Good-looking people run for their lives in J.J. Abrams' new film Cloverfield.
courtesy Paramount Pictures

It was a mash! It was a monster mash!

Publication YearIssue Date 

January is typically slow in all respects, especially for entertainment. For movies, the post-holiday slump signals the exit of serious Oscar contenders and blockbusters from theatres, leaving audiences with, well, not very much. That's why a movie like Cloverfield is such a surprise at this time of year: it has the buzz, the special effects and mass appeal of a summer or holiday blockbuster. Unfortunately, though, it manages to make just as many mistakes as the typical blockbuster, making it a passing (though successful) entertainment, welcome probably because everything else movie-wise is either a non-entity or an after-thought.

Cloverfield was introduced to viewers last summer in a jarring teaser trailer, appropriately in front of the effects-laden Transformers movie. Images of a house party captured on a handi-cam before chaos hits and guests rush out of the crumbling building to witness the Statue of Liberty's head rolling down the street were promising and sent the message boards buzzing about the then-nameless J.J. Abrams project. Then came the buzz kill: Cloverfield was revealed to be a monster movie, a genre that has rarely churned out anything beyond the brainless. Regrettably, now that the hype has cleared and the movie arrived, it doesn't do much to lift itself out of this lowly genre, stooping even so low as to commit the grand mistake of "rewarding" viewers with a full shot of its monster.

Before we get treated to this near movie-sinking sight, what comes before it is actually not bad. Cloverfield is effectively scary for the most of its brief (but sufficient) 80 minutes, especially with the use of its special effects. There are a few sticky points on how they're employed, though. Specifically, the movie really toes the line on exploiting 9/11 symbols, and while some scenes--like that Liberty head and a horse towing an empty carriage down an abandoned street--are really shocking and unforgettable images, others, like the sight of a fallen high-rise leaning against its twin tower, are insultingly obvious. But overall, the chaotic New York City the filmmakers create is eerie and intensely frightening.

These scenes are captured on a shaky personal camcorder, Blair Witch style, by the endearing comedic relief of the film, Hud (T.J. Miller). He gets assigned the task of recording testimonials for his best friend Rob (Michael Stahl-David) at his going away party. While we delight in his attempted flirtations with the moody Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), Hud's role and romancing are subverted to the more attractive people in front of the camera, the shallow and supposedly tragic Rob and Beth (Odette Yustman). Rob is leaving for Japan of all places, presumably to escape the sexual tension between him and Beth, who we learn had a tryst with our departing hero through video on the tape that Hud is recording over. We get introduced as well to the main group of characters at the party, which is mercifully cut short by the mysterious rumblings and then panic out in streets. Once there, we follow this rich, nicely dressed and slightly dumb bunch as Rob sets off to rescue Beth from her crumbling high-rise.

Along the way, we get to suspend disbelief as we glimpse the monster through news reports and smaller, creepy crab-spider monsters come out to chase our heroes through subway tunnels. What the movie does well is sparing us the cheesy scientific explanations of the origin of these things, and it really should have stopped there in revealing the monster physically as well. What's frightening is what is not seen and what is dreaded. The monster can never live up to movie-goers' imaginations or visions of how it ought to be. It strips it of all its possible metaphors, because here it is, in all its sort-of scary glory. The appearance of any monster at all solidifies Cloverfield as a none-too-serious monster movie. An entertaining one, but not much more.

Cloverfield is in theatres everywhere.