Crimson and ‘Cloverfield’

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For its many faults, “Cloverfield” must be given the highest of praise for this – it knows its target audience extremely well.

It began with a juicy-but-coy teaser trailer with this summer’s mega-blockbuster “Transformers.” It revealed no title, no recognizable stars (only producer J.J. Abrams name was credited) and no idea as to what it was really about.

The only tell-tale image was that of the head of the Statue of Liberty rolling like a bowling ball down a dark New York City Street while masses flee in panic.

In the following months, the internet was ablaze with speculation, conjecture, frame-by-frame analysis of the trailer, and complete dissection of the fractured bits of dialogue heard within. Then, various vague links began sprouting up that gave on tangential clues (Slusho, anyone?) as to what “Cloverfield” promised.

It was the same lightening-in-a-bottle momentum gathered by a little independent film called “The Blair Witch Project” was able to capture more than a decade ago.

So strictly does it adhere to its conviction of presenting us with a “first-person” account of a giant monster invasion, though, that it begins to work to “Cloverfield’s” disadvantage.

For even as a I sit a day following my screening of the film, I am at a loss for garnering that same pre-release rush that the film’s marketing department so masterfully executed.

A disclaimer: For anyone who has the slightest feeling of motion sickness, you have two options: 1) stop reading the review now, for there is no way in hell you should watch this film beyond the opening credits, or 2) read away and make sure to stock up on the Dramamine before purchase of your ticket.

For “Cloverfield” is a small-scale perspective of a monster with rather large scales. In other words, it re-imagines the old city-leveling creature features of yore for the “You Tube” generation.

It’s a rather nervy conceit. Where films from the the era of “Gojira” (known more popularly as “Godzilla”) were able to bolster suspense with creative editing, a swelling soundtrack and a more omnipotent perspective, “Cloverfield” is cramped behind the lens of a 20-something party boy who didn’t even want to take pictures in the first place and tells us the tale of destruction entirely from his perspective.

The “footage” that is “Cloverfield” is a government document, a recording found in the wake of the monster attack and also provides (for better or worse) the film its narrative structure. While throwing a going-away fiesta for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), a group of pretty, empty yuppies decide to document the occasion with a farewell video. Rob’s dopey best bud, Hud (played by T.J. Miller) is reluctantly designated the cameraman. It is to our benefit that Hud is at least blessed with a Seth Rogan-like stoner wit, for he serves as our accidental narrator for the majority of the film.

He also comes in handy during some of the film’s unnecessary attempts to add human drama amidst the chaos. Rob’s girlfriend is trapped is a nearby building and Rob somehow convinces a cadre of idiots to duck and weave through the wreckage in an attempt to save her.

It is within those moments that almost brings the borough-busting beastie to a halt. The film’s shaky-cam perspective is made bearable in those moments where we get those fleeting, first-person glimpses at the encroaching terror. It plays out like sort of reality TV special that would immediately suck you in (“’America’s Craziest, Savage Monster Attacks’ will be right back after these messages!”). But for the sake of attempting a more traditional approach to storytelling, writer Drew Goddard felt obligated to saddle it with a love story as well.

Just as “Blair Witch” did years ago, I suspect “Cloverfield” may pick up momentum with its detractors, who view it as all build-up and a failed follow-through.

But while “Cloverfield’s most audacious gambit is its Achilles’s heel, it still does not diminish the countless jolts, nifty special effects and innovative approach to a tired genre that seemed destined to live the rest of its life on the Sci-Fi Channel.

It may become a cultural relic like “Witch,” known more for its marketing campaign than its content, but it deserves more credit for its visceral savvy than the majority of bloated, neutered thrillers greenlit by major studios, for its successful attempt to make city-stomping monsters matter to a new generation.

P.S. If you can’t stay past the final credits and what to know what was said in the scratchy message, here you go…

P.P.S. Wanna know what spalshed in the water in the final frames? Try here and there are a few pics taken illegally at screenings, so I’m not going to help you there. But if I can find them…

~ by usesoapfilm on January 22, 2008.

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