A colossal monster attacks New York in 2008. "Godzilla--you've come a long way, baby."
I remember that after 9/11 we Americans began questioning ourselves: "How many times have we destroyed either New York or Los Angeles in our movies that get exported all over the world? Maybe we gave people some ideas...." However, the only "people" who might get ideas to follow suit by watching "Cloverfield" would be huge, Gollum-like sea creatures.
I would never have chosen to see "Cloverfield" for my own entertainment, because (full disclosure) I'm not a fan of CGI (too fake), monster (too cheesy), or disaster (too over-the-top) movies, but: J. J. Abrams' experimental (in a populous way) TV/filmmaking is continually raising the bar; "Cloverfield" had such a big buzz, especially with young adults; and since it was a pet project (pun intended) of the wonder-phenom, J. J. Abrams ("Alias,"* "Lost"), I had to go. And I'll tell you, to my surprise, it worked for me.
There's no real sense of ominousness for quite some time--only a prolonged, hand-held video-documenting of twentysomething Rob's (Michael Stahl-David) "going away to a job in Japan" party in an upscale Manhattan pad. We don't see the videographer, Hud (T. J. Miller), Rob's "best friend," till later. His shallow, cowardly commentary lends both veracity and comic relief to an intricately-detailed "real life" feel of a movie. The characters are not well-developed (the movie is only 85 minutes) except for a love triangle involving Rob and sophisticated beauty, Beth (Odette Yustman).
We hardly see the monster at all, and hardly anyone talks about him or seems to care about him (perhaps hell hath no fury like a monster scorned?) as the characters focus on protecting and rescuing each other. (And isn't that what we'd really do, after all?) However, it was anti-climactic when we first saw the monster (on the news) and there was absolutely no explanation or even reaction. When the monster strikes, a killer soundtrack kicks in with all kinds of constant roaring, helicopters, creaking buildings, explosions, machine-gun fire. Although I don't believe surround-sound was employed (?), I felt "the earth move under my feet," every time the creature from the black New York Harbor lagoon went steppin' out. But still my heart did not race, my pulse did not increase. It's not meant to be that kind of movie. I only tensed up when the survivors began walking through subway tunnels in the pitch dark. (Note to self: Get one of those super-bright LED keychain flashlight thingies.)
"Cloverfield" is not about relationships. "Cloverfield" is not about the monster. "Cloverfield" is not about New York City. "Cloverfield" seems to be one of those proto-beta-movies (like "Polar Express") where the movie-wizards are trying out all the colors in the palette, all the gizmos in the toolbox, and the tres-simple movie line is actually irrelevant. We may never know exactly why "they" made the movie or what "they" were testing, but we've been invited to come along for the ride (and finance it).
Do check out a minor scene where the incomparable Lizzie Caplan ("Mean Girls") defers to talk to the camera at the party because she barely knows Rob. You will swear she's not acting. If you're the swearing type.
I won't tell you who doesn't make it in the end, but of course, Abrams is also a genius at raising the dead.
What does "Cloverfield" mean? What was the monster and what did he want? (Notice I assume he's a "he.") What do monsters ever want? Do they all want the same thing--mindless annihilation? Is the monster really us or Mother Nature out of control? We may have to wait for the sequel. I remember thinking to myself in the cinema that perhaps Abrams wants us to substitute our own demons (rather than fears) for the monster. Beyond this, there is no profound message here. "Cloverfield" is sheer entertainment by a master of the mysterious.
* TV uber-spy series starring Jennifer Garner that I watched faithfully until graphic torture scenes (not unlike "24") took over every episode.