Corliss on Cloverfield: The Blair Witch Reject

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Sam Emerson / Paramount

Michael Stahl-David in Cloverfield

Corrections Appended: January 22, 2008

An explosion shakes the earth. Flames spark through the night sky like fireworks. It's either July 4th or Sept. 11th. More like the latter, because devastation and hysteria have engulfed lower Manhattan. Then, in flash glimpses, we see the cause of the carnage. A scaly tail, long as a city block and wide as a boulevard. A furtive figure 25 stories big. Whatever the thing is, it's alien, it's odd-looking and it's royally pissed.

Most horror and monster stories follow a simple format: "What if [insert worst thing you can imagine]...?" In the junky, fitfully frightening, virally marketed new movie Cloverfield, the "if" is the worst thing you can remember. To wit: What if a previously unknown agent of evil were to destroy a world-famous New York City edifice? Not the World Trade Center, this time, but the Statue of Liberty — the Lady's head is tossed like a used beer can onto a lower Manhattan street. And the Statue decapitator is not a team of al-Qaeda operatives but a scaly, 300-ft. monster, an American Godzilla.

Instantly you have a million questions. By which I mean: three. 1) Where did the creature come from? (The Hudson River? Or the Arctic, thawed out by climate change and sent south on tidal currents? Possibly Hoboken?) 2) What event roused it from a snooze that may date back to the dinosaur era? (Godzilla's rampage across Japan, you'll recall, was the spawn of atomic bombs dropped there.) 3) What, exactly, the heck is it?

Can't say, since the movie — written by Drew Goddard, from an idea by producer J.J. Abrams, and directed by Matt Reeves — purports to be a video document "retrieved at an incident site formerly known as Central Park" (now known as U.S. 447), and is told exclusively from the point of view of a few twentysomethings. We know only what they know, see what the videocamera sees. I.e., not much.

They gather at a surprise going-away party for young Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David): his gal pal Lily (Jessica Lucas), his would-be girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman), his best bud Hud (T.J. Miller) and a pretty stray named Marlena Diamond (Lizzy Caplan). Early on, Hud is given the job of documenting the event with a video camera. The movie spends its first 20 mins. introducing you to a bunch of people, most of whom will be dead by min. 30. All you have to know: Rob had a brief affair with Beth and wants to get back to her; Lily, although nobody hits on her, is a definite hottie; Lizzy is the disposable outsider; and Hud is the kind of guy who'll tag along to anything, including Armageddon. (Still, you have to give Hud credit. He may be running for his life for the 10 hrs. of the plot, but he never drops the camera or forgets to point it at the creatures that are ready to kill him. The guy's a trouper.)

They're all meant to be cool, attractive, upmarket young professionals — Rob has just been promoted to vice president of some company that's sending him off to be in charge of Japan — but their behavior is, tops, adolescent. The men in attendance clumsily hit on pretty girls they don't know; they mope about an old love (Beth) showing up with a new guy; they frantically pass along gossip about who's been sleeping with whom. A suspicion forms in viewers' minds that Cloverfield has been rated PG-13 "for the emotional age of the characters."

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