The studio has kept close wraps on “Cloverfield,” the new project from fanboy favorite J.J. Abrams (though he’s merely the producer), hoping that the sense of mystery surrounding the big-budget disaster movie will spark interest and insure a humungous opening-weekend turnout. But the only thing surprising about the picture turns out to be how unsurprising it is. Also—despite massive special effects—how boring. It turns out to be nothing more than a monster-trashes-New-York flick told from the perspective of a small group of unlucky people caught on camcorder during the mayhem. Even Abrams seems to think that it would be fair to call it something like “The Blair Godzilla Project.”
The script could have been scribbled on the back of a napkin. For the first twenty minutes we’re taken, videographer-POV style, into the preparations that Jason (Mike Vogel) and his girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) are making for a surprise farewell party in honor of his brother Robbie (Michael Stahl-David), who’s decamping for a job in Japan, and the party itself, where Jason fobs off the job of recording “testimonials” from the guests to his dim-bulb buddy Hud (T.J. Miller). It’s through his implausibly intrusive filming of intimate moments that we learn that he’s got a crush on Marlene (Lizzy Caplan) and that Robbie’s besotted with Beth (Odette Yustman), a hottie he’s recently had sex with but then dumped because of his imminent departure. When she comes to the party with another guy, Robbie goes off the rails, and Beth leaves speedily.
In the middle of this domestic fuss—which we can’t care about in the slightest because the characters are just a bunch of self-absorbed, navel-gazing twenty-somethings barely sketched in—an apparent earthquake occurs, sending everyone streaming into the streets. But it turns out to be even worse: Manhattan is being wracked with explosions and collapsing buildings and soon police and military are evacuating people and bombing something we only glimpse through the haze. (All this is being filmed by Hud, whose work is our window to the event.) But amidst all the hullabaloo Robbie becomes obsessed with traipsing deep into the danger zone, with Lily, Marlene and the ever-filming Hud in tow, to rescue Beth, from whom he’s gotten a call indicating that she’s lying injured in her high-rise apartment. The driving force of the plot thus becomes—gasp!—a love story involving completely vacuous people who act very stupidly, and the rest of “Cloverfield” records how they fare.
I’m not going to reveal what the source of all the destruction is; the secrecy about it is what’s driving the publicity campaign. Suffice it to say that if you’re expecting something ground-breaking, in anything other than the most literal sense, you’re going to be very disappointed. The effects are impressive enough, though the grungy, jittery video perspective, with lots of grainy footage and blurred images as cameraman Hud flails about, make them frequently indistinct. (It must have taken a lot of money to make a movie that looks this crappy.) And one can’t help but wonder how ConEd keeps the lights on almost everywhere despite all the calamity—even in underground subway stations.
The larger issue, though, is whether in the post-9/11 age the use of such imagery about collapsing buildings and smashed Big Apple landmarks in the service of what’s basically a glorified B-movie shlockfest isn’t just a tad tasteless. Inevitably the filmmakers present the initial thuds and distant flare-ups in ways designed to suggest the possibility of terrorism rather than monster cliché, and that might leave you feeling a mite queasy.
But apart from those considerations, for a picture like this to provide anything but a few vicarious visual shocks, it requires characters you can empathize with, and they’re not just in short supply here—they’re simply absent. Apart from a few jokey lines for Hud, the dialogue is amazingly drab, sounding like the empty-headed drivel such dopey people might actually say in a night of drunken revelry—which might make for authenticity but offers very little emotional interest. And the young actors haven’t the chops to add anything to their threadbare parts beyond their naturally photogenic qualities and a generalized sense of desperation.
The end result is a movie that’s like a cinematic shell game that promises much but delivers little. It turns out that what the filmmakers have under that last cup may look gargantuan but is really pea-sized, a molehill dressed up like a mountain.