[Screen It]

(2008) (Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel) (PG-13)

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Horror: Various people try to survive when a gargantuan monster suddenly attacks Manhattan.
It was supposed to be a nice, going away surprise party for Rob Hawkins (MICHAEL STAHL-DAVID) who's moving from Manhattan to Japan. Thrown by his brother, Jason (MIKE VOGEL), and their friend, Lily Ford (JESSICA LUCAS), it starts out as a well-attended soirée where Jason hands a video camera to his friend, Hud (T.J. MILLER), and asks him to record the event as well as personal messages for Rob. Of course, since Hud is interested in Marlena Diamond (LIZZY CAPLAN), he gets a lot of footage of her, but also that of Beth McIntyre (ODETTE YUSTMAN), Rob's former lover who's arrived with another guy.

As the event unfolds and more alcohol is consumed, a thunderous explosion shakes the building. Panicked, some of the group goes to the roof to investigate, and that's when another massive explosion rocks the city, sending debris crashing into other nearby buildings. When the partygoers make it down to the street, the head of the Statue of the Liberty landing near them and the collapse of the Empire State Building in the distance signals that this isn't an earthquake as the news earlier reported.

Instead, it's a gargantuan monster wreaking havoc on the city. With the military arriving to do battle with it, the group tries to evacuate the island. When their route is cut off, however, they must figure out how to survive, all while avoiding the monster as well as huge, spider-like creatures that pop off it and start killing everyone.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
When catastrophic things happen to any group of people on a large scale, the artistic community will often come out, in varying temporal frames, and comment on that in their work. Sometimes it's literal, such as a documentary or a photo show depicting images of the real thing, while at others it's more figurative.

That happened in an unusual but culturally indelible fashion back in 1954 when Japanese filmmaker Inoshiro Honda released "Gojira" in response to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the subsequent, related testing in the Pacific. Of course, most people know that film as "Godzilla," and the gargantuan, fire-breathing dragon's rampage was an obvious metaphor about the dangers of the new nuclear age.

Flash forward more than half a century and we now have a new monster movie that's also thematically tied to another devastating event, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, specifically in New York City. With Manhattanites panicking with the city under siege, and a massive dust cloud careening down the street following the collapse of notable city landmark, encasing everything and everyone in dust, there's no doubt that the filmmakers behind "Cloverfield" are trying to say something about those attacks.

Exactly what that is, however, is hard to discern, as most viewers will be noting the many plot holes and problems that loom as big as the craters left by the unnamed beast (the title isn't for it, and is never explained save for it being the U.S. Government code label for the "incident"). Either that or reaching for their barf bags. And the latter isn't from some disturbing amount of onscreen gore or fright (the kind they used to advertise back in the '70s when "no one will be admitted during the last 15 minutes of the film").

Instead, that's due to the entire pic being shot as a point of view experience from a guy wielding a home video camera and capturing everything as it unfolds. You see, there's a going away party for a guy who's leaving Manhattan for Japan (a symbolic link to the Godzilla films, perhaps, that unfortunately got progressively goofier as they went along), and thus Shaky the Cameraman (a.k.a. T.J. Miller playing a guy named Hud) is tapped to record the event as well as "farewell and good luck" video salutations.

The filmmakers -- director Matt Reeves and screenwriter Drew Goddard, obviously influenced in a number of ways by producer J.J. Abrams of "Lost" and "Alias" fame -- use that to introduce us to a bunch of everyday characters as well as a tiny bit of sexual soap opera theatrics to pique our interest about them. They then lower the boom on the characters by having the monster attack (the first images of it are fleeting, and thus the best), which results in the 9/11 style chaos and then escalates from there.

While hardly original, it's a decent enough premise, especially in its very stripped-down form here, and the film offers plenty of standard "B" monster movie frights, suspense, action, and good special effects. It's just too bad that you'll likely get nauseous trying to see them, for as the action and scares increase, so does the running with the camera.

And for anyone who's watched home movies can attest, there's nothing worse than having to sit through non-stop camera movement that only further shows why tripods, cranes and Steadicam equipment were invented. For those who thought "The Blair Witch Project" was bad, or the early battle scene in "Saving Private Ryan" a seasickness extravaganza, as they like to say, you ain't seen nothing yet (and the bigger the screen and the closer one sits to it, the greater the reaction). I never get motion sick, but this had had me feeling queasy.

Of course, I did have the opportunity to look away as I wrote notes on the copious illogical material, plot holes and the like that permeate the proceedings. The most blatant, of course, is why someone would keep videotaping such a catastrophe when their life is repeatedly in imminent danger. Sure, they might do so for a little bit, but after so many close calls, most everyone would have dropped the camera and run for their lives.

But Hud doesn't stop there, as he proceeds to "film" all of those around him, to the point that you'd think one of them would tell him to cut it out or else they'll throw him out for the wolves, uh, big monster or the smaller, but still huge spider-like creatures that pop off the mother ship for some more intimate attacks and killing.

I know, it's nitpicky to point out such flaws in a film about a huge monster attacking the Big Apple, but the above and a slew of other problems constantly took me out of the proceedings. In comparison, I doubt many people stopped during the D-Day invasion sequence in Spielberg's film and thought, "You know, I don't think so and so would have done that."

Instead, and thanks to the veteran director's brilliant filmmaking (that thankfully segued to steadier ground), you were completely immersed in what transpired. While this film admittedly has its moments, the result isn't an each of your seat experience as obviously intended (and the worse thing is that a few script tweaks and occasional breaks from the shaky camera footage could have remedied most if not all of those issues).

While the special effects deserve the big screen treatment, the camera work may have you feeling like you've been out to sea and wishing you had waited to watch it on a smaller screen. Perhaps in the sequel, our mean beastie will turn soft and take out his/her aggressions on giant moths and smog monsters, all while filmed in a calm, Toho type fashion. Until then, "Cloverfield" rates as a 4 out of 10, losing some points for plot holes and nearly being unwatchable.

Reviewed January 15, 2008 / Posted January 18, 2008

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