'Cloverfield' is 'Blair Witch' without the stupid parts

Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2008

At long last, the mysterious teaser from several months ago has an actual movie to go with it.

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"Cloverfield" swept into theaters this past weekend after one of the more creative hype campaigns in recent memory. After all the waiting, after all the buildup, the good news is the movie holds up.

I don't remember which movie I was watching last year (a blockbuster of some sort) when I saw the first teaser for "Cloverfield." I do remember that the packed theater was collectively enthralled. The teaser featured home video-style footage of a party in New York City, followed by chaos. Nothing much else was revealed - not the cast, not the director, not whatever "it" was that was attacking Manhattan. I don't even recall a title.

In the weeks leading up to its release, the "Cloverfield" media blitz has kept to the same tact. The previews don't give away much. All you know going in is that Manhattan is under siege, presumably by a Godzilla-like creature.

More remarkable still is the fact that the movie itself also follows this design. What made the buildup so successful is exactly what makes the movie a success, too.

The film opens much like the first teaser did: Friends are throwing a going away party for a pal, Rob, who is moving to Japan. Every frame is shown to us through the viewfinder of a camcorder, manned for the most part by Rob's buddy. There is awkward tension between Rob and Beth, a girl he clearly has feelings for but things haven't worked out. When she shows up to Rob's goodbye party with a random dude, their tension is forced to the forefront.

The worst thing I could do in this review is reveal too much, so let's just say the relationship between Rob and Beth is largely what drives the plot forward.

I'm not going to spoil anything by revealing that, indeed, the party is cut short when something begins to wreak havoc on Manhattan. Although nobody can see what "it" is, it is big enough to send the head of the Statue of Liberty flying, cause skyscrapers to collapse and force the evacuation of Manhattan.

It's big. Really big.

Rob, his buddy, Rob's brother and two other people wind up in a small group as they attempt to flee the district. Crossing a bridge on foot seems like an awful idea, so that's naturally the first thing the masses of people try to do. It ends badly.

Unable to get out of Manhattan, the group decides to stick with Rob on his stubborn quest to get to Beth, who has left a distress message on Rob's cell. Along the way, the group encounters a lot of scary stuff. More than once, I realized I was actually chewing on my fingers. Seriously.

What makes "Cloverfield" so good is that it is wonderfully interesting. It's "The Blair Witch Project" minus the sucking part. You have to wait about an hour before getting a good glimpse of what is attacking the city. You learn bit by bit what's driving Rob toward Beth.

Never, though, do either the writer or director deem it necessary to explain anything. Where did "it" come from? Why is "it" here? What does the government know? Why is it called "Cloverfield"?

You won't know going in. You won't know coming out. And it is absolutely brilliant.

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