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The J.J. Abrams–produced Cloverfield has finally revealed its secrets, the most important of which is that it’s a pretty good monster movie—albeit one that just may make you vomit. Under ideal circumstances, that “albeit” would be an “and,” were the gore relentless or the tension too much to bear. But there’s a more mundane reason for the queasiness: Director Matt Reeves uses a hand-held camera the entire time, a gimmick that’s integral to the story about a group of Manhattan friends whose party is interrupted when, to paraphrase the movie’s tag line, something found them. A big something. Big enough to knock the Statue of Liberty’s block off.
It’s at once a clever conceit and a nearly fatal flaw. After a message from the Department of Defense that tells us that the source of the footage we’re about to see is a camcorder found in “the area formerly known as Central Park,” it’s 80-plus minutes of home video documenting two days in the life of Rob (Michael Stahl-David), a 20-something who’s about to move to Japan for a dream job. At first we see glimpses of a day in April, when Rob, crashing in someone’s swanky penthouse and pronouncing it “already a good day” at only 7 a.m., wakes up the gorgeous Beth (Odette Yustman) and decides he’s going to take her to Coney Island for the first time. After a few scenes with the happy couple, the story jumps forward to May. Rob’s brother, Jason (Mike Vogel), is now behind the camera, filming his girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas), as she makes last-minute preparations for Rob’s going-away bash. Lily insists Jason take responsibility for getting video testimonials from party guests, a duty he immediately reassigns to their kinda-dopey friend Hud (T.J. Miller).
The already-shaky camera only gets worse as Hud, apparently unaware of the pause function, sloppily tapes goodbyes and simultaneously hits on Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), a not-too-friendly cutie. Some Rob-and-Beth drama hits, and in the middle of drunken gossip and relationship advice, the real drama unfolds: explosions, roars, collapsed buildings, Lady Liberty’s head coasting down the street. Hud keeps filming, but, well, you can imagine how unwatchable the already-shaky view gets from there.
Viewers prone to motion sickness should bring Dramamine or take through-the-fingers viewing breaks. Otherwise, Cloverfield is a blast. Admittedly, it’s derivative, from its Blair Witch framing to details borrowed from the War of the Worlds remake (much 9/11 imagery, with dust, frantic stairwell exits, and exoduses out of Manhattan) to I Am Legend (less-than-successful helicopter evacuations) to myriad monster flicks such as Godzilla, The Host, and even The Mist. Abrams, the mystery-obsessed creator of the TV shows Lost and Alias, kept the monster itself a secret, and though it’s not jaw-droppingly original, it’s still best witnessed first-hand. Reeves keeps things moving briskly as the characters are whittled down to a few desperately trying to outrun their doom; with anguish and moments of intense creepiness elegantly ramping the terror instead of gore. And while the cast is a bunch of no-names (the closest sense of star power coming from Zooey Deschanel look-alike Caplan), their anonymity and workmanlike capability is an asset—the story still allows you to care about the characters, but there are no famous faces to distract you from the good stuff. Being able to focus in the first place, however, is another matter.