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Cloverfield (2008)
Rated PG13

Starring: Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, and T.J. Miller

Rating:
***1/2
out of
*****

Cloverfield opens with a military time code and colorbars, which inform us that the footage we're about to see is from a camera recovered in what was formerly Central Park. The footage reveals the following scenario: Rob (Michael Stahl-David) is about to leave for Japan on a new job. His friends throw him a going-away party. One-by-one, via the camera's eye, we're introduced to some of the partygoers as Hud (T.J. Miller) attempts to record goodbye messages from everyone in attendance. We meet Jason (Mike Vogel), Rob's brother, and his girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas), who are responsible for the party, as well as Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) and Beth (Odette Yustman), Rob's best friend and possible lover.

The party is soon interrupted by a large explosion outside which sends the partygoers running to the roof to get an idea of what's going on. They arrive just in time to see a cascade of flaming debris from what was once a skyscraper in Manhattan. To avoid the charred remains of the building raining down from the sky, everyone runs into the street just in time to see the Statue of Liberty's head bounce down the road like a giant beach ball. In footage eerily reminescent of September 11, 2001, we see another skyscraper collapse and a cloud of debris rolls towards the camera. This time around, it's pretty apparent that this destruction isn't the work of terrorists. Some thing is tearing apart New York City.

As was The Blair Witch Project, the movie is shot in a shaky handheld perspective that may make some viewers queasy. However, the style fits the premise perfectly; putting the viewer into the action in a way that conventional camerawork could not. Director Matt Reeves, screenwriter Drew Goddard and producer J.J. Abrams have created a giant monster movie for the Internet-savvy generation. A conventional apprach would have simply lumped Cloverfield into the same cheesy pile as the American-made Godzilla or the generic CGI-heavy monster flicks that appear on the Sci-Fi Channel on any given Saturday night.

The one thing that suffers as a result of the digital video approach, however, is the narrative. We don't learn anything about the characters that are taping the action. Sure, we learn that Hud is the "funny one" and Rob is hopelessly in love with Beth but do we really care? Not really. And we shouldn't have to. One of the biggest problems with most giant monster movies is that the human side of the story is lame. Cloverfield smartly side-steps that problem. I'd have appreciated some idea of the monster's origins but not knowing works within the framework of the film's viewpoint.

After seeing the rather laughable special effects in the otherwise-stellar I Am Legend, the effects work in Cloverfield is refreshingly amazing. The integration of the CGI effects into the shaky digital video is nearly flawless. I can't think of one effect sequence that looked fake or unconvincing. The special effects alone are worth the ticket price.

If you're into the giant monster genre, or simply would like to see a tour de force special effects picture, Cloverfield is required viewing. If you're hungry for an involving storyline and interesting characters, Cloverfield will not satisfy your appetite.

Trivia: The film has no music score and music for the end credits do not begin until 1 minute and 30 seconds after the credits start rolling. (Source: The Internet Movie Database)

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