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Terrorism at the movies

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In the old days, the best movie monsters personified some amorphous fear or anxiety felt but not adequately expressed in the dark corners of the collective unconsciousness. The unleashed powers of the atom spawned gigantic insects, the tyranny of totalitarianism invited alien invasions, and the rebelliousness of untamed youth ushered in creatures of fang and claw. For the most part, the foul and loathsome creatures conjured up from the depths of the imagination acted as stand-ins for things that while anguished over, never really materialized. That’s not the case in the J.J. Abrams produced “Cloverfield.” The senseless horror that besets the largely no-name cast of photogenic 20-somethings for an often harrowing 84 minutes in this film is all too real and familiar – largely because it’s already happened. The monster in “Cloverfield” – at times Godzilla-like and at other times extraterrestrial – crashes about New York City not like the incarnation of some unspeakable nightmare yet to come, but rather the avatar of evil already visited upon the urban masses. The rampaging “Cloverfield” monster – and its razor-teeth offspring – terrorizes an already terrorized city. The movie succeeds most when it allows that horror to go down straight and undiluted without watering down any of the malevolent anarchy. Director Matt Reeves displays a lot of nerve going as far as he does before pulling back and pulling out jokey and reassuring dialogue that reminds audiences that despite the homemade feel of the handheld camera and thick plumes of pulverized concrete, this is, after all, just a horror movie. The plot is simple: a lovesick guy on his last night in town decides to track down the woman he loves after the two become separated when a mysterious monster the size of a skyscraper inexplicitly attacks New York City. The 9/11 imagery is so pronounced that the trapped young woman’s condo is presented as two crippled towers – one rocked off its foundations and left leaning precariously against its sad twin. Despite the timeliness of the terror, however, the filmmakers still can’t seem to break free of the sci-fi/horror heap, lazily relying on elements of Ridley Scott’s “Alien” a full 30 years after the director first brought chest-bursting invaders to the big screen. “Cloverfield” fudges it in other ways as well. One of the very few black faces to appear in the film – belonging to, of course, a looter carrying a television set out of a shattered electronics store – elicited a loud burst of disbelieving groans from a group of enthusiastic yet ultimately disappointed black film-goers in the theater where this film was reviewed. Central to “Cloverfield’s” horror is the unspeakable mayhem that mysteriously drops down on a privileged clique of young white people – a group whose social circle is so blessed that after getting dumped there’s a good chance the next person you hook up with is going to be supermodel hot. Here they’re suddenly not in control anymore and bad, unjustifiable things are not happening to somebody else, it’s happening to them. “Something has found us,” the movie’s tag line goes. There are other goofs, like the protagonist using his cell phone from deep inside a subway station to lie and tell his mom that everything is going to be okay. But for the most part, “Cloverfield” admirably dramatizes the 21st century fear of living in America where ruthless calamities can befall the innocent pedestrian on any given day or night, and there’s no capable government around to do much of anything about it. The “Cloverfield” creature is a neo-con monster and in the end, not even the young, white career-obsessed are able to escape its foul clutches. Cloverfield stars Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman. Runtime 1 hour, 24 minutes. Directed by Matt Reeves. Rated PG-13.

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