Cloverfield *** (out of ****)

Director: Matt Reeves
Writer: Drew Goddard
Cast: Michael Stahl-David, T. J. Miller, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan, Odette Yustman, Mike Vogel, Odet Jasmin, Blake Lively
Rating: PG-13 (violence, terror, and unstable images)
Running Time: 84 min
Release Date: 1/18/2008

Cloverfield is a fun change of pace from so many serious movies contending for an Oscar. It purports to be the footage in a video camera recovered by the U.S. military after an attack on New York by “Godzilla-like” monster. The title is the DoD codeword for the incident. Cloverfield is a rollercoaster ride about people caught up in a disaster in progress and is strangely more realistic than most similar sci-fi action films if one is prepared to accept the premise.

Our journey starts with a young couple in a Manhattan high-rise after an obvious night together. Rob (Michael Stahl-David) is filming his girlfriend, Beth (Odette Yustman), waking up. He has plans to take her to Coney Island for the day. Then the scene jumps to a party on a night over a month later. Rob is enlisting his friend, Hud (T. J. Miller), to tape the guests various farewell testimonials. Rob is going to a business assignment in Japan and this is his “going away” party. From the point of view of Hud’s video camera, we meet Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel), Jason’s girlfriend Lilly (Jessica Lucas), and Lilly’s friend Marlena (Lizzy Caplan). Hud takes a particular interest in Marlena but their idle banter is interrupted by an explosion that shakes the building.

As a news announcer is reporting that an oil tanker has capsized in the harbor there is an even larger explosion. Faming debris hits the building triggering a mad scramble as everyone runs down the stairs to escape the building. The head of the Statue of Liberty lands in the street, signaling that we are in big trouble. Rob’s brother has been killed. At first we don’t see the cause of the destruction. As our group of four flees Manhattan, they come across EMTs treating the injured and soldiers going forward confront the shadowy threat. One does muse about how the military could arrive so fast.

The value of this show is not in portraying a realistic scenario but rather a very real depiction of people’s reaction from suddenly be swept away from ordinary concerns to a reality in which they may die at any moment. Cloverfield manages to stay well above the typical horror genre as we watch these four individuals actions in what may be their final few hours of life. Rob’s heroic attempt to save his girlfriend who is trapped in a high rise is the central focus as the action develops against a background escalating military operations including air strikes by F-18s and even a B-2.

In a way this film is about terrorism without the terrorists. By substituting a fantasy monster for Al Qaeda, the creators avoided certain political sensitivities. Yet as many have commented certain scenes seem rather reminiscent of the 9/11 attacks. Many will not like the “Blair Witch-style” filming technique. Others may find this a refreshing change of pace.

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