Stories, especially movies, are usually linear and organized in part because stories are how we make sense of the world but mostly because of the limits of time. If we are only going to give two hours of our lives to a movie, we don’t have time for irrelevant details. But real life is messy. Patterns only emerge in retrospect. Part of the appeal of scary movies is that we know that it’s just a movie. Those dinosaurs in Jurassic Park or the great ape in King Kong are contained, not just within the limits of the screen but also within the formal limits of traditional story-telling. The perfect lighting and welling music provoke a response in us that is a kind of comfortable scariness.
This movie goes in another direction. A clever premise keeps the audience literally off-balance in “Cloverfield” from J.J. Abrams, the creator of Lost and Alias. We may be in stadium seating at the mall multiplex, eating popcorn, but what we are watching is not a feature film. It is an artifact, a home video found at a site “formerly known as Central Park” that happened to be running when something terrible happened. It’s as though the only documentation of a massive and devastating attack was a 21st century equivalent of the Zapruder film.
So, as the movie begins, we know two things. The 843-acre park in the middle of New York City is now “former.” And all we have to help us find out what happened is one small, imperfect clue. But it is what we don’t know — and what we don’t see — that makes this film so arresting.
For one, we don’t know the cast. Some of the people look vaguely familiar but their faces are more likely to make us think we might have gone to school with them than to stir memories of movies or television shows. They are attractive, but not glamorous. This helps add to the sense of authenticity and intimacy.
They appear in video that was supposed to be taken at a going-away party for a guy named Rob (Michael Stahl-David). Rob’s friend Hud (T.J. Miller) walks around the party, asking people to speak their good wishes for Rob into the camera. But Hud is not very experienced or organized or interested in what he is doing. The camera wanders off toward Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), a girl he would like to approach. It picks up glimpses of other characters and snatches of other conversations in a casually haphazard manner. And then the lights go out. And then buildings start to explode. And, Hud still filming, everyone runs outside and something crashes to the street in front of them. It is the head of the Statue of Liberty.
And then things really get bad.
Occasionally in an attempt to document what is happening but mostly almost inadvertantly, Hud keeps the camera going. As at the party, the camera’s point of view goes off almost on its own, jittery, jumpy, keeping us feeling disoriented and vertiginous, even a little carsick. Instead of the big reveal of the usual thriller, we get only frustrating (and terrifying) glimpses of the monsters and the damage they inflict. Is that a hint of a claw of some kind? Or some spidery legs? Now and then, heartbreakingly, we also get flickers of the footage that this movie is taping over, a scene from a month earlier, with Rob and the girl he likes, Beth, on a date.
Yes, it is a gimmick, but it is effectively done, well-paced, fast-moving, clocking in at a swift 90 minutes. Possibly less a movie than a video-game, it works because it is tantalizing, involving, and most of all because of what it does not tell us. (P.S. One thing the movie does not reveal is the meaning of its title, which purportedly is the almost-random use of the name of the street where Abrams’ office is located.)
Parents should know that this is an intense and scary thriller about a devastating attack on New York City, filmed in an intentionally disorienting and disturbing manner. Many characters are injured and killed and while most of the scares are psychological, there are some graphic images. There is brief strong language and some social drinking.
Families who see this movie should talk about Rob’s decision. What would you have done? How do you compare this form of story-telling to more conventional “attack on New York” films like “Godzilla” and “I Am Legend?”
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy Independence Day, Signs, and 28 Days Later (rated R).