Indifference is the word that comes to mind in describing my reaction to the creature feature “Cloverfield.” I laughed a few times, received a couple decent scares, but for the most part just sat in the audience unmoved.
“Cloverfield” had a big opening weekend thanks to an ad campaign that kept the film’s content a mystery. All we knew was that something knocked the head off the Statue of Liberty. It is a great scene, but if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve already seen the film’s best moment.
As the movie opens, a group of uninteresting 20-somethings are having a going-away party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who is going to Japan for a new job. The festivities are cut short when a monster attacks New York.
We are excused exposition of the origin of the giant reptilian creature, but instead get stuck for 20 minutes at the party that opens the film. Our point of reference is Hud (T.J. Miller), who is given the duty of getting testimonials from the party guests. When the mayhem ensues Hud keeps shooting, even when common sense would say it was time to put the camera down.
Critics and audiences alike seem to be fond of the film that is basically “The Blair Witch Project” meets “Godzilla,” but I found that the shaky hand-held camerawork distracting. I am aware the film’s gimmick is supposed to make the proceedings feel more realistic, immediate and frightening, but all I can say is that it didn’t work for me.
The film at times evokes 9/11-like imagery, but it doesn’t seem worthy of evoking them. Some are claiming that the monster is meant to be a metaphor for the 9/11 attacks. If this truly is the case, it doesn’t make the film any weightier, and if it is meant to be catharsis then it is in poor taste.
This isn’t to say the film isn’t well made. The special effects are extremely well executed. The illusion that everything is being captured on a hand-held camera is never broken. When you finally get to see glimpses of the creature and the giant killer lice that fall off it, they are impressive.
I just didn’t care. With the exception of Lizzy Caplin’s Marlena, all the actors aren’t particularly memorable. Caplin (“Mean Girls”) has spunk, attitude and genuine presence, but her talent is wasted as she becomes nothing more than a tag-along during a mission to rescue Rob’s injured ex-girlfriend (Odette Yustman).
“Cloverfield” was written by Drew Goddard and directed by Matt Reeves, who both come to this from careers in TV. The dialogue is flat and rarely interesting and the characters mostly vapid. The film’s approach is to go for realism, but who wants that in a monster movie? Monster movies are meant to be fun and campy.
The film is actually structured more like the cheesy disaster films of the 1970s than a monster film. “Cloverfield,” like such films as “Earthquake” and “The Towering Inferno,” has cookie-cutter characters who are trying to get from point A to point B while trying to survive all sorts of peril. This simplistic plot can work if you have characters you care about. “The Poseidon Adventure” is a good example of how to do this right.
There is one sequence with our group of survivors walking through the New York subway system that does utilize the hand-held camera approach well and generates tension. The only light that they have is that of the camera, and, of course, that handy night vision feature. But even this bit was already done in “28 Weeks Later,” which wasn’t a very good film itself.
It is worth noting that George Romero, the director of the classic “Night of the Living Dead,” is taking the same hand-held approach in his latest zombie film “Diary of the Dead.” Due out in limited release on Feb. 15, “Diary” and “Cloverfield” will probably inevitably be compared to each other. Based on the trailer, Romero’s film seems to be a better executed endeavor than “Cloverfield,” but trailers can be deceptive.