Corliss on Cloverfield: The Blair Witch Reject

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Sam Emerson / Paramount

Michael Stahl-David in Cloverfield

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But their behavior is Noel Coward-sophisticate compared to what happens when the monster strikes. A horror/sf/disaster movie loses points every time you're forced to ask yourself, "Why are they doing something so stupid?", and the answer is, "Because they're in a horror/sf/disaster movie." And if you thought that Abrams — the creator of Felicity, Alias and Lost, and the writer-director of the spiffy if underperforming Mission: Impossible III — would produce a horror movie that was not just high-concept but high-IQ — you misjudge his faithfulness to a genre requiring that, in extremis, people act in a manner that's way below their intelligence levels.

Susan Sontag described horror and science fiction as "the imagination of disaster." The innovation is in thinking the unthinkable, not creating rounded or even plausible characters. In fact, human idiocy is a crucial aspect of a genre that trades in mortal threat. If the characters holed themselves away in some safe place, they'd never meet the monster. They have to be at risk in order to escape, or get trampled, and for us to get a cheap but essential movie thrill.

Once the monster surfaces in Cloverfield, mobs of Manhattanites run for their lives across a bridge out of the borough. They. Are. Stupid! They, and you the viewer, are supposed to believe that this huge creature — whose stride spans several city blocks, and who could get across the East River in about three steps — is some sort of snob who wouldn't be caught dead in Brooklyn. (But his victims would. That tail whips out of the water and snaps the Brooklyn Bridge in two.)

Of course, in movies like this, stupidity can also be read as movie heroism. In The Day After Tomorrow, with the northern half of the U.S. population dead from a sudden attack of Global Freezing, Dennis Quaid decides he has to go on an Iditarod race from Washington, D.C., to the 42nd Street Library in New York to save his stranded son, Jake Gyllenhaal. Tom Cruise went on a similar suicide mission to reconnect with his family in Spielberg's War of the Worlds. Here in Cloverfield Rob decides he absolutely must save Beth, trapped in her midtown highrise, even though she's a four-mile trudge away, the rest of the town is being smashed, trashed or eaten alive by crazy creatures, they have no access to food or water, and Lily's wearing high heels.

Apocalyptic pessimism may be the theme of these movies, but the hero is driven by a desperate optimism: the world's ending, so I have to go on an impossible journey to save someone dear to me. The idea is that you'll forget about the tens of millions who died elsewhere and concentrate on the people you've come to know and have a rooting interest for. This elitism applies to virtually any movie set in cataclysmic times, whether it's the Civil War of Gone With the Wind or New-York-under-siege fantasies like Cloverfield. The leading characters become emblems of survival, and the movie proceeds under the theory that, in such a crazy world, the problems of a few little people really do amount to a hill of beans.

So Rob and his posse head into the subway tunnels, hoping to elude Cloverzilla and get uptown alive. Here's where the movie's one inspiration kicks in. Earlier, we saw the monster shedding parasites that had attached themselves to its hide like barnacles. These dog-size, cricket-faced, crablike creatures can bound like kangaroos, stick to ceilings and attack people without so much as a "Boo!"

Just about every other plot and effects element in Cloverfield is familiar. The movie is basically the 1954 Godzilla (itself a gloss on Ray Harryhausen's 1953 The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, in which a prehistoric beast is roused by atomic tests to terrorize New York City) told in the style of, and with the characters from, The Blair Witch Project (but with a lot less internal cohesion; this could be called "The Blair Witch Reject"). The State of Liberty head comes from the poster for John Carpenter's Escape from New York (though that shot is not in the film). The little crab creatures are like the toy meanies in Gremlins. And when the main monster opens its mouth, you pretty much know there'll be a second, Alien-like set of teeth.

In its broader contours, Cloverfield evokes real-life horror. The Wall Street area already had its monster mash, on 9/11. So there's no way you can watch downtown panic and crumbling towers without it seeming a bit... familiar. Naturally the director says, he didn't want to diminish or exploit the residue of grief from 9/11. And, as the press notes inform us, "The visual effects teams even took care that the collapsing buildings in the film were older-looking structures that did not evoke the style of the structures that were attacked six years earlier." You're right, visual effects team. It doesn't bother a New Yorker to see a gorgeous landmark like the Woolworth or Empire State Building destroyed. Those things are too old anyway.

Mind you, I don't begrudge the creators of even a junk-food movie like Cloverfield the fun they had demolishing New York one more time. The city is as irresistible to filmmakers as it is to terrorists, and for the same reason: it's an amazingly dense and compact symbol of power. Harryhausen, Carpenter, Abrams and the I Am Legend team, among many others, see a city ready to explode from its own ambitions and animosities, from all that compressed energy; they'll just give it a push into catastrophe. But I have to agree with my wife, who, when I told her about Cloverfield, sighed and said, "Couldn't somebody, just once, pick Chicago?"

The original version of this story contained several mistakes. It stated that the incident site in the movie Cloverfield was called Cloverfield, when it fact it was referred to as U.S. 447. The character of Beth was described as the "on-and-off" girlfriend of the character Rob, when she is more accurately described as his "would-be girlfriend." And the story incorrectly stated that one character was "a pretty stray named Lizzy (Marlene Diamond)." In fact, the character's name is Marlena Diamond, and the actress who played her is named Lizzy Caplan.

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