Nothing can be scarier than something, though. The Blair Witch Project, shot with one video camera from the point of view of the character holding it, proved that when you eliminate the omniscient perspective — when you show the audience only what a single character sees and no more — you introduce a note of irrational terror that millions of dollars of computer-generated effects can’t touch. But Blair Witch was a ghost story, a genre in which less is always more. What, asked writer Drew Goddard, if you used the same singular, disoriented vantage for a giant-monster picture, a spectacle: Godzilla through the eyes — or lens — of a sap way down below trying not to get stomped?
Against the odds — most of us like to get our money’s worth and actually see the monster flattening buildings — Cloverfield is a kick.
The film, helmed by Felicity director Matt Reeves (talk about going outside the genre), centers on a bunch of attractive twentysomethings at a going-away party in a Tribeca loft. The gathering’s for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who’s taking a job in Japan and leaving behind Beth (Odette Yustman), the old friend he can’t bring himself to tell he adores. To document the festivities, Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and Jason’s girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas), thrust a digital-video camera into the hands of Hud (T.J. Miller), a likable loser with a crush on Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), a dark-eyed cutie who couldn’t find him less compelling. Hud walks around for a long time sticking his camera in people’s faces and we wait, and wait, and wait, semi-bored but with tingling sense of anticipation, listening beyond the party chatter for sounds of oncoming catastrophe. Was that little boomlet the monster’s first stirrings? (Popcorn to mouth.) Is it coming now? (Sip of soda, popcorn to mouth.) Now?
When it comes — BOOM! — the partygoers gather in front of the TV set, on which no one knows anything either. And so it goes, as the head of the Statue of Liberty is hurled into the street with the inexplicable ferocity of a Roger Clemens broken bat, as skyscrapers crash down, as fires turn the sky a malignant yellow. “What is it?” someone screams. “It’s eating people!” sobs Marlena. “I have to get to midtown and find Beth!” declares Rob.
Weaving soap-opera trials in and out of apocalyptic carnage is always a challenge for a filmmaker, as the tin-eared director Roland Emmerich proved in his Godzilla remake and The Day After Tomorrow — in which the population of Manhattan froze to death while Jake Gyllenhaal tried to summon the courage to tell Emmy Rossum that he, you know, liked her. But even if such problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, we wouldn’t be glued to Casablanca without Bogie and Bergman’s beans. Cloverfield mostly gets by because the personal can’t not be in the foreground. Taking seriously his responsibility to document the crisis, Hud follows Rob and Marlena and Lily and Jason on their mission to save Beth from her apartment in a skyscraper that has tipped into another one. Although I wish Beth gave us more of a reason to want to see her rescued than a pair of great stems, it wouldn’t be much of a movie if Rob and the others fled Manhattan at the outset. (Rob is so determined to get to Beth he acquires geographical superpowers, reaching 59th and Lex from Spring Street via a subway tunnel in a few short — albeit tumultuous — minutes.)
We see the beast for only brief instants via the swerving, un-Hollywood-like camera, which means our imagination fills in the rest — great. The thing appears to be just as disoriented as the people running from it, only a lot more pissed off. To make matters worse, it didn’t come alone. It shakes off spiderlike parasites that rip people up and infect the survivors with something deeply icky. You almost forget that Hud picking up his camera after a bloody attack on the group is more improbable than a giant monster stomping Manhattan.
The devastation of New York City inevitably invokes 9/11, the limited vantage a facile way for the filmmakers to exploit our newly stoked imaginations of disaster without bothering about context. So Cloverfield is a shallow exercise. The kid in you might crave a more objective view of the creature — not to mention the catharsis that comes from watching science and the military collaborate to bring the monster down, etc. That said, we’ve sat through that kind of movie again and again, but we’ve never sat through anything with Cloverfield’s subjective sting. You’d have to be tougher than I was not to be blown sideways by it.