Inside J.J. Abrams' buzz movie about hot young hipsters and the thing that ate Manhattan -- can the film survive its own hype?
Michael Stahl-David, Cloverfield
Credit: Sam Emerson

In the secluded heart of a Hollywood backlot, a New York neighborhood lies in ruins. A rubble-strewn street, crushed cars jackknifed onto the sidewalk, storefronts coated with dust — something bad has happened to Manhattan again. Five twentysomething actors urgently wind their way through the wreckage, a camera crew close behind. Suddenly, someone shouts, ”Monster!” and the following things happen almost at once: 1. The leader of the pack, a lean, scruffy actor named Michael Stahl-David, yells, ”Holy s—!” 2. A jeep with a rocket launcher fires an empty round at a three-story-tall curtain of greenscreen at the end of the block. 3. A tank and a swarm of Army soldiers arrive, aiming more faux artillery at the defenseless neon sheet looming before them. When it’s all over, everyone dusts off and gets ready to do it again.

Emerging from a doorway with a slice of pizza on a paper plate, a man in black-rimmed glasses surveys the scene on this summer evening and beams like a kid surrounded by unwrapped birthday presents. ”Isn’t this, like, the greatest thing ever?” asks J.J. Abrams.

Nearly six months later, his giddy rhetorical question is getting a literal response from moviegoers as Cloverfield finally invades theaters. Using footage captured on one character’s home-video camera, the film tells the story of friends scrambling to escape the Big Apple after an outraged behemoth begins smashing up the joint. As nifty as that might sound to monster-movie fans, this creature feature boasts few marketable assets. It has no stars. It is not a remake of a sci-fi classic or an adaptation of a beloved comic book. Its director, Matt Reeves, hasn’t made a movie since the 1996 David Schwimmer-Gwyneth Paltrow dud, The Pallbearer. And yet Cloverfield arrives with blockbuster expectations thanks to the reputation of its producer Abrams, the TV impresario behind Alias and Lost and the director of Mission: Impossible III.

And, of course, there was the trailer. On July 3, 2007, a robo-nutty nation showed up for the opening weekend of Transformers and beheld a teaser for an untitled mystery movie in which a going-away party for a marketing exec who’s headed to Tokyo (Stahl-David) is interrupted by tremors and an ominous roar. The revelers rush up to the roof and see fiery projectiles arcing through the sky. Then they go out onto the street and are nearly bowled over by the head of the Statue of Liberty. The end. For a lot of filmgoers, the ensuing buzz storm — further fed by cryptic, clue-packed websites, a poster of a monster-ravaged skyline, and little comment from Camp Abrams — nearly upstaged the summer movie season itself. What was that thing?

Now that Abrams’ movie has revealed itself, the new burning questions are these: Has viral buzz infected the mainstream? And can the film possibly live up to its tease? With a budget of just $25 million, Cloverfield doesn’t need to rake in much clover to turn a profit. Or, in the words of Paramount vice chairman and marketing chief Rob Moore: ”It’s not like if it doesn’t work we’re going to shoot ourselves in the head.” But Cloverfield can’t afford to be a fiasco, either. Paramount, slowly shedding its ho-hum creative image under chairman Brad Grey, signed Abrams to an exclusive film-producing pact in 2006, hoping he could bring nervy-cool new energy to the studio. Over the past 18 months, Abrams has set up at least eight projects at Paramount, including the comedies Morning Glory and Men Making Music and a reboot of the company’s flagship property, Star Trek (click to see a Sneak Peek report and photo of the new starship Enterprise). Now is probably not the best time for Abrams to court bad buzz, and he’s aware of the stakes. ”If the movie fails,” he says simply, ”I take full responsibility.”

NEXT PAGE: ”I started to wonder: If I were at a party with friends, and a monster the size of a skyscraper showed up, and someone started recording it with their cell phone or video camera — what would that look like?”

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