“I don’t understand why this is happening,” whimpers an awestruck participant in the Cloverfield calamity. Quaking amidst the rubble of shattered condos, stumbling over piles of decimated retail, choking on burnt flesh and smoldering plastic, witness to the collapse of proud Manhattan real estate in the wake of implacable, inexplicable fury, she really ought to have said, “I don’t understand why this is happening again.”
TV auteur J.J. Abrams may have played coy with the marketing campaign for his ultra-mysterious, mega-hyped monster movie, but now that the thing looms fully into sight—whoa—it’s clear he isn’t beating around the Bush-era iconography. Street-level 9/11 footage would fit seamlessly into Cloverfield’s hand-held, ersatz-amateur POV; the initial onslaught of mayhem, panic, plummeting concrete, and toxic avalanches could have been storyboarded directly from the CNN archive. Cloverfield never stops to identify the why, whence, or whereto of its rampaging meanie—this relentless thriller stops for nothing—but as for what to call it, behold . . . al-Qaedzilla!
And how delicious that it comes to feast on the neo-yuppies. Cloverfield devotes the first 20 of its 73-minute runtime to a party—HOLY SHIT. Stop. Let me write that again: 73-MINUTE RUNTIME. Can we just take a moment to pause the action, set aside our differences, drop all beefs, join together as one, and give thanks, all praise due, shout joy to the world and hey, hallelujah—something has found us! Something that isn’t three fucking hours long!
As I was saying, the neo-yuppies. Cloverfield enacts its deft simulation of that infamous September morning in order to brutalize the society that flourished from its ruin like some tacky, tenacious, condo-dwelling fungus. The movie opens in the giant downtown loft of Rob (Michael Stahl-David), a fuckable, upwardly mobile, exceptionally boring twentysomething VP of some white-collar soul-suck. Recently promoted to the Japan office, and tenderly besotted with a Central Park West banality named Beth (Odette Yustman), Rob grins open his front door to the cheers and cameras of a surprise going-away party comprised of fellow smug, self-entitled whitest-kids-you-know.
The narrative conceit of the movie is that we’re watching a certain quantity of consumer-grade video retrieved by the government from the area “formerly known as Central Park” after an “incident” code-named “Cloverfield.” Plying a sly twist on this Blair Witch–craft, director Matt Reeves devises a meta-“cross-cutting” strategy: The main story, largely shot by a wiseass meathead named Hud (T.J. Miller), alternates via camera glitching with the original footage on the tape. This shows us Rob and Beth falling semi-plausibly in lurv while day-tripping to Coney Island. That, in toto, is the motivation for the swift, brutish thrust of the movie: Rob & Co.’s absurdly ill-advised odyssey to save Beth, wounded in her midtown high-rise, as all manner of giant-lizard, military-reprisal, angry-insectoid-parasite hell breaks loose.
This latter menace, a breed of vicious, super-charged, spider-like descendants of the Bugs from Starship Troopers, provides Cloverfield a nifty guerrilla threat. Shaken loose from the hide of al-Qaedzilla as he howls through the city, they pop up willy-nilly to deliver short, uncontrolled bursts of back-slashing, toxin-injecting, mega-hemorrhaging terror. Their introduction speaks to Cloverfield’s chief excellence: a shrewd, scary, playful sense of scale that locks the action in place and propels it forward whiplash fast.
Aside from an apparent space-time rift in the uptown No. 6 tunnel granting an impossibly convenient jaunt from Spring Street to 59th, the movie keeps faith with Manhattan reality. The specificity stings: a breathless regrouping hilariously staged in front of the upscale cosmetic emporium Sephora; a frantic emergence from a subway-tunnel nightmare into the over-lit horror of a triage center in Bloomingdale’s; an acknowledgement that the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle is, indeed, a very deep circle of hell.
With its emphasis on corporate infrastructure and the unimaginative consumer class that enables it, Cloverfield makes for a most satisfying death-to-New-York saga. Which is to say, the fatal flaw of Drew Goddard’s script—shallow, unlikable heroes—can be flipped to an asset: death to the shallow, unlikable heroes! Cynical, sure, but in any case the movie doesn’t belong to its writer, but to the macro-vision of Abrams as executed with micro-dexterity by his team. Michael Bonvillain’s cinematography is a tour de force of avid FX–laden pseudo-verité. Coupled with Kevin Stitt’s complex cutting, Cloverfield is a sustained triumph of expanding and contracting perspectives, its whip-pans from human-scale panic to skyscraper-toppling spectacle raising the bar set by Spielberg’s War of the Worlds—if not Sokurov’s Russian Ark.
The mechanism is the message in Cloverfield, a movie so aluminum-sleek, ultra-portable, and itsy-bitsy sexy, it’s amazing Steve Jobs didn’t pull it out of an envelope at Macworld.