As a general rule, if you say a film doesn't live up to its marketing, you're saying it's pretty bad. That's not the case with Cloverfield, which is a very solid entrant in the cinematic subgenre of--well, I'm not going to say what subgenre it is. You may well already know. But some people don't, as I discovered earlier today when I mentioned two words (one, the title of a James Dean movie; the other, the title of a Charlize Theron movie--don't think about it if you don't want to know) to a friend who was considering going to see the movie, and he gave me a look that could have stuck six inches out my back. That was the genius of Cloverfield's enigmatic, viral marketing, and far be it from me to spoil it for any other remaining innocents.
Suffice to say that something terrible has taken place on the isle of Manhattan, and Cloverfield is a chronicle of what happened. The movie's conceit is that it's a "found" artifact, the contents of a video card discovered in Central Park after the event. Most of the early footage on the card is taken up with a going-away party for a twentysomething named Rob (Michael Stahl-David) who's departing for a job in Japan. We meet him and his friends, discover the unfinished emotional business he is leaving behind, yadda yadda yadda. About twenty minutes in, however, there is an earthquakey rumble; when the partygoers run to the roof to see what's up, a distant explosion hurtles debris so far that they're forced to flee back inside for cover.
Things go steadily downhill from there.
Rob et al. first attempt to escape Manhattan by way of the Brooklyn Bridge, but they don't make it, and neither does the bridge. After receiving a panicked message from Beth (Odette Yustman), the best-friend-he's-just-realized-is-also- the-love-of-his-life, Rob and his steadily dwindling band of friends decide to go uptown to resue her. Along the way, they're forced to wander through a pitch-black subway tunnel and climb onto the roof of a damaged skyscraper teetering far enough to one side that it makes the Tower of Pisa look vertical. And they have a few encounters with--well, no, I'm not going to say, even if everyone else already has.
The movie suffers from the inevitable corollaries of its gimmick: It's inconceivable that people fleeing for their lives would keep filming the whole time, and the jittery, handheld camera work is frequently vertiginous. (Sit in a row well back, if you're able.) Moreover, none of the characters comes to life particularly well, and the tragic emotional impact the film intends to deliver is fairly muted.
That said, Cloverfield is a sharp, frequently harrowing James-Dean-movie-Charlize-Theron-movie (henceforth JDMCTM) movie, as good an entrant as the subgenre has seen in memory. Like Spielberg's War of the Worlds, it has echoes of 9/11, though thanks to its New York locale it doesn't have to reach so hard to earn them. And while the movie lacks the gorgeous production design of Spielberg's sci-fi holocaust, it's far more intense and immediate. It also clocks in at a satisfyingly lean 80-some minutes--and that's including a ten-plus-minute credit sequence.
No, it's not the genre-busting marvel that some fans were anticipating. But for those able to keep their expectations modest, Cloverfield is a hell of a JDMCTM movie.