2008-01-18 (General release)

“This is gonna be important. People are gonna watch this.” This is the rationale offered by Hud (T.J. Miller), when asked why he won’t put down his “damn camera” even when faced with certain death. It’s also the gimmick that makes Cloverfield go. A one-camera record of an attack on New York City by a horrific monster, the film is all about panic, fear, and lack of information. It’s arguable that it’s also about the fantasies of individuals who’ve seen too many disaster movies.

This focus on delusional heroism may be Cloverfield‘s most salient trick. While its surface mimics that of The Blair Witch Project (the handheld camera, sometimes dropped and often peering into darkness, underscores a sense of mayhem and limited perspective), the film is most definitely a post-9/11 text, with imagery and commentary both recalling that most memorable day in New York, especially as it was captured by individuals and projected in mass media. Making the case that very little of practical use has been learned from that event, and even fewer even substantive cultural or ethical changes lessons, the movie opens on a crew of self-involved, upper-middle class cool kids, then moves quickly to break up their casual narcissism, until at last the inadvertent filmmakers are stating their beliefs, naming themselves, and hoping that their future, unknown viewers — you — will know more than they do.

Cloverfield begins in a kind of repose, in midtown apartment with a spectacular view onto Central Park. Pretty post-coital couple, Rob (Michael Stahl-David) and Beth (Odette Yustman) take turns looking at one another through the camera lens, speaking vaguely of their mutual affection and hopes for what comes next, say, a trip to Coney Island. Minutes later, the camera is in the hands of Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel), making his way up the stairs to another terrific apartment with his girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas), as they plan a surprise party for Rob, on his way to a new, promoted job in Japan. Hud takes over the camera at the party, getting “testimonies” from guests, in order to ensure Rob has a piece of material history, so he can remember it when he’s in Japan. Informed that this is Hud’s intention, Rob is distracted: he’s treated Beth badly since that single night and day together, and now he’s jealous she’s brought a date to the party.

Just as the film is devolving — quickly — into a video diary version of Gossip Girl, Five Years On, disaster strikes. Though the earth shaking and exploding is hard to parse at first, you’ll be forgiven for not being too concerned that these callow types might be dead soon: the film is not asking you to like them, only to imagine their predicament, an imagining helped by the hectic point-of-view camera, occasional skritchy shots of Beth-at-Coney-Island reminding you of the slight bit of background, and assorted passersby pronouncing dread and ignorance (“Oh my god, it’s like a movie”). It’s not especially helpful that only a moment before the attack, Jason has advised his “sort of a douchebag” brother to do right by Beth (“Learn to say, ‘Forget about the world’ and hang onto the people you love the most”), as such poorly articulated sentiment only highlights — like, in neon — their impending doom.

By this time, Beth has already left the party in upset, thus setting up Rob’s delusional heroism, that he will make his way to her midtown apartment from the increasingly decimated lower Manhattan streets, thus giving the film a seeming shape, that is, a “quest.” The route includes repeated images recalling 9/11: buildings collapsing; a dust cloud rolling through urban caverns; ash-covered, bloody, dazed extras looking into Hud’s camera. at first, apparently clued in because they have weathered — or seen footage of — 9/11, some citizens pull out their cell phones and begin documenting, perhaps hoping to make CNN’s iReport, perhaps just used to making everything other by taking its picture. When the head of the Statue of Liberty, pocked and riven, lands near Hud’s lens, the movie makes its most resonant goofball allusion, to Planet of the Apes.

Just so, the military is soon on the scene, endeavoring to fix the crisis by blowing stuff up. No one, of course, could be prepared for a scaly monster that’s possibly emerged from the deep, definitely shooting fireballs, and strangely shedding smaller bat-like monsters, with teeth and claws, just like no one could have been prepared for the Twin Towers’ structural peculiarities. But still, Cloverfield — which from the very first frame identifies itself as footage found near Central Park and named “Property of the Department of Defense” — doesn’t show much faith in the authorities. Though civilians’ efforts to leave the city by way of the Brooklyn Bridge leads to swift, not-very-affecting tragedy, the men with guns are faceless galoots who keep telling Rob and his crew what to do, though the apparent plan (“mandatory evacuation”) doesn’t seem especially clever.

And so Rob and company — including Lily and a girl Hud likes, Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) — head to midtown, where they know only that Beth is trapped in her apartment, via a message she left on Rob’s cell. As they skitter along sidewalks and trudge blindly through dark subway tunnels, they talk about how much they don’t know. The film’s lack of context or explanation echoes feelings of panic on 9/11: buildings tilting and cars flaming. While the romantic quest to rescue Beth provides a recognizable plot and some events will look familiar (looting, collapsing high-rises and bridges, TV reports with instant-graphics, people using cell phones to document disaster), the movie resists usual assurances: you can never be sure what’s around the next corner. (Though you can guess, as Hud does: “There’s some horrific shit is in midtown!”)

While the monster does eventually make a few appearances (and sounds a lot like Godzilla), it’s mostly an occasion for the film’s ostensible experiment, creating characters out of moment by moment action, rather than compelling emotion. As they’re thrown almost immediately into chaos, none is well-drawn or even sympathetic. Instead, they’re emotional sketches, abstractions of horror and uncertainty rather than individuals with pasts and futures. Some moments are almost poetic (though too loudly proclaimed as such), as when they come on a horse drawing a buggy, driverless and still clip-clopping along the pavement. The action pauses as Hud’s camera takes in this emblem of olden days, then pushes on, the handheld rush to nowhere good inevitable and for the most part, unthinking.

Cloverfield doesn’t have much to say about how its situation comes about, no daunting political or social analysis. But that lack is something like an analysis in itself. For all its popularity, self-documentation’s purpose and meaning remain elusive. “Something attacked the city,” Rob tells the camera during a short, scary respite. “If you’re watching this tape you probably know more than I do.” Or not.

RATING 6 / 10