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Movies Review

Cloverfield

By
Cloverfield
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenwriter: Drew Goddard
Starring: Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman, Lizzy Caplan, T. J. Miller
Running time: 84 mins
Certificate: 15

During the summer, an untitled movie trailer popped up before US screenings of Transformers. The mysterious promo showed a group of New Yorkers enjoying a party, before a fireball hit the city, destroying the Statue of Liberty. A second trailer appeared in November, revealing the film's title, but steadfastly refusing to reveal any plot details. Predictably, rumours began to spread like nits across the school playground. Was Cloverfield a new Godzilla movie? Or, in the light of J.J. Abrams' involvement, a spin-off from his US TV juggernaut, Lost? Until the film received its first preview performance earlier this month, the question remained: What Is Cloverfield?

A group of hip, twenty-something Manhattanites are throwing a going-away party for Rob (Stahl-David), an upwardly mobile sort who's landed a job in Japan. Dim-witted Hud (Miller) has been charged with documenting the occasion on his hand-held camera. Hud acts as our eyes throughout the movie's 84 minutes – we only see what his rudimentary filming technique permits us to see. With a deplorable lack of tact, Hud films Rob exchanging put-downs with Beth (Yustman), the friend he slept with a month ago but, Sex And The City style, has failed to call. Beth storms out, allowing the party's affluent, tasteful brand of bonhomie to continue. Then, all of a sudden, the apartment block starts to rock. Growling, beast-like noises rise above the din created by old Kings of Leon hits. Has the whole of The Bronx Zoo escaped? The revellers take to the streets, desperate to flee the city, but Rob and a handful of friends remain, hatching a plan to save Beth.

Thanks primarily to its inventive shooting style, Cloverfield is a terrifically frightening film. Its central conceit, namely that it's being shot by an entirely unremarkable bystander, is largely successful, positioning us, the audience, right at the heart of the action. Naturally, the fear factor is heightened by that enigmatic marketing campaign: after we've seen the Statue of Liberty's decapitated head bouncing along the street – one of several potentially iconic moments the movie offers – we have no idea what to expect. The decision to cast largely unknown actors in the leading roles is equally shrewd: Cloverfield just wouldn't work if we were watching, say, Jake Gyllenhaal pursuing Scarlett Johansson across a besieged, terror-stricken Manhattan.

However, as thrilling as Cloverfield frequently is, it offers little in the way of emotional involvement. With the exception of the louche, offbeat Marlena (Caplan), whose dry one-liners punctuate the thrills with some much-needed humour, the characters are thinly-drawn and forgettable. It's difficult to believe Rob would risk his life – and, more to the point, those of his friends – for Beth, a woman he had hitherto seemed to shun. In this respect, it's tempting to surmise that Cloverfield is subject to the same design flaw as early episodes of Abrams' TV blockbuster Lost, namely that character development came second to creating a brilliantly tense, claustrophobic atmosphere.

As the final reel spins, we're left pondering that question again: What Is Cloverfield? By now, the mystery has all but disappeared, leaving only one logical conclusion. We've just watched an old-fashioned monster-in-Manhattan movie, but one that's been given, rather ingeniously, a 21st Century makeover.

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