While poorly executed, surprisingly unengaging, and mostly banal, Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield, the much-hyped version of Godzilla-meets-The Blair Witch Project produced by Lost/Alias guru J.J. Abrams, does pose at its heart one truly frightening scenario: What would you do if the moment the next 9/11-level catastrophic event happens here in New York City, you just happen to be stuck at a party downtown with a bunch of godawful douchebags? Seriously, though, I’m not sure how you screw up a ground-eye-view of “Huge Monster Destroying New York” so badly, but Cloverfield is as big a January dog as they come. Not above milking blatant 9/11 imagery for gravitas (which doesn’t offend me per se, although I do wish it was in the service of a better story), Cloverfield basically tries to be little more than a monster movie thrill ride for the Youtube generation. (The film is bookended by a trip to Coney Island, and, yeah, I’d say that’s about right.) But given that the none of the main characters are all that likable, and given that the film falters on the promise of showing NYC in full disaster mode, I can’t say it’s a ride worth paying for, Sadly, one or two brief moments notwithstanding, last year’s eerie teaser is about as good as it gets.
The setup’s all in that teaser, of course, but that doesn’t stop Cloverfield, an 85-minute movie, from starting off wicked slow. After a few moments with two young lovers in a Deluxe Apartment in the Sky (Time Warner Center, to be exact), the film begins with a surprise going-away party downtown for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), a young financial type heading for Japan. (Not to obsess over real estate, but this apartment too is as impressive as the monster.) We then spend about 20 minutes wandering around said party, meeting all the young beautiful people who may or may not become Cthulhu food. (Rob, it seems, has many friends, but none of them are plain-looking.) So, let’s see, there’s Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel), his best friend (and our cameraman) Hud (T.J. Miller), Jason’s girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas), Hud’s current crush Marlena (Lizzy Caplan)…but conspicuously absent amid them all (at first) is the fetching young lass we saw in the opening moments with Rob, Beth (Odette Yustman). She shows up late, with — ZOMG SC4ND4L! — another man in tow (I think his name was Travis, but it doesn’t matter — he’s a plot point that’s forgotten anyway), and, soon thereafter, leaves in a huff. (By now you may be thinking, uh, where’s the monster in all of this 90210 dreck? Yes, my thoughts exactly.) Anyway, so after enough time has elapsed that Beth could’ve gotten back home, there’s a shaking and a rumbling and…finally…well, you know what happens next.
Now, I could’ve forgiven Cloverfield its interminably long set-up if we then got a New York City disaster movie for the ages. But, after letting some obvious 9/11-ish images and moments — the collapsing buildings, clouds of billowing smoke, panicked cell phone calls — do the heavy lifting, the film mostly just stalls out. As far as the story goes, Rob decides he must go save Beth from the TWC, and, for reasons that don’t make much sense, everyone else just decides to tag along. Ok, that’s fine — you gotta get the protagonists moving around New York for one reason or another. Except, once the monster attacks, the city is almost completely empty, aside from U.S. infantrymen (who, as my friend pointed out, somehow got there before the Air Force.) I mean, it’s Manhattan. You’d think there’d be people wandering around everywhere in various states of terror and confusion, but, nope, all two million people either hunkered down or got out right away. In fact, other than the Statue of Liberty and the 9/11 nods, there’s not much point for the film to have taken place in New York at all. I mean, sure, there’s a sequence in the subway tunnels in which our heroes magically leap from Spring St. to 59th St. (and one which will seem rather derivative if you saw 28 Weeks Later or The Descent.) But, otherwise, this could have taken place pretty much anywhere.
If this review all sounds a bit nit-picky, well, perhaps. But, when the film never really engages at an emotional or visceral level, you gotta do something to pass the time. (The midnight crowd at my local Magic Johnson sat there more dutiful than dumbstruck.) Except for the occasional rare moment, as when the gang get caught in a full-out alley melee between the creature and the US Army, or witness a horse pulling an empty cart around Central Park, Cloverfield never establishes a groove. And everytime you think it might start to get interesting, it falls back into Archie and Veronica grandstanding. Throw in a few wildly implausible escapes and people rallying from seriously painful injuries, and there’s not much here to recommend. To be honest, I’d wait for the video. And, if no one ever finds said video under all the debris in Central Park, well, trust me, you didn’t miss much.