When Monsters Attack Pretty People

J.J. Abrams destroys New York in Cloverfield.

Michael Stahl-David (left) and Odette Yustman are terrorized by a monstrous creature in Cloverfield

To call Cloverfield (Paramount) a cheap gimmick is not a value judgment but a statement of simple fact. The first big-screen collaboration between producer J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves (who, between them, created Felicity, Alias, and Lost) was shot on digital video with a no-name cast of TV-pretty twentysomethings on a budget of $25 million; hence, cheap. And the movie’s gimmickry is, if anything, its point of pride. The concept: A monster takes Manhattan, Godzilla-style (or maybe al-Qaida-style, but we’ll get to that in a second). Instead of witnessing the havoc from the traditional omniscient point of view, we see everything in real time from a handheld camcorder, wielded by a group of panicked kids fleeing the beast. It’s The Blair Witch Project all over again, complete with the logic holes (at what point does recording your life become more important than running for it?) and Handycam-induced nausea.

So, how well does this cheap gimmick work? Impressively enough, if clammy palms and a constant, low-level anxiety can sustain you through 84 minutes of efficiently paced action. Despite a first reel entirely devoted to establishing characters, Cloverfield is basically a line-’em-up, pick-’em-off horror movie that’s effective without being either viscerally frightening or emotionally moving. Watching it is like going through a car wash: You come out of it thoroughly Cloverfield-ized, but essentially unchanged.

After a grim opening title identifying the footage to come as “recovered from incident site US-447 (formerly known as Central Park),” we meet Rob (Michael Stahl-David), a handsome and seemingly well-heeled kid (as the movie opens, he’s filming the sunrise from his father’s apartment overlooking Central Park). The father, like everyone else over 30 in this movie, is nowhere to be found. Sleeping in Rob’s bed is the leggy, sloe-eyed Beth (Odette Yustman), with whom he’s just spent an apparently fulfilling night. The two lob strawberries at each other’s mouths, then head for Coney Island for a perfect day, videocam in hand.

Fuzzy jump-cut to a month later: Rob is about to leave for a high-powered job in Japan. His group of friends, each more flossy-haired and creamy-skinned than the last, get together to throw him a going-away party in a SoHo loft. The job of filming this event is sloughed off on Hud (T.J. Miller), who seems more interested in training the camera on Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), a pretty and enigmatic guest. (Poor Hud soon becomes a proxy for the audience, an amiable oaf whose job it is to witness everyone else’s more interesting lives.) Rob and Beth have had some romantic troubles in the intervening month, a revelation that’s chewed over with Felicity-esque earnestness by the guests, including Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and his girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas).

Vapid as these people are, you’d better start caring about them quick, because they’re the only humans you’ll see up close for the next hour, as Manhattan is trampled by a party-pooping creature from outer space … or an undersea crevasse … or possibly some top-secret governmental body. Like most movie monsters, this guy is way scarier glimpsed in parts (especially from the ground-level angle the Handycam provides) than he is when you finally see him whole. Mild spoiler alert, if you want to keep the creature’s appearance a surprise: He’s a kind of bullet-headed dragon with prominent elbows and a scaly tail, slithering evilly among New York City landmarks. As the Statue of Liberty’s head lands in the middle of a screaming crowd, the Woolworth building collapses in a cloud of dust—the most direct 9/11 reference I’ve seen in a movie that wasn’t explicitly about the attacks.

I won’t reveal in detail the fate of the six partygoers who flee, spangled dresses and all, through the panicked streets toward a military evacuation site (though I will note that their fates are more varied and unpredictable than in most movies of this type). I’m more interested in how Cloverfield plays on 9/11 anxieties—not in the way one “plays out” issues in therapy, but in the way one plays a video game. 2008 has already seen a notable uptick in America’s historical eagerness to eradicate New York in our imagination. Besides Cloverfield and I Am Legend, there’s the upcoming History Channel special Life After People, whose ubiquitous poster shows a crumbling Brooklyn Bridge overgrown with vines. As this fine piece in the Guardian points out, Americans seem almost soothed by replaying the fantasy of our flagship city in ruins. What’s that about?

In a quote from the press notes, Abrams says, “We live in a time of great fear. Having a movie that is about something as outlandish as a massive creature attacking your city allows people to process and experience that fear in a way that is incredibly entertaining and incredibly safe.” Cloverfield’s entertainment value remains to be determined over its opening weekend. For viewers in the same demographic as Rob and his buddies, I suspect it will be a big hit. But maybe its re-imagining of 9/11 as the ultimate buzzkill is a little too safe. The movie may be the first to repackage the events of Sept. 11 as pure entertainment. It’s certainly the first to use those events as part of a viral marketing hook, in a spooky untitled trailer that premiered before last summer’s Transformers. Whoa, that would be intense, if lower Manhattan was suddenly destroyed by some terrible, faceless agent of evil. Oh, wait.