Remember Snakes on a Plane?
No you don't. Nobody does. That's their karmic payback for overhyping a third-rate script with one good line and a few cool death-by-snakes.
Oh, sure, their financial payback resulted in wallets so thick they can't sit down, and we still have that second Internet they had to build when the first one imploded after a two-month nerdgasm of purple lightsaber jokes and arguments about who would win a fight, Samuel L., or the sun if the sun also had a pipe wrench, but as for the movie, it's long gone, lost to that netherworld where weak-ass movies go to die.
Yeah, that's what you get when you hype a movie to death. Filthy, stinking rich. But also, and significantly less importantly, you get a film that almost can't match up to what's been built in our imaginations. It's been a while since I took physics -- my whole life, actually -- but I think that's the eighth law of thermodynamics. As the talk around a movie reaches infinity, so does the chance it'll end up disappointing.
Cloverfield, courtesy of producer J.J. Abrams (the dude behind Lost), had a different kind of marketing hype: all kinds of Web sites, brain-teasing trailers that never showed a damn thing, etc. We didn't even know its name until what, a month or two ago. Fun, in its way, yet also the kind of thing that made plenty of people sick of the movie before they'd even seen it, self included. That's a big hole to dig yourself out of.
Cloverfield starts slow, easing into a surprise party for Michael Stahl-David (who's about to move from Manhattan to Japan) thrown by his brother Mike Vogel and Vogel's girlfriend, Jessica Lucas. Pretty bumping affair; they even convince buddy T.J. Miller to film it so Stahl-David will be able to relive it once he's on the other side of the world.
Stahl-David's good times become bad times when Odette Yustman shows up, a girl he's had his heart on since college and now might not see again for years. After arguing with her, he retreats to a balcony to be consoled by his friends -- and that's when the city gets hit.
Part of the brilliance of Cloverfield is how naturally it reveals what's attacking NYC and what that means for its characters. Shown entirely through the view of Miller's camera, the swift descent from the initial shock into panic, confusion, and total disaster -- as far as it's possible to know these things, it all feels incredibly real.
When stuff gets serious, they don't have time to process what's happening when their friends are dying. They're not even thinking of fighting back, either. It's all about getting themselves and each other out alive.
Which, given the scope of what's going on, isn't no walk in the park. Wrecking-real-places-up-in-computerland technology has gotten outstanding these days, and when the buildings start falling, stuff starts exploding, and the army begins battling the threat, it's flat-out terrifying. Like, the kind of thrilling, queasy, gut-level, "better slump down in your seat because your hair is raised so high the guy behind you won't be able to see" level of terror.
All aided by the shaky first-person camera, the smart jump-cuts, the details that can't help but evoke 9/11. Some people (especially New York critics) have booed it for that, calling it exploitive, or disaster-porn. Yeah, I was a little creeped out by the dusty people wandering around in a daze as structures fell down. As somebody who was living in New York at the time, for whatever that's worth, the parallels stopped bugging me after about two minutes into Cloverfield's destruction. The movie was just too sympathetic to the characters and what they were going through to be exploitive. If anything, it was cathartic.
That's in part because everyone involved (including director Matt Reeves and writer Drew Goddard) are relative unknowns, with plenty of TV work in their bios but not much cinematic exposure, and that adds to the ground-level realism. Among the cast, Miller might be the one who breaks out in a hurry. As the man behind the camera, his face-time is at a minimum, but he's funny, dopily charming in a way that humanizes the sadness underlying all the spectacle.
Cloverfield doesn't have much of a setup or frame story around it, and so its ending can't help feeling a little abrupt. Stripped of the usual exposition, it's short, too -- something like 75 minutes, not counting credits. But it makes the most of every moment. Immediate, immersive, and the scariest thing since The Descent, it lives up to just about anything you'd expected it to be.