Ya gotta have a gimmick.
Well, these days in the horror-film genre you do, if you want to cut through the movie marketing clutter and get yourself on the pop-culture map. The trouble with gimmicks, however, is that even the best of them can wear out their welcome pretty darn fast.
The miniscule-budgeted horror flick Blair Witch Project, released in 1999, had a spectacularly effective gimmick -- a first-person point-of-view, faux-documentary approach -- that elevated a story about being lost in the woods and pursued by some unknown entity to bone-shuddering terror. The gimmick worked, and how.
Now, along comes Cloverfield, which takes a similar first-person approach and applies it to an attack on Manhattan by a 25-story, Godzilla-like creature. It ups the ante considerably in terms of budget and effects. And it is at times shockingly real -- maybe a little too real. But for all the fuss and pre-release furor, Cloverfield really doesn't amount to much more than a very well-produced novelty. Yeah, sure, you leave the film buzzing, as so many questions are left unanswered -- What is this gargantuan, amphibious-reptilian-arachnoid-like creature with a taste for skyscrapers? Where did it come from? Why is it so very, very angry? Does it have a name? Exactly what happened to that young woman who got bitten by one of its vicious crablike parasites (or are they offspring?) that drop from the motherbeast like rain and feast on anything nearby? Was that the Dharma Initiative symbol from Lost that just flashed on the screen? -- but the buzz is ultimately hollow.
There are clues strewn throughout Cloverfield (the movie is custom-built for repeated viewings -- more money in the Paramount cashbox!), and the ambiguity should come as no surprise, however, since the film is produced by the master-of-the-non-reveal, J.J. Abrams (Lost, Alias, the upcoming Star Trek reboot), and written by Drew Goddard and directed by Matt Reeves, two guys who have worked for years in the Abrams camp and cling to his theory that plausible explanations are for wimps. But the movie isn't about explanations. The monster is truly the largest MacGuffin the movies have ever known.
What drives Cloverfield is its gimmick -- the story told from a single-camera perspective. It begins with a bit of romantic backstory revealed on a tape about to be videotaped over (this introduction sets up the reason for the narrative's subsequent absurd heroics). The tape abruptly jumps to a going-away party for Rob (blandly pretty Michael Stahl-David), with the camera reluctantly operated by the oafish Hud (T.J. Platt), who alternately serves as documentarian, busybody voyeur and comic relief. As the monster attacks (spoiling the party) and panic ensues, Hud never once loses his grip on the camera. Whether running through a debris-covered street, dodging military shell fire, or making his way from the top of one Manhattan skyscraper to another, his sense of composition is impeccable. In essence, he becomes one with the camera. ''People are going to want to know how it all went down,'' he rationalizes. (Why, thank you, Hud, for your extreme dedication to cinéma vérité, without which we might have no Cloverfield.)
The first-person perspective gives the film a contemporary YouTube vibe. It's meant to evoke the modern-day notion of everyone having the ability to shoot whatever's happening around them, no matter how mundane or chaotic. Cloverfield is masterfully produced in this regard, and the digital effects, especially the sightings of the monster, are seamlessly integrated. The film feels authentic.
But its characters are a preening, vapid bunch, with absolutely nothing to say. Interestingly enough, they're not much on the use of profanities. The most declarative they get as the monster attacks is ''Oh, my God!'' and maybe a ''Holy shit!'' or two. Frankly, if I were in that situation, four- and twelve-letter words would pour from my lips like a steady rain on plain. Perhaps this un-wild bunch knew they needed to avoid an R rating and nab that PG-13 for maximum box-office impact.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect to Cloverfield is what one might call the online afterparty. Abrams is known for furthering his stories beyond their cinematic (or televised) confines. Cloverfield offers hints and clues and fun little teasers at tie-in viral Web sites like www.slusho.jp, www.tagruato.jp and www.tidowave.com. These sites provide possible clues as to what the monster is, where it hailed from, and, now that the movie's released, what may come next. One has to admire the detailed density of this approach -- it's marketing genius -- allowing potential fans to feed an obsession to the point of pathological.
Some may be offended by the overt references to 9/11 -- one scene in particular, depicting the leveling of what appears to be the Empire State Building is followed by a huge, billowing cloud of street-level dust. It's so reminiscent of the day the Twin Towers fell, the moment may well prove traumatic for some New Yorkers. Abrams and crew should be lambasted a bit for this occasionally vulgar, insensitive approach. Knocking a building over is one thing -- evoking one of the most horrific days in American history is another. It crosses a line.
When all is said and done, and Cloverfield plays out, we're left with (as Shakespeare so fittingly wrote in Macbeth), ''a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.''