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A Little Suspense, a Lot of Jerkiness in 'Cloverfield'


Last week, we reported on the Internet hype surrounding the new movie from producer J.J. Abrams' "Cloverfield." For months, Paramount kept it shrouded in secrecy, not even giving it a official title. And now our critic Bob Mondello will attempt to review "Cloverfield" without giving too much away.

BOB MONDELLO: What you probably already know from the ads is that a bunch of twentysomethings are at a surprise party in Manhattan.

(Soundbite of movie "Cloverfield")

Unidentified Woman #1: I think here. Let's go.

(Soundbite of people shouting)

Group: Surprise.

MONDELLO: And a guy with a camcorder is wandering among them shooting their farewell testimonial.

(Soundbite of movie "Cloverfield")

Unidentified Woman #2: What is this for?

Unidentified Man #2: It's for Rob. Say something to him before he leaves.

Unidentified Woman #2: Rob - awesome. I'm gonna miss him.

MONDELLO: Then suddenly the whole apartment building shakes and the lights go out and then they come back on.

(Soundbite of movie "Cloverfield")

Unidentified Man #3: What was that noise?

Unidentified Woman #3: I don't think an animal(ph).

MONDELLO: And nobody knows what's happened so they turn to the TV.

(Soundbite of television news)

Unidentified Woman #4: Phone calls are pouring into the New York One news room as a thunderous roaring sound that was…

Unidentified Man #5: Do you see something on the roof?

MONDELLO: They proceed to the roof with the camcorder still running, and up there they see an explosion that sends huge chunks of debris raining all over the city. One of those chunks, when they retreat to the street, turns out to be the head of the Statue of Liberty, around which everyone gathers, snapping pictures with cell phones. Something big is attacking Manhattan, reigning terror and what appeared to be suitcase-sized fleas on the general public. And trust me, you do not want a fleabite. Now, to preserve the suspense, and for a while there is some of a sort, I shouldn't tell you too much about what these various critters do. But let's talk a little about what it looks like when they do it. The video camera thing isn't a one-scene gimmick. It's the whole movie. Like producer J.J. Abrams didn't want to spend his "Lost" money to rent a steady cam. Yeah, I know, "Cloverleaf," or whatever it's called, is all about point of view filmmaking. "The Blair Godzilla Project" - give the man his concept. But a camcorder is, kind of a one-trick pony, where visuals are concerned. Here, I'll approximate it in aural terms.

The jerkiness and the camera whipping around because it's never pointed at the right place, and nothing ever being in focus is constant, even for the special effect. And I've been doing this for what, 10 seconds? And you're already thinking, okay, I get the point, right? It's hardly clear and annoying. Well, imagine if you get the point and all the interesting stuff is happening and he keeps it up, like I'm doing. I mean, if you catch a glimpse of a small part of the creature…

I'm going to stop now. An appendage of some sort. And though presumably they had a decent special effects budget, through the camcorder, what you actually see on screen could almost have been done by smashing an uncooked turkey drumstick into a model of a building. Cue panic.

(Soundbite of movie "Cloverfield")

Unidentified Man #6: Oh, my God. Oh, God.

MONDELLO: Think what Ed Wood could have done with a camcorder and $25 million. There's a little more going on here than in a 1950s B movie, partly because of the locale. For the last seven years, Hollywood's been understandably skittish about knocking down major New York landmarks on camera, but apparently it's okay again. First, "I Am Legend" dynamited all of Manhattan's bridges. Now "Cloverfield" lays waste to, among other things, the Chrysler Building. At least I think it was the Chrysler Building. It was pointy at the top, but as I say, pretty blurry. With people running from a cloud of dust and ash that looks all too familiar from 9/11 footage, that's pretty tacky. I think we can all agree. And so, in its deliberate, uncharacterized, and no doubt enormously moneymaking way is "Cloverfield."

I'm Bob Mondello.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: This is NPR. National Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.