What do I make of Cloverfield, the J.J. Abrams-produced movie set in New York City about a monster wreaking havoc on the whole metropolis? I guess I harken back to several decades ago — back to Orson Welles’ radio version of H.G. Wells’ classic The War of the Worlds.

As you know Welles created a phony radio news broadcast in 1938 to tell the story of aliens invading from another planet. The story featured reporter Carl Phillips standing there broadcasting the arrival of these aliens in a New Jersey field.

Next thing you knew, Phillips had been charred to bits by Martians and radio audiences were freaking out from coast to coast. It was modern, it was groundbreaking and it utilized the still-new medium of radio to the fullest. Oh, the humanity.

Here, with Cloverfield, director Matt Reeves uses all the means of communication associated with the YouTube era. Shaky-cams and home video footage tell the story of a group of friends who expect to celebrate a going-away night with their buddy Rob, only to see it go horribly, horribly wrong.

The first twenty minutes or so focus on the party goers and their banal adventures at this event (“Hey! Did you know Rob and Beth had sex?!”). All of a sudden, there is a large rumbling and the power goes out. From then on all hell breaks loose as a giant monster — we still don’t know what it looks like at this stage — is tearing down buildings in Manhattan.

From then on, this movie moves fast. There’s a memorable scene where the head of the Statue of Liberty lands in the middle of the street. There is another memorable scene where this group of friends gets caught on the Brooklyn Bridge as the monster attacks again.

The story itself is simple and compelling, about this guy looking to get back to his apartment to rescue his girlfriend. And of course people think he is crazy to do it with the monster on the loose, but that’s what he does. So there are a couple of things going on: we want to know what is going on with this monster, and we want to know if Rob gets back in time to rescue Beth.

I gotta say, this was one fast-moving, roller coaster of a movie. There is no other way to describe it. And like a roller coaster, this one is bound to make you a little seasick. I found the shaky-cam look of the movie to be very, very annoying and difficult to watch. I suspect this movie will play a lot better on the small screen, because that way you’re less likely to get dizzy. Seeing such an unsteady picture on the big screen was just too much for me at times. Frankly, I think shaky-cams should never be used to film a motion picture ever again. They were distracting in The Blair Witch Project and they were distracting here. They just don’t work on the big screen and it quite frankly just about sunk this movie.

The good news, though, is that so much of this movie feels real, as if you are there. As if this is really happening. To you. When we see the aftermath of a collapsing building, with people hiding to get away from all the dust, we are reminded of 9/11 and realize this could really happen. We see frantic scenes of death and destruction and then we see quiet moments when the gang is in hiding, catching their breath. And even though the shaky-cams were very distracting, I was still interested in the movie and interested in seeing how the ending would all play out.

The best part about Cloverfield is that we do not know what is going to happen next. You never know what building will collapse, what bridge will fall, what statue is going to be uprooted. You never know who is going to die next. One moment people are walking down the street, the next minute the monster shows up and people you’ve followed on screen for the entire movie are dead. It’s a good thing they cast a bunch of unknowns in this movie, people like Michael Stahl-David, Odette Yustman and Lizzy Caplan, because it feels real when these folks have to run for their lives. It’s another good thing that they seem like arrogant young punks in this movie, so you don’t feel too sorry for them when they get killed.

The climactic moment of the movie for me was when we get a good look at this scary, ugly-looking monster. Honestly, that oversized thing looks like it could have appeared on The Muppet Show or something like that.

As I say, Cloverfield is a fine piece of entertainment. It’s fast, it’s compelling and an all-around great monster movie that film fans will talk about for years to come. The special effects are realistic and very well done. But the shaky-cam look is really distracting. It almost sunk this picture. I think what you will find is the DVD version of this picture will end up being much easier to watch. I think it will be the DVD, not the big-screen effort, that will be remembered as a classic.

Grade: B+

The Upside: This is a fast-paced, roller-coaster that is sure to go down as a monster-movie classic. The suspense associated with what this ugly monster looks like kept me on pins and needles.

The Downside: The camera work was BRUTAL. The shaky-cams darn near sunk this motion picture! Some of the video footage makes the stuff on YouTube look like Lawrence of Arabia.

On the Side: I found it a nice touch that they were bidding Rob farewell to a job in Japan. A subtle tip of the hat to that other famous monster Godzilla.


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