You know things aren’t going to end well in producer J.J. Abrams’ wildly over-hyped sci-fi when it’s introduced by a government reel saying that all events took place in the “area formerly known as Central Park.” As a TV creator, Abrams’ M.O. for shows like Lost and Alias is to withhold as much as possible until the audience starts clawing at the screen in desperation. This slim, inconsequential film must do the same. Clocking in at a mere 70 minutes with approximately 10 lines of intelligent dialogue, its technique to lure TV addicts off the couch and into the theater was to keep them in suspense about everything: the shaky trailer of Manhattan crumbling didn’t give away what happened, who did it, or even the movie’s name. So I’ll tell you. It’s a lame monster flick.
Before that, it’s a lame home video on a camcorder belonging to bland hunk Jason Hawkins (Mike Vogel) who last month used it to record the perfect date with his dream girl, long-time friend Beth (Odette Yustman). But tonight is Jason’s farewell party before he moves to Japan for his dream job (which screenwriter Drew Goddard never feels compelled to specify) and the camera’s helmed by dopey best friend Hud (T.J. Miller) to tape souvenir goodbye speeches from the rest of their too TV-pretty posse including Jason’s brother Rob (Michael Stahl-David), his type-A girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas), and Hud’s total crush, goth hipster Marlena (Lizzy Kaplan). The endless opening stretch of their boring bash is supposed to make us care about everyone before their night descends into screaming chaos, but it’s as flat as the Urban Outfitters catalogue it’s modeled after, despite Hud’s best attempt to gain social capital by gossiping about how Jason and Beth, like, totally did it.
It’s a welcome relief from the tedium when New York City gets torn up by this rubbery, hairless creature that looks like a giant skyscraper-sized Smeagol dripping with crabby spiders like it just stepped out of an arachnid shower except—oops—that’s not a towel, it’s the Empire State building and there go a million more lives. I suppose it’s here to eat people, except it’s so big and dumb and clumsy that it makes a human diet look as fruitful as a drunk panning for Tart n’ Tinys. It seems to be more an empty force of destruction, the id monster of late Bush Era America that’s just waiting to be destroyed by a force it doesn’t understand. Pair it in a film festival with The Mist and I Am Legend and put your finger on the pulse of a frightened culture that can’t explain what’s happening, only that we’re so weak one more disaster will tip us over into collapse.
The only hero who could save us is Bruce Willis. But instead of him and the balletic destruction of a Die Hard flick, we have a bunch of inarticulate hipsters screaming, panicking, and shaking the video. Hud’s refusing to put his handycam down because he, like most of our MySpace generation, doesn’t believe anything is real unless it was recorded on tape. (The film’s one great note is the partygoers’ reaction to the Statue of Liberty’s severed head landing on their street—they reach for their cell phone cameras.) When they do speak, they’re either narrating what we can already see—“It’s coming this way!”—or offering useful advice like “Run!” Sometimes, like the great Hindenberg announcer Hebert Morrison, they try to describe the destruction for posterity, as in that thing over there is “Something terrible!” Best is when they try to make conversation, like when Hud attempted to bond with Marlena over a spider attack with, “Then they tried to drag me and carry me away—what’s up with that?”
Jessica Lucas’ cocktail-frocked Lily is the only would-be hero who inspires a sense of awe, largely because like that old Ginger Rogers quote, she does everything the boys do—run through subways, scale 59-story buildings—in strappy silver heels. I would have rather spent the end of the world with any one of New York’s other eight million inhabitants. Oddly, out of laziness or budget restrictions (given the price of extras, I’m leaning towards the former) director Matt Reeves has deserted the island, even though we know the subways are out and Brooklyn Bridge collapsed. This Manhattan has been white-washed (monster-washed?) clean of anything so un-TV friendly as a homeless person, or even the corpse of one. It’s like Abrams and crew have looked into the void and thought: the only thing worse than Armageddon is if no one witnessing it is hot.