go save her, with the rest of his friends coming with him.
The entire concept was fascinating to watch, and the story was extremely suspenseful due to the fact that the audience is just as much in the dark as the characters. Abrams and Reeves do use one semi-cheap device to give a little more information, having the young people going into an electronics store (one that’s in the process of being looted), and watching a television report detailing some of the situation.
Their odyssey through the chaotic streets of Manhattan is very effective, with several genuinely scary moments, especially in the abandoned subway tunnels as they try to get to Central Park while hearing the explosions of the ongoing battle just above their heads.
As well as the entire single-point-of-view approach works, there are also some serious flaws to the movie. The camera shaking and jostling is almost enough to make you wish you had brought some Dramamine to mix in with your popcorn.
However, the biggest weakness of the film is that at several points, you don’t really care whether these people live or die, because they are just so damn stupid and self centered. Rob is a hopeless whiner, and Stahl-David doesn’t help the situation by bringing any real acting ability to the roll. Worst of all is the character of Hud. I was at one point recalling the Bette Middler/Danny DeVito comedy “Ruthless People”, where Lt. Bender was looking down at Bill Pullman trying to rip off a ransom collection, and stating “This could very well be the stupidest person on the face of the earth”. No, Lieutenant; Hud is the stupidest person on the face of the earth…a man so painfully idiotic that you are really hoping that one of those creepy spider-like monsters will just hurry up and put him out of our misery.
All in all though, this was a fascinating way to spend an hour and a half. A taut, well told action tale that keeps you on the edge of the seat, and in suspense all the way. Despite the fact that it’s a monster movie with all kinds of death involved, it doesn’t pander to the slasher film crowd, with most of the gory stuff happening out of the viewfinder of the camera, making them even more frightening. We never really find out where the monster came from, or anything else about it. That may leave things open for a sequel…but if not, it’s still a courageous method of storytelling.
January almost always has nothing but trash to offer as far as new releases go. Abrams has changed that with this film…one that I predict will be a cult favorite for years.
My rating: Frank Ryan (3 footballs)
Get DirectSatTV to follow your favorite Cavs action.