Starring Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David

Directed by Matt Reeves

Rated PG-13

With Signs, love-him-or-hate-him filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan came up with a novel idea: What would happen if he wrote a story about a War of the Worlds-scale alien invasion and skipped the standard cast of characters?

No president. No know-it-all scientist. No ex-military hero who’s been hiding out from Johnny Law in Colonial Williamsburg where he shows tourists how to make candles. No hooker with a heart of gold who lends our soldier boy a hand, again and again and again, with or without lubrication. Instead, Shyamalan’s tale would focus on a single family.

It was a novel approach. But more importantly, it was an effective one, giving moviegoers a glimpse into the no-longer quiet lives of these quiet people facing off against an army of greys, little green men, and Scientologists.

Which is why the core idea behind Cloverfield is a sound one: What if Godzilla attacked and the story told was not the clichéd one about the president, the scientist, the ex-hero, and the trannie hooker with a heart of gold and a penchant for drive-by prostate exams? What if the filmmakers focused on the poor schmucks who get stomped by the big green beastie? Can I get a “Oh, no, there goes Tokyo,” my harajuku brothers and sisters, because that’s genius.

However, what we get is far from Einstein. Instead of taking the same approach as Shyamalan, director Matt Reeves (Felicity) and producer J.J. Abrams (Mission Impossible III, Alias, Lost) decide to get all YouTube on us and present the attack through the lens of a hand-held camera. And OMFG are results literally and figuratively shaky.

Here’s the problem with this approach: Reality is kind of lame.

The dialogue sucks and the character development is next to nil. Think about the day-to-day conversations you have with your loved ones or your friends. Penned by Aaron Sorkin it’s not. Even worse, our personal dramas are pedestrian; they lack pizzazz. We’re lame. We’re petty. We’re boring. And because Cloverfield focuses on us as we appear in daily life and not as we appear up on the big screen, the film feels as insubstantial as a text message, or even worse an episode of Laguna Beach. 🙁

Oddly enough, I cared more about the victims in Eli Roth’s Hostel than in Cloverfield. When it comes to making a snuff film — and make no doubt that’s what this is — Reeves and Abrams would have been wise to watch that bit of torture-porn to see how you present doomed souls before you gut ’em. Quentin Tarantion’s Death Proof is another snuffer to crib from.

That’s not to say that cinéma vérité-inspired techniques can’t be used to great effect. Paul Greengrass’s United 93 is good example of how the smack-dab-in-the-middle-of-it approach can succeed. The Irish sleeper hit Once also employs cinéma vérité trickery to give viewers a glimpse into the lives of two musicians at the a start of their songwriting partnership.

But none of that crap matters if the thrills deliver, right? After all, there’s surely something to be said for the joy of a good jolt and a steady rise in tension. And there, Cloverfield succeeds, but only partially so. Once again, the main culprit lies with the hand-held camera — it limits what we see. As a result, all the terrors that we experience are hampered by tunnel-vision.

And as a consequence, the scenes that on paper should be the most frightening — an attack on our heroes by a host of creepy crawly things in a pitch black subway tunnel, the nearly implausible rooftop slide from one skyscraper to another — feel like worn-down speed bumps on the road to what we really want — the showdown with the big beastie itself.

As for the monster, well, there’s not a lot to say. You see plenty of it to get a feel for its size and its general look, but it is never really a presence, a true source of terror.

It’s toothless.

Like the movie.

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