When you think about it, the disaster movie may just be the strangest cinematic genre ever created. Films like The Towering Inferno and Earthquake ask us to find entertainment value in images that, if seen in real life, would inspire cries of horror rather than applause. The same holds true for a genre that's often closely linked to the disaster flick—the creature feature. Ever since Godzilla trashed Tokyo in 1954, giant beasts like Mothra and Q the Winged Serpent have reduced some of the world's great cities to rubble while citizens look on helplessly. Meanwhile, we moviegoers laugh and cheer from the comfort of our air-conditioned theatres as yet another building is toppled or a fresh group of pedestrians gets squashed under the monster's giant foot.
Obviously we don't go to monster movies for documentary-like realism and most of them don't even pretend to be taking place in the real world. But every now and then, a film comes along that challenges us to find the pleasure in destruction. The first Godzilla was that kind of picture, depicting the monstrous lizard's attack on Tokyo as a thinly veiled recreation of the devastation caused by the atomic bomb almost ten years before. Now, nearly seven years after the events of September 11, here comes Cloverfield, the first monster movie to deliberately reference the footage from Lower Manhattan that was beamed around the planet that morning. (True, Steven Spielberg slipped some of that imagery into his War of the Worlds remake, but those moments were fleeting and more impressionistic; a number of shots in Cloverfield look as if they were directly lifted from CNN's 9/11 archive.)
There will undoubtedly be some critics who charge the filmmakers—director Matt Reeves, screenwriter Drew Goddard and producer J.J. Abrams—with exploiting September 11 for commercial purposes, and the movie certainly gives them plenty of ammunition. They would have a stronger case, though, if Cloverfield tried harder to be an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser. Although it definitely possesses the genre's requisite share of thrills, this is a dark and somber movie that, in some ways, makes the recent apocalyptic blockbuster I Am Legend look like a rib-tickling comedy.
If you've seen the ubiquitous trailer, you already know the film's central gimmick. Introduced in the opening credits as a top-secret government video, Cloverfield unfolds as a Blair Witch Project-style first-person account of a monster attack in Manhattan. Our witness to this catastrophic event is Hud (T.J. Miller), who, as the film begins, is handed the camera to film the goodbye party for his best friend Rob (Michael Stahl-David). What he captures instead is a soap opera worthy of Abrams' teen melodrama "Felicity." See, Rob is totally in love with his best friend Beth (Odette Yustman) and the two finally fell into each other's arms one night about a month ago, but he ruined things by chickening out and not calling her after their hook-up. So Beth shows up at the party with a new guy friend in tow, which understandably pisses Rob off. Harsh words are exchanged and Beth runs off into the night, while Rob retreats to his room to lick his wounds.
Just when you think you've wandered into one of those aggravating mumblecore movies where New York hipsters babble on about their relationship problems, the ground starts to shake, lights blink out and the screaming begins and barely lets up until the final shot, roughly 60 minutes later. Someone or something is attacking Manhattan and the military has turned out in force to evacuate the island. Before they can flee to safety, Rob receives a desperate call from Beth, who is trapped in her high-rise apartment overlooking Central Park. Against the advice of his friend, the would-be hero decides to march uptown and save his damsel in distress. Hud reluctantly accompanies him on this quixotic quest and keeps the camera running the entire time. Why? "Because people are going to want to know what happened," he says gravely.
We certainly do and, for the most part, the movie doesn't disappoint. Reeves stages a number of nail-biting sequences, most notably a scene in a subway tunnel where Rob's tiny group encounters the monster's equally deadly "children." While these scenes are undeniably intense, they aren't exactly fun. Cloverfield leaves out the beats where the audience is invited to relax and/or cheer after each monster attack. It's a risky decision and one that may end up costing the film box-office dollars from disgruntled viewers expecting a less downbeat film. Of course, even as Reeves, Goddard and Abrams attempt to reinvent the genre's clichés, they can't avoid repeating some of them. As with any disaster movie, the characters are forced to make some profoundly dumb choices in order to keep the story moving forward. The characterizations aren't particularly deep either; all of the major players have one or two behavioral traits that they repeat over and over again with little variation.
But the most disappointing thing about this particular monster movie is the monster itself. For the majority of the film, Reeves offers us tantalizing glimpses of the creature, only showing us the whole thing at the very end. Unfortunately, when seen in its entirely, the Cloverfield beast turns out to be utterly uninspired—a CGI-blob that's bland to the point of being nondescript. Part of the problem is that the filmmakers never bothered to script an origin story for the monster, something that usually helps give it some personality. Then again, maybe that's the point. Unlike Godzilla, this creature isn't supposed to have a history, mission or sense of purpose. It came from nowhere and exists simply to destroy. And in this day and age, that might be the kind of monster audiences fear the most.