I can think of no movie that has come out of virtually nowhere to build tremendous hype like Cloverfield. Before the summer of 2007 this movie didn’t appear on anyone’s radar whatsoever, and then came a teaser trailer before Transformers. The tease was nothing but party footage of well-wishers when, all of a sudden, explosions are in the distance, people are fleeing, and the Statue of Liberty’s severed head rolls to a stop in a street. Bam. Release date. Nothing else, not even a title. All of a sudden the world had an insatiable appetite for everything Cloverfield. Mega-producer J.J. Abrams had done it again. In one fell swoop he took control of geek nation. I never expected Cloverfield to live up to the massive hype, but this modern monster movie delivers more bangs than whimpers.
The first twenty minutes of the film introduce us to our cadre of yuppy characters. Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) is leaving for Japan to take a business promotion. His friends throw him a surprise going away party to celebrate and wish him the best. Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and his girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas), start videotaping the party. Jason hands off the taping duties to Hud (T.J. Miller) who, thankfully, has a much steadier hand. Hud walks around the party gathering interviews and he zeroes in on Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), a gal he’s been nursing a crush on. Rob is nervous to see if Beth (Odette Yustman) will come to the party. Beth and Rob are long-standing friends that took the plunge and had sex a couple weeks prior. Now Rob is hoping for something more but Beth isn’t on the same page; she brings a date to the party. Interrupting all this twenty-something relationship drama is a giant monster attacking New York City and dropping little baby monsters to scurry the streets and feed.
While not entirely unique, Cloverfield is certainly a reinvention of the dormant monster movie. By seeing its gimmick through to the very end, the film gives a perspective rarely seen in movies that involve cataclysmic disasters. Usually films that involve space aliens, monsters, or some form of incredible destruction follow the people in power, the Army generals, the politicians, the President of the United States as he solemnly looks out his office window and says “God help us,” under his presidential breath. Cloverfield, however, eschews all of that. This movie is all about people caught on the peripheral of a disaster and just trying to survive. They have no idea what’s happening, they have no idea when they will be in danger, they have no idea where to go, they have no idea how long they have, and they definitely have no idea what it is that’s obliterating the city. The film dares to place us in the shoes of ordinary civilians as they document the fantastic. The “found footage” concept and the ordinary perspective are interesting though some will quibble that staying inside one point of view is too limiting for the scale of Cloverfield. This film is more than The Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla; this movie is a collective manifestation of the nation’s 9/11 anxieties. Cloverfield is the first 9/11 disaster movie. The shock and confusion of the situation take on even more resonance by triggering some of the same emotions many experienced on that fateful day in 2001. And yet Cloverfield doesn’t feel exploitative or disrespectful as it draws upon our 9/11 memories and fears, which is saying something substantial about the filmmakers’ skill and the remarkable healing power of time. Some images are unmistakable, like a white cloud of dust that blows through the city and also helps to shroud the monster. People scamper around the city yelling for some kind of explanation when some character, offhandedly, says, “Do you think it’s another terrorist attack?”
The film is also got some fabulously frightening moments that are not related to 9/11 anxiety. Cloverfield is a great, old school horror movie on top of a subversive social experiment. Talented writer Drew Goddard has had experience building tension on some of TV’s finest shows, like Buffy, Angel, and Lost. Now with his debut screenplay, Goddard cranks up the suspense and creepiness to maximum effect. Part of the horror is trying to find meaning in the madness but another equally enjoyable part is walking into perfectly executed classic horror moments. You will be on edge about what could possibly be around a corner. Our band of survivors decide to walk through the subway tunnels and discover that Hud’s camcorder has night vision; sure enough, you are waiting with baited breath for the second that night vision is shifted on and something pops out in view. There’s a distinct difference between cheap jump scares and spooks that, as I say, earn their boo. This tunnel scare is catapulted to frightening from the ominous buildup that comes from seeing hundreds of rats running away. When I saw the fleeing rats, I knew something very bad was coming from behind. The structure is clever as Goddard gives us back-story on Beth and Rob via the original footage of them canoodling that cuts in here and there. Goddard earns his stripes with a script swiftly paced, filled with genuine scares, and smart enough to keep an audience laughing with gallows humor at key moments (“Okay, so our options are… die here, die in the tunnels, or die in the streets.”).
You the viewer are in the middle of the action with this film and there’s no getting out, no distancing yourself from the chaos, no watching men in lab coats and military uniforms dissect the situation over large boards. The gimmick of Cloverfield is flawlessly executed thanks to director Matt Reeves, who spectacularly resurfaces from movie jail after writing duds like The Pallbearer and Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. Reeves explores some dark territory of his own but never breaks the tenuous tone needed for the movie to succeed. The movie is constructed with many long takes and it never exposes its secrets. I watched spellbound by the artistry of maintaining the illusion from beginning to end. Watching the Brooklyn bridge collapse from the inside is exciting and terrifyingly real. Reeves and Goddard smartly decide not to show their monster for as long as possible. Catching glimpses of a shadow or the flash of a tentacle-like appendage are enough to register goose bumps; the human imagination will always be more capable of engineering horror. Eventually the film does give its monster the proverbial close-up and the giant, skyscraper-sized beast looks a little familiar in design (think Vin Diesel sci-fi movie).
Cloverfield is a well-executed genre movie with a clever concept that is fully realized. The constantly bouncing and roving handheld camera might make an audience queasy, but the perspective of the end of New York City as brought to you via YouTube is stimulating and a comment on our self-absorbed culture. The film works as a finely tuned fright film elevated by its stylistic concept and the filmmaking skill to pull it off. Cloverfield being “found footage” and evidence from the Department of Defense doesn’t exactly bode well for the characters onscreen, and the film dispatches them with cool malice. No one is safe and no one can stop what’s coming. If that doesn’t sound like the perfect summation of 9/11 fears, then I don’t know what else is.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Posted on January 6, 2008, in 2008 Movies and tagged action, aliens, drew goddard, found footage, j.j. abrams, lizzy caplan, matt reeves, monsters, odette yustman, sci-fi, t.j. miller, thriller. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.