Cloverfield

First this movie was called Slusho, then it was called Cheese, and finally the production crew realized they needed a real title, so they ended up with Cloverfield... which still isn't a real title, it having been used as a code name to disguise what they were working on, but it did certainly help add to the air of mystery while they were hyping it. People have been wondering what Cloverfield is supposed to mean for months, and what more could a moviemaker want? Well, maybe a Steadicam, but I suppose that wouldn't have given quite the effect they were after.

We start in Manhattan in April, except it jumps to May right away, but you'll understand that when you see it. A group of twenty-somethings are throwing a surprise party for their friend Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), who's leaving to take a job in Japan. This is apparently a tip of the hat to the old Godzilla movies, none of which I've seen personally, but without which, I'm sure this movie would never have been made.

Rob's brother Jason (Mike Vogel), and Jason's girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas), are the driving forces behind the party, but when Lily insists that Jason be the head cameraman and record the party as a souvenir for Rob, he doesn't want to do it and hands off the camera (actually Rob's camera, apparently borrowed for the occasion in true brotherly fashion) to best friend and helpful nerd Hud (T.J. Miller). Hud would prefer to video Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), on whom he has a crush, but quickly learns to take his duty way, way too seriously. And don't worry if none of these actors sound familiar to you, because I didn't know any of them, either, but I think a cast of unknowns was what they were after, to make it seem more real.

And it does seem real, for the most part, which is both good and bad. It's good because you end up feeling involved in the story and the characters' lives; but it's bad in that you can also easily end up sick to your stomach. Not because it's gory -- it is in places, but not nearly so bloody as it might have been -- but because the camera stops moving about three times in the course of the film. The remaining 87 minutes, it's in at least slight motion, and sometimes flails around like -- well, like the person holding it is running for his life, so we're back to the realism again, but it still didn't do my stomach any good. And don't even get me started on what it's like when the auto-focus goes out of control. Just be warned.

The party is just getting good, with lots of booze, loud music, and even gossip about the soap opera that is basically any twenty-something's life, when the gang feels something like an earthquake. They decide, for some reason, that it would be a good idea to go up onto the roof to see what's happening, but I suppose that's no sillier than many of the decisions made in the movies over the decades. When buildings start exploding, though, they regain some sense and take cover, just in time for the party to turn into a full-blown scramble for survival. There's a monster in town, and Godzilla doesn't seem so tough in comparison.

It's a very creepy monster. Very creepy. Its legs bend in wrong directions, it looks kind of reptilian in a slimy sort of way, and it has a very large, fang-filled mouth like a Predator's. Plus it has the audacity to knock the Statue of Liberty's head clean off and bowl it down the street, which you may have seen in those mysterious teaser previews from before they had a real name picked out. Sometimes it thuds around making more noise than a herd of elephants stampeding through an echo chamber, and other times it seems able to sneak up on people with remarkable ease, so maybe it's just playing with us. But it plays rough.

I'm going with three and a half idols. When it isn't generating more nausea than an out-of-control Tilt-a-Whirl, it's not a bad movie. The unknowns do a good job, managing not to get overpowered by the special effects, and though there are a few places where highly improbable things happen because they have to for the sake of the script, I'm inclined to forgive them for those because the rest of it seems so real. As far as the technical side of it goes, it feels like a grand experiment, and it doesn't always work, which is to be expected, I guess, but I'm just glad people do still experiment a little, even in major Hollywood motion pictures. And now, saving the most important for last, just one more word: Dramamine.

Image: 
Lean in and and shake monitor violently to get that real theater experience.

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