- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2008

“Cloverfield” is just as good as the wickedly smart marketing campaign that preceded it.

While the Internet buzz surrounding “Snakes on a Plane” gave way to a B-minus movie with zero commercial appeal, “Cloverfield” is different in the ways that matter most.

It’s smart, thrilling and fresh — if it doesn’t generate monster word of mouth, it can only be because people are too wowed to speak afterward.

The story is disarmingly simple. A group of New Yorkers gather to say goodbye to their friend Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who landed a cushy job in Japan. Rob’s pal Hud (T.J. Miller) picks up a video camera and starts taping testimonials to his departing buddy.

Too bad Rob can’t enjoy his own party. He’s pining over his longtime crush, Beth (Odette Yustman), and the two just had a nasty fight.

The party gets interrupted by what appears to be an earthquake. The revelers look out the window to survey the damage, and Hud goes right along with them, camera in hand.

But what earthquake is followed up by fireballs and a shattering cry? Anyone who saw “Cloverfield’s” trailer can roughly guess what’s to blame for the disaster-in-progress.

While the early sequences recall the September 11 attacks — dozens of New Yorkers stumble through the streets, dust blanketing their bodies — the film’s otherworldly trappings soon dispel this sense of the familiar.

While the hand-held camera device is an artificial one that can require colossal leaps of faith, “Cloverfield” fully capitalizes on the technique’s potential, when adeptly integrated with the story, to evoke an atmosphere of authenticity.

“The Blair Witch Project” (1999) employed a similar conceit, but viewers kept asking themselves, “Why don’t they set the camera down?” The method is far more plausible here. In just nine years, we’ve become a YouTube nation — nothing really happens unless it’s captured on video.

The film is so of-the-moment that it should come with an expiration date. The story not only unfolds via video camera, but frequently we see people recording the madness on their cell phones and IPods.

The approach taken by neophyte film director Matt Reeves, a protege of “Lost” creator J.J. Abrams, comes with its own baggage. Character development comes in fits and starts, and the shaky camerawork can be taxing to watch during some stretches.

That the love story at the film’s core connects at all is a minor miracle.

The dialogue spouted by the unfamiliar cast is a few steps up from reality show banter, but we could have used fewer exclamations of terror, especially since it’s often not clear what the characters are referring to.

And could they have thrown in at least one character with a bona fide New York accent? The brains behind “Cloverfield” set up a narrative with so many question marks that it could spawn a franchise to span all media platforms. The marketing campaign, it seems, was only the beginning.

Those looking for a deeper meaning here will come away unsatisfied. “Cloverfield” is ultimately a genre piece and nothing more — albeit one crafted with the latest storytelling gimmicks and a keen understanding of modern audiences.


TITLE: “Cloverfield”

RATING: PG-13 (violence, terror and disturbing images)

CREDITS: Directed by Matt Reeves. Written by Drew Goddard.

RUNNING TIME: 84 minutes

WEB SITE: www.cloverfieldmovie.com MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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