Cloverfield (2008): ***½
Directed by Matt Reeves
Cloverfield is the brainchild of J.J. Abrams. It
plays something like this: Imagine a cross between The Blair
Witch Project, a giant monster movie, the TV show Felicity,
and a surprisingly large dose of the obscure 80s movie Miracle
Mile. In a good way. In a very, very good way.
WARNING: THERE IS NO WAY I CAN REVIEW THIS MOVIE
WITHOUT EXTREME SPOILERAGE. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.
The movie opens with a text informing you that
you're about to watch the raw, unedited footage that was recovered
from a camera found in the area "formerly known as Central
Park." So right off the bat we know that, just like in The
Blair Witch Project, things are probably going to end very
poorly for the people manning the camera.
The rest of the movie is, indeed, the raw footage
from the camera, including bits here and there of what used to be
on the tape before it was recorded over (a clever device that is
used for tragic punctuation at times). The tape chronicles one night
during a giant monster attack on New York City.
Now, I've read several reviews complaining that
there's no way that a camera battery could last twelve hours or
however long it is from the beginning of the movie until the end
(the attack doesn't start until 1:00 AM, but there are several hours
of a party and party prep before that happens). But the movie itself
is barely 75 minutes long. It isn't like the camera was kept on
and running for the whole lenght of time that the movie spans. There
are very obviously parts where the camera is turned off, sometimes
for hours at a time. What kind of crappy camera do people own that
doesn't have a 75 minute battery life? Jeez! Logic, people. Logic.
Speaking of the camera, it's one of the best video
cameras I've ever seen. What video camera do you know that has Dolby
DDS Surround Sound built in? And also fantastic light/dark abilites
and deep focus?
The camera is held for 90% of the movie by a guy
named Hud, who sounds almost exactly like that guy who used to be
on Breaker High and is now Sock on Reaper. Hud
isn't the brightest guy, and some of the things that come out of
his mouth are where the comic relief in the movie comes from. And
the laughs are usually nervous, tension-breaking laughs. Hud never
tries to be funny. He's just overly earnest and questioning, and
has that compulsion to fill up silence with inane patter.
The other characters are less interesting, but
the performances are, for the most part, rather good. They don't
achieve the same level of realism as the Blair Witch group,
but then again the actors in Cloverfield actually had lines written
for them, whereas Blair Witch is this close to
being an actual documentary. What I do like about the characters,
though, is that they're all basically regular people. Felicity-style
regular people, but regular people nonetheless. The film is told
entirely from their point of view (literally, in the case of Hud).
They don't know what's going on, other than what they see on a couple
of newscasts and what they're told at one point by the Army people
they run into (which isn't much).
Indeed, thankfully we, the audience, never learn
what the Cloverfield monster is, where it came from, or what it
is doing. There are none of those lame, technobabbly sequences found
in most giant monster movies where a scientist guy explains what's
going on, what the monster is, where it came from, and (usually)
what technobabbly weakness it has. We just don't know. And that
inability to get any knolwedge makes the whole proceedings much,
much more frightening. Let's be honest: have you ever actually been
frightened by a Godzilla movie?
The giant monster in Cloverfield is not, unfortunately,
Gojira, Godzilla, nor any other pre-existing giant monster. They
made this one up for the movie. Fortunately I really like (for the
most part) the design. It has no legs. Instead it has two sets of
arms: a regular-sized pair that it keeps mostly curled up against
its chest, and a pair of out-of-proportionally long arms that sprout
from its shoulders and are long, gangly, and have huge, arthritic-looking
joints. The arms were gnarly. When in the past I've tried to imagine
truly frightening, sickening monsters, sometimes I've given them
arms just like those. So kudos for that. The monster was actually
I didn't like its face so much, though. In action
it looked too, well, cartoony. But in repose it looked way, WAY
too much like a 5th-stage navigators from David Lynch's Dune.
Y'know, the squid-like things in the big glass tanks at the beginning
of the movie.
The only other thing about the film that I didn't
really like was the fact that the giant monster came with smaller
monsters. Look, folks, when I go to see a giant monster movie, I
want to see a giant monster f**king s**t up. I don't want to have
to slog through sequences of people fighting people-sized monsters.
There's already a horror genre for that; they don't belong in a
giant monster movie. All too often they completely take over and
the movie becomes more about fighting them than fighting the big
monster (Godzilla vs Destroyah, the american Godzilla movie,
or Godzilla vs. Megaguirus to name a few). Also the little
monsters in Cloverfield look almost exactly like
the bugs from the Starship Troopers movie, only dog-sized
and stark white.
Thankfully, the bugs are only in two very short
sequences, both of which are not much more than spring-loaded cat
sequences (though the first one is actually pretty scary). Their
first appearance does have very significant consequences for one
character, in a shocking scenethat serves to highlight just how
powerless these characters are to do anything about their situation.
Indeed, the mood that Cloverfield portrayed with
shocking effectiveness is the feeling of absolute helplessness.
These characters are powerless. If that giant monster decides at
any point to kill them, there is absolutely nothing they can do
about it. There is no way for them to fight it. They've just watched
one of them (one character's brother, no less) be killed and there
was nothing any of them could do about it. Their lives are suddenly
completely out of their hands, so they make a horrible, sad, selfish
decision to strike out into the city to rescue a character's love
interest. It's the only way they feel that they can regain some
sort of control over their own destinies.
The narrow streets, tall buildings, and dark tunnels
of New York City also serve to claustrophobically heighten the tension.
This monster can demolish buildings. If it's heading your way, where
can you possibly be safe from it? In the end, the Cloverfield Incident
is not something that four regular people can defeat. They can just
hope to survive it. And knowing what we know from the opening text
of the film, we know that the ending (which is remarkably similar
to the ending of Miracle Mile) isn't probably going to
turn out very well for most (if not all) of them.
My heart was truly pounding throughout much of
the film. Cloverfield is unknowable, unstoppable, and hopeless.
It's fast-moving and never boring. Ultimately it doesn't really
rise above its giant-monster genre, but much like Robert Rodriguez's
Planet Terror, I'll be damned if it isn't possibly the
best giant monster movies I've ever seen. So who cares? I had a
damned good time watching it, and I have a feeling it's going to
stick with me for a long time to come.
One last thought:
When the Statue of Liberty's head gets thrown down the street, nearly
all of the people present instantly whip out their cell phones and
start taking photos and videos of it. Man, I thought, if
that ain't accurate to this day and age, I don't know what is.