Cloverfield has arrived with fanboy anticipation and bloated expectations. The tagline "some thing has found us" is as ambiguous as all the other cleverly placed marketing. The teaser that hit theaters with Transformers was a stroke of genius. The spare trailer even stops short of giving a title, only a cryptic "from producer J.J. Abrams." It was more than enough to get the buzz going on what seemed to be a monster movie. A quick search found the same question being asked about this mysterious J.J. Abrams project: what is it? But that's where the genius ends. Someone failed to realize that you need a decent film, not just a good idea, to back the self-assured promotion, because people are going to be more willing to divulge that Cloverfield is a piece of crap before they even get to the monster.
The setup is basic if not banal. Boy meets girl. Boy loves girl, and girl loves boy, but boy is leaving for Japan because he is the vice president. Vice president of what, who knows, but he is vice president. The first painful 15 to 20 minutes had me begging for the monster to arrive. Rob is our forlorn everyman who is denying himself the shot at true love, and Hud is the merciless camera operator who is gathering testimonials at Rob's going away party. When Beth, the love interest, shows up with a date: Rob. Is. Devastated. Shortly after there is something that everyone assumes is an earthquake, but you also overhear someone saying "Are they attacking agian?" These first minutes of confusion are easily the most successful in the film, when post-9/11 fears emerge and it seems quite logical that someone might videotape the extraordinary events, whatever they may be. Many of the images that follow are more than reminiscent of the video and images from 9/11, but as soon as Cloverfield edges toward interesting post-9/11 contemplation, we are dragged back to the love story. Hailed as the movie for the YouTube era, Cloverfield just ends up being like half the crap on YouTube: mildly interesting and annoyingly amateur...for an hour and a half! If the scripted improvisation from the cast doesn't make you nauseous, then the camera movement will. (A word of warning for those prone to motion sickness, either skip it or sit in the back row.)
I admit, I am a fan of monster movies, because this unabashedly commercial genre can also have some pretty devious subtexts. Take the 1954 Godzilla, a post-war film assembled upon the anxieties of a society trying to rebuild. Or the more recent genre-bender from South Korea, The Host, that uses the monster as a vehicle for social commentary on the family unit. Similar dualities are found in English language monster movies, from the original King Kong to Ridley Scott's Alien. I'm sorry to state the obvious, but the key driving force in these films are the context in which the monster exists. Cloverfield's monster's only purpose is to force Rob into realizing he loves Beth. Seriously. Grady Hendrix, who posted a much gentler review, likened the plot to "a set-up that feels cribbed from an unproduced Felicity episode." If that doesn't hit the nail right on the head, I don't know what does. Ultimately the mystery of the monster doesn't really matter, because the monster has absolutely no context in the film. Which is unfortunate, because it's a good looking monster.
Although he didn't direct the film, Cloverfield belongs to producer J.J. Abrams. Having just finished a very unsatisfying Season 3 of Lost, I'm starting to understand what J.J Abrams is good at. He's good at the hook. He's good at knowing that millions of people are stupid enough (including me) to go see Transformers and getting a teaser in every one of those theaters. He's good at knowing that viral marketing is more powerful that traditional methods. He's good at knowing that the hook is more important than the answers, at least in the short term. And as those who have seen Cloverfield and the dramatic teaser for Star Trek know, he's good at drop his next hook while the other is cashing in.