Will New York’s inflated real estate market end with a bang or a whimper? According to Cloverfield — which I finally caught up with this weekend — the answer is, emphatically, Ker-Pow! J.J. Abrams’s entertaining Manhattan disaster romp is set over the course of a night in which an unidentified giant monster hammers away at every luxury condo and office tower it can lay its whipping tail on. The city’s quick destruction is viewed entirely through the lens of a camcorder carried by a yuppie tool, who with his three friends is trying to rescue a fourth — a pretty twenty-something trapped in her high-rise off Columbus Circle.
The premise is inspired but also terribly flawed. In both The Blair Witch Project (1999) and in George Romero’s The Diary of the Dead (2007), the conceit of someone continuing to film personal mayhem even as things get much worse was made credible by writing the characters as pathologically voyeuristic film students. In Cloverfield, on the other hand, you’re left to wonder over and over why the dude who was shooting “testimonials” for his bro’s going-away party in a downtown loft won’t just put the fucking camera down. Or for that matter why he doesn’t drop and break it during one of many stumbles.
Still, it was way too easy to dismiss Cloverfield, as many critics did upon its January release, as just another horror movie, complete with underwritten characters and mediocre performances from unknowns. As Nathan Lee wrote at the time, Abrams, best known as the creator of Felicity and Alias, places “emphasis on corporate infrastructure and the unimaginative consumer class that enables it.” Cloverfield‘s characters are as boring, bland, and anonymous as the sleek buildings and former mean streets they see destroyed. As the kind of people who can still afford to live in Manhattan, how can they not be?
Perhaps we are still not ready for a post-September 11 movie that doesn’t revere the architecture of the World Trade Center, let alone the ideology that erected it. Tellingly, Cloverfield comes to a close in Central Park, the largest chunk of Manhattan land that still belongs to the people. — Benjamin Strong