Monster Movie Magic

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Directed by Matt Reeves

According to the press notes for Cloverfield, J.J. Abrams came up with the idea for his shaky-cam monster movie during a publicity tour for Mission: Impossible III. That possibility suggests a certain irony: Abrams, the supremely inventive engineer behind many of the enigmatic promotional gimmicks for ABC’s Lost, applied a similarly elusive strategy as the producer of Cloverfield. Disregarding the context of the anecdote—he was touring with the movie in Japan, and reflecting on the cultural significance of Godzilla—it’s no surprise that Abrams would envision one his conflated promotional gimmicks while in the middle of another one.

The movie, directed by Matt Reeves, remained shrouded in keenly manufactured secrecy as the crew ravaged the city over the course of last year. Meanwhile, Abrams’ ploy gradually unraveled—first with a highly experimental trailer that carried no title card in the lead-in to Transformers over the summer, followed by a carefully orchestrated Internet campaign that got obsessive types to flex their investigatory muscles. These days, that pretty much means everybody inclined to browse the web.

The official Cloverfield website showed a handful of photos from an early party scene in the film, during which a bunch of hip young friends gather to say goodbye to their pal Rob (Michael Stahl-David) before he ships off to a new job in the Far East. It’s a supplement to the trailer, where we find the scene in question playing out in a casual hipster abode. Then…something happens. The sky lights up, Manhattan is burning and the severed head of the Statue of Liberty goes hurling through the streets. Chaos ensues. Everyone  is running—from what?

Several months went by without much indication as to the plot—or the purpose. A working title leaked out (“Cloverfield,” of all things) but the meaning stayed elusive. Interested parties found the interactive mystery enticing solely because the promise of a story lurking beneath the surface of so many vague possibilities stimulates the imagination like nothing else. That’s why Lost works so well—it allows viewers room to dream up their own possibilities.

It’s easy to see the argument for the progressive nature of Abrams’ technique. Like William Castle placing buzzers in the audience chairs during screenings of The Tingler and announcing that the monster was loose in the audience, Abrams pulls the story out of the restrictive boundaries of a single experience and stretches it across every possible platform. Too bad the movie is a less-than-satisfying experiment with contrived fake documentary aesthetics. It’s still called Cloverfield, and it’s about a big fucking monster blowing fire all over Manhattan, while little parasites leak off its hulking figure and attack pedestrians, including our Heroes. Finding out that Cloverfield isn’t nearly as clever as its epic advertising doesn’t detract from Abrams’ ability to make the movie look very appealing, but another revelation emerges when comparing the commercial to the final product: With 9/11 parallels all over this thing, if Cloverfield were pumped up for what it is, it probably wouldn’t sell. 

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