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Ground Zero

Cloverfield turns attacking New York into mass-market Hollywood entertainment

By Evan Guilfoyle | Posted 1/16/2008

The genius of Steven Spielberg's under-appreciated War of the Worlds towers over J.J. Abrams' latest attempt to unseat the wunderkind of event pictures. In War, Spielberg gives random citizens more quality screen time than the main characters of Cloverfield are allowed. Abrams and director Matt Reeves start with a title card saying the Department of Defense "recovered" the 83 minute DV tape we're watching, a novel idea that has been in heavy rotation since 1980's Cannibal Holocaust. The footage comes from Cloverfield's well-to-do yuppies, who are throwing a going-away party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David) before he departs for Japan--a nod to the OG monster, Godzilla. It begins like an episode of The O.C. shot by the Blair Witch students--and is interrupted by a totally bummer party-crashing monster, whose origins are never explained. Just when it turns soapy, Abrams and company turn the screws and the roller-coaster ride begins.

Unfortunately, Abrams' hype exercise expects us to empathize with these spoiled brats. For most of the flick, Rob and company attempt to escape Manhattan while avoiding falling buildings and the aforementioned monster. The city lights threaten to go out but, of course, never do. Movies, unlike "found" videos, need light so we can see them, and Michael Mann's 2006 mess Miami Vice revealed how little light is needed to yield images on video. That is what is lacking in Cloverfield: the bravura execution of a pretty simple idea. Evacuating a city of seven million citizens has been whittled down to generically good looking twenty-somethings, with no seniors or children in peril. Remember War's Amy Ryan as a concerned neighbor? Remember Tom Cruise and the mechanic's exchange about solenoids? Those moments (and many more) are indelible in registering the blue-collar, work-a-day humanity at stake in Spielberg's epic tome to Sept. 11 via an alien invasion. Even in its insufferable final third--a common Spielberg weakness--Cruise is believable. Abrams' cast looks plucked from a Benetton catalogue, and their performances--well, the best acting in Cloverfield comes from the camera department.

There are a few highlights to keep Cloverfield from spoiling and redeem it from being a complete mess. Unlike Abrams sloppy Lost, the screenplay shows no mercy when it comes to killing off characters. A few set pieces work, despite performances that would shame William Shatner. The camera and visual effects seamlessly blend in, creating a disaster unfolding before our eyes. As the group is slowly decimated, we are left with the boring Rob, his newfound love, Beth (Odette Yustman), and Hudson (T.J. Miller), the cameraman. And in its final act, Cloverfield magically transforms into the visceral visual experience that the first two acts could have been. Should've, would've, and could've don't justify a $10 movie ticket, but Cloverfield will fit right in with Abrams' other products: as a DVD rental on a TV screen.

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