As long as there have been monsters in movies, there have been monsters in Manhattan. The two seem made for each other. Having watched everyone from King Kong to Godzilla go wild in the New York streets, you might quite reasonably suspect you’ve seen it all when it comes to this cinematic match-up. Well, guess again. “Lost” creator J.J. Abrams and company have turned the formula inside out, and the result is a film unlike anything that came before.
The premise: A terrifying colossus appears from nowhere, starts knocking over skyscrapers, and sends millions fleeing in panic. But that isn’t what makes Cloverfield the one-of-a-kind white-knuckler it is. What renders the movie a singular experience is the revolutionary approach employed by the filmmakers.
We start out in the apartment of a twentysomething yuppie (Michael Stahl-David) who’s about to leave for a new job in Japan. His friends are throwing him a going-away party. One of them (T.J. Miller) has been handed a digital video camera and assigned the task of recording everybody’s fond farewells. We’re introduced to the main characters via this device and, through it, experience all the subsequent events from their viewpoint. The technique may sound gimmicky, but, in fact, it lends the proceedings a blood-draining immediacy.
Of course, this also sounds very Blair Witch-y — and it is. The difference is that, here, the vérité is in the service of far more harrowing cinema. Back to the setup: The party is in full swing when the entire building suddenly rocks. An explosion not far away shatters the stunned silence. Seconds after everyone crowds into the street to see what’s happening, the Statue of Liberty’s head crashes to Earth like a giant metal meteor.
The viewer is expected to suspend disbelief on several points, and this is reasonable enough. We are, after all, watching a creature feature. If we’re willing to go along with the idea that a mean-spirited, lizard-spider thing 25 stories tall has mysteriously appeared in downtown Manhattan, we shouldn’t have any problem accepting the notion that the dude with the video camera considers ensuing developments worthy of taping. Or that, when Stahl-David’s character realizes the woman he loves (Odette Yustman) is trapped on the 49th floor of a building in the creature’s path and feels compelled to make his way there, a handful of friends feel compelled to tag along.
And that is all there is to the plot. Of course, getting from point A to point B can prove rather dramatic when life as we know it is coming to an end. The script by Drew Goddard is brilliantly minimal, and Matt Reeve’s direction achieves an unflagging naturalism. The picture is so stripped down, so thoroughly devoid of traditional devices and tropes (e.g., scientists speculating as to the monster’s origin, American military might triumphing over an evil invader), that there’s nothing left but the experience of trying to survive an apocalyptic attack. And the viewer is thrust in the middle of it. Anyone with a heart condition would be well advised to think twice before buying a ticket.
The picture is only 84 minutes long, but packs several times the primordial punch of bigger, longer, star-studded productions such as Godzilla and War of the Worlds. If there is a star here, it’s Abrams. I doubt there’s a filmmaker working today who can match his knack for infusing timeworn forms with new life. With “Lost,” he’s re-imagined the desert-island drama, and in Cloverfield, the monster movie has been reborn.