Cloverfield ought to come with a warning label: leave off the extra butter on your pop-corn, for it might be too much to handle for your stomach. The entire film is shot by a handheld camera belonging to one of the friends attending a going away party for one of their best mates. And Hud (T.J. Miller) is no P.T. Anderson.
In fact, the jittery shots seem almost purposeful, as if they were designed to put you in a trance. But the intended effect–showing you a disaster of epic proportions from a small, personal level–is thrilling. Cloverfield (no relation to the movie whatsoever) is our American version of Godzilla. The plot is simple enough: a band of friends gets caught in the path of a empire-state-building-sized monster wreaking havoc upon New York.
Where writer Drew Goddard (based on an idea by J.J. Abrams) really manages to draw you in is with a very strong romantic sub-plot. Cloverfield, you might say, is about an impossible love which must prevail. Rob (Michael Stahl-David) just got thrown a bon voyage party at someone’s (his?) apartment in the Lower East Side. Unbeknownst to anyone, just a couple weeks before he spent the night with Beth (Odette Yutsman) and they’ve since drifted apart from each other.
When she shows up at the party with someone else, Rob is upset. They have a tiff and she makes a hasty departure. The rest of Cloverfield is about Rob trying to find Beth again as their entire world collapses around them. We are never told why this giant-size monster is so keen on destroying Manhattan (perhaps this is al-Qaeda’s trojan horse, filled with Talebanis who will trot out in phalanxes ready to subjugate New Yorkers?) or how this monster became so angry so quickly.
But any attempt at trying to flesh out a backstory should be easily dulled by the marvelous special effects of Cloverfield. In one of the monster’s first on-stage appearances, he deftly decapitates the Statue of Liberty and throws her head down one of Manhattan’s canyons. It stops right in front of our group of friends, who watch haplessly. You see this scene and you think, hm, I never thought about what the Statue of Liberty’s head rolling down the avenue would look like before.
With its jumpy camera motion and dizzying pans, Cloverfield is terrifying because you really feel like you’re in there, with the gang, trying to make your way to Beth’s mid-town apartment in order to rescue her as military tanks are shooting at the monster from below and stealth bombers drop bombs from above. Comparisons to Blair Witch Project are of course unavoidable. How can you not be reminded of that strange and downright terrifying movie? For its posh visual effects and very well-written scenario, Cloverfield is a fun ride through a hellish version of New York City. Every few years, a movie studio feels the need to bash this greatest city in the world. It rarely makes for good movie-watching, unfortunately.