There are two lessons to be learned from Cloverfield.
First, annoying people attract monsters. If a monster should attack your town, get away from any yuppies in the vicinity. Yuppies are like catnip for monsters.
Second, America's Funniest Home Videos was right: the jerkwad with the video camera will not put it down to help you. He will always keep filming, and most likely he's going to miss the action, because he's an idiot.
For those of you who missed the summer's viral marketing campaign, Cloverfield is the latest brainchild of producer J.J. Abrams, the man who made Mission: Impossible more incomprehensible and who created Lost, a miasma of plotholes that the show runners may never adequately climb out of. In Cloverfield, he hands the reins to Matt Reeves, one of the writers/directors he used to work with on Felicity. Oh, Keri Russell, where are your golden locks to distract me now?
The conceit of Cloverfield is that you essentially are getting a Godzilla movie from the ground, a first-person one-camera disaster flick. On the night of a going-away party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), hotshot executive of an unnamed company, a monster attacks Manhattan. For the next hour, Rob and his friends run from the monster, then run to the monster, and then run away again. It's Steven Spielberg's version of War of the Worlds with reshoots by the guy down the street, like that fan film of Raiders of the Lost Ark, just not as good.
The first twenty minutes or so, which is all Rob's party, is dreadful and obnoxious. My guess is that this was intended to make us bond with our subjects, to root for them as they flee for their lives and feel bad when they don't make it. It has the opposite effect, however, and made me bloodthirsty to see these self-important whiners get mauled. The worst offender is the guy who carries the camera the entire time, a dude named Hud (T.J. Miller), who never shuts up and never has anything of great import to say. The fact that he is named Hud is a red flag, because the stupid characters always get the silliest sounding names. (Paul Newman this Hud ain't.) I wouldn't be surprised if in the original draft his name was "Gomer." Yet, somehow Hud manages to "accidentally" edit the move on the fly, cutting at humorously opportune moments and building a romantic subplot on which most of the movie will hinge. Cloverfield is supposed to be the uninterrupted government replay of the "real" tape, yet it's pretty clear that someone gave Hud storyboards.
Given that the gimmick of the first-person found footage breaks down at the party leaves little hope for the rest of the movie. When the first of the big explosions comes, and we get the now familiar shot of the head from the Statue of Liberty bouncing down the street, I actually thought Cloverfield was going to turn itself around. I could forgive the bad set-up if the action was going to be thrilling, and the early indications are that they will be. Unfortunately, as the movie wears on, the action scenes seem to get farther and farther apart, meaning quality time with people we've come to hate.
Before long, even the action sequences we do get end up not being so interesting, either. Hud always shoots the wrong things. Because he's always trying to escape something, we get maybe ten seconds on the actual monsters or explosions, and then we're running off to something else. When the Army storms New York, we're more likely to see the soldiers' feet than their guns. By the climax, when we are supposed to be screaming and holding on to the edges of our seats, the quick snatches of the monster--which will look familiar to anyone who has seen the fire creatures in Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind--no longer garner any reaction. I was tired of being teased, let's get in there and see some carnage!
Honestly, I feel more caustic now writing this than I did watching Cloverfield. It's actually a good idea for a half-hour movie, but it can't sustain itself for ninety minutes. The style becomes a hindrance, and it prevented me from ever suspending my disbelief and immersing myself in the fiction. The shaky camera and eye-witness approach constantly calls attention to itself, reminding us that Cloverfield is just a movie, and ironically, despite its attempts to look like a documentary, it's one that feels more fake than a full-fledged production.
One of my friends and colleagues who was not going with me to see Cloverfield said to me before I left, "It's okay I'm missing it. I bet The Host is better." I couldn't help thinking of those words as I tried to stay awake in the theatre. The Host really is better. If you want to see a monster movie this weekend, rent it and stay home. Just don't invite any annoying people over. If you do, I can't be responsible for what happens. Chances are, they'll be at Cloverfield anyway, making the Cineplex the most dangerous place to be.