The Godzilla Witch Project

What would you do if a rampaging monster paid a visit to your neighborhood? Why, grab a video camera and document the whole thing, of course! What an awesome YouTube video that would make! This is essentially the setup for the much-hyped Cloverfield, a new film from the J.J. Abrams camp, that creates a mockumentary-type movie with a “you are there” perspective via a hand held camcorder. It’s an interesting genre flick that provides some visceral thrills, but suffers from shallow characters and storytelling.

There’s a big party brewing for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who will be leaving New York City for a job opportunity in Japan. Party planner Lily (Jessica Lucas) gives a camcorder to the goofy Hud (T.J. Miller), to document the party and interview guests for personal farewells. Things get dicey when Rob’s ex-girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman) shows up, creates a scene, then leaves. An earthquake hits the city, and when it becomes clear a giant creature is attacking the Big Apple, Rob sets out with Lily, Hud and friend Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) to rescue the stranded Beth. But can they get there before the monster(s) get them?

As mentioned, Cloverfield (the military’s code name for ground zero) is all first-person perspective, as if an amateur cameraman were at the helm. It’s hyper and jittery and jumpy and makes movies like The Bourne Ultimatum and Gridiron Gang look steady by comparison. It definitely lends to the immediacy of the proceedings, but is also very limiting. With no contrast of shots, we end up with what looks like a 90 minute America’s Funniest Home Video.

Cloverfield uses a bunch of stuff borrowed from other movies, only with less success. The hand held camera perspective was used in 84 Charlie Mopic (1989), then again in The Blair Witch Project (1999). The story is a direct Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956) lift (only with no explanation of the monster’s origin), and there is a night vision sequence that was scarier in The Descent (2005). The cast feels borrowed from a CW soap, and there is a “get to the chopper” goal right from Miracle Mile (1988).

Where the movie spends all of it’s money is in effects work, and it does look convincing. A zoomed-in-on explosion, the huge thing lumbering in between buildings, the smaller insectoid things, the destruction of the Brooklyn Bridge, and Lady Liberty’s decapitation all look very real. While I was impressed by all of this, I had to admire Blair Witch even more for its restraint due to lack of budget. Everything creepy in that movie took place in your head, with suggestion filling your brain with images more disturbing than anything the filmmakers could show you. Cloverfield holds back a little (which insures the PG-13 rating), but ultimately shows you the entire shark.

Due to the nature of presentation (and “real time” span), some things don’t work so well. Character development is virtually nil, which is what you’d expect if you actually hung out with someone for 90 minutes. While things do tend to feel “real” you also have to wonder why the characters don’t drop the camera and run like hell when a thirty story mutant creepie is breathing down their necks. The also movie feels too long. There are several false endings that lessen in power each time one takes place. While these may have been implemented to pad the running length, it doesn’t work so well (especially when Rob pauses to tell us what we’ve just seen), and just brings the movie to a stop.

Cloverfield is a curiosity, a one-note genre movie that kinda thrills, but in the end left me empty. It’s great to cast unknowns so that you don’t know who will live or die, but not investing in them as characters makes me not even care. The monster does look cool, but without fleshed-out people to eat, is left hungry for more. And so are we.