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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008

Manhattan Monster Project

What is Cloverfield?

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Filmed through a video camera carried around by participants in the catastrophe it depicts, Cloverfield has drawn understandable comparisons to The Blair Witch Project. But where the earlier movie was an interesting experiment, Cloverfield works as a full-blown feature film. Where Blair Witch meandered through the spooky woods with its film student auteurs, who gradually became the unwanted subject of their own home movie, Cloverfield is masterfully edited and paced, making the jumps in time and gaps in space appear as the fumbling uncertainty of amateurs who thought they were making a video record of their friend’s going-away party.

They are all going away, as it transpires. The party thrown by the affluent twenty-something New Yorkers, a “Sex and the City” crowd if there ever was, ends early and abruptly. Loud thuds and enormous explosions cut short the festivities.

Car alarms are triggered across Manhattan by the shudders. The skyscrapers go dark. Cable news reports “a possible earthquake” in New York Harbor near the Statue of Liberty. Within minutes the partygoers have a vantage the news anchor lacks when the face of Lady Liberty wheels through the air and smashes against the pavement outside their loft.

The first half-hour of Cloverfield is a descendant of the little movies Andy Warhol once made of his Factory crowd, but better edited and composed. It cap- tures the less-than-scintillating chatter of the beautiful people in real time, the camera mugging of people socialized in part by bad television. It also raises questions of privacy in our increasingly transparent society. What if the camera guy stumbles onto an intimate, embarrassing or hurtful situation? Not everyone wants everything they do turning up on YouTube.

The potential cinematic boredom of the party scene, with lots of talk but little of consequence, is ameliorated by its realism and hurled quickly along through kinetic editing. The viewfinder never lingers long on scenes that don’t require a second look. A sense for the main characters is established in fast, fleeting strokes before the monster strikes.

New York has been the subject of assaults by film monsters in the past. The archetype, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, was a 1950s Ray Bradbury story about a dinosaur newly hatched and running amok on Times Square. Atomic testing was the culprit, raising the reptile that had lain dormant in its egg for millions of years.

Cloverfield’s monster is an inconceivable creature, many-armed and scuttling along like a spider or a crab. It belongs more to H.P. Lovecraft than any museum of natural history. We glimpse little of it through the jittery vid-cam and that’s just as well. The suggestion of its slithery, gunmetal gray flesh is enough. Accompanying the thing are little creepy crawly minions that scamper after their victims. They at least can be killed with an ax handle or a club. The U.S. military is having a tougher time stopping the big monster. Will they be forced to level Manhattan? As unsettling as the monster itself is its inexplicability. There is no setup for its arrival and no answers in the final frame. As our band of twenty-somethings braves the shadowy dangers of Manhattan to rescue the friend left behind, the motor-mouthing member of the party throws a pocketful of theories against the wall. Maybe it’s like the prehistoric fish discovered the other year off Madagascar? Maybe it’s extraterrestrial? Or a government experiment gone wrong? Producer J.J. Abrams (“Lost”), who is receiving most of the credit for Cloverfield, supervised a relatively low budget but visually effective film. The limited scope and depth of a single video camera becomes Cloverfield’s strength. The exploding towers sending tsunamis of smoke and debris down the Manhattan canyons are reminiscent of 9/11 news footage. But in many scenes tension is established the old-fashioned way, as the cast of unprepared characters makes its way along a dark subway tunnel by the feeble emergency bulbs and the fitful glow of the camera.

There are unforgettable touches. An army of rats swarms down the subway tunnel, terrified, ignoring the twentysomethings and scrambling with better sense than many of Cloverfield’s human characters to get out of harm’s way.