directed by Matt Reeves
(Paramount, 2008)

A monster attacks Manhattan in Godzilla-like proportions -- destroying buildings and bridges, confounding the military and interrupting a going-away party for Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), who has accepted a job in Japan.

The party quickly disperses as the gang of friends join the panicked mobs in the street. As Rob's group -- including brother Jason (Mike Vogel), Jason's girlfriend Lily Ford (Jessica Lucas) and tag-along Marlena Diamond (Lizzy Caplan) -- try to reach Rob's injured girlfriend Beth McIntyre (Odette Yustman), Rob's socially inept pal Hud Platt (T.J. Miller) films the entire experience. See, Hud was video-documenting Rob's party, and when the crisis began he just kept filming. Consequently, a lot of the movie shows feet on pavement and sideways streetscapes as Hud and the gang worry more about running away than pointing the camera at anything useful.

Cloverfield is presented, much like The Blair Witch Project, as an amateur film found by the military and shown without cuts, special effects or editing. Rob's friends aren't at the center of the action, so the audience doesn't actually see a whole lot of monster time, but their rescue attempts take them pretty darn close to monster central, so be prepared for fast, horrifying glimpses as buildings crash to the ground, guns fire and chaos reigns supreme in New York City.

The idea, conceived by producer J.J. Abrams, is brilliant, and the story told here is exciting, riveting stuff. It's tense and, at times, genuinely scary. If not for one little problem, I would have thoroughly enjoyed this film.

The problem is in the presentation.

Since the entire movie is supposed to come from a single hand-held camera, everything is in Shaky-Cam (or, as Roger Ebert aptly called it, "Queasy-Cam"). Hence, the movie quickly and continually induces vertigo in its audience; of the six members of my party, four reported some degree of motion sickness. Somewhere further down in the theater, we heard at least one person vomit.

No matter how good a movie is -- and this one is, in its way, very very good -- it suffers when you can't bear to look at the screen. It's hard to appreciate the filmmaker's craft when you're trying to keep down the buffalo chicken sandwich you foolishly ate on the way to the theater.

review by
Tom Knapp

26 January 2008

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