It may be rather derivative but Underwater is a solid genre thriller that is streamlined to deliver an enjoyable 90-minute ride. You start off right in the middle of conflict, as we follow a group of undersea scientists and workers trying to escape from a deep sea drilling station under attack. The movie is atmospheric and effective because that deep underwater is basically like pitch black night. As they stumble from one clearly defined and varied set piece to another, the movie plays into the elemental fear of the dark, coupled with a rising claustrophobia. Kristen Stewart is genuinely terrific as a steely action leading lady and the other supporting roles, rounded out by the likes of Vincent Cassel, T.J. Miller, John Gallgher Jr., and Jessica Henwick, create a cast of characters that I was rooting for even if they aren’t exactly fleshed out. It’s a trade-off. More time could have been spent finding room for added characterization and history, but when we know the majority of these people are slated to die from monsters, it feels like the movie made the better choice to jump into the thick of things. Yes, this is a monster movie, as the drilling potentially unsettled an unknown species, and their creature design is nice and creepy. There’s a wonderful moment where a hungry monster swallows a person whole, like a snake unhinging its jaw to consume an antelope. In Act Three, Underwater gets even bigger in its scope of the threat, and I won’t spoil the circumstances but, suffice to say, it approached epic. For a PG-13 monster thriller released in January, the usual dumping ground of studio losers, this is a far better movie and a far more entertaining experience than you would be lead to believe. It’s nothing spellbinding but there should always be room for smart, effective B-movies performed with grit and acuity. It looks like it was based on an anime, from the setup to the monsters to especially the design of the heavy undersea suits that look like mech armor, but no. This is an original film. Well, it’s an original story building off the foundation of other movies, mostly from James Cameron. Underwater is a slickly made, tense, atmospheric little thriller that is worth the dive.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Four movies in, at this point you can either fall back on the old criticisms of Michael Bay as a filmmaker or simply let down your guard and look for any simple pleasures offered by the Transformers franchise, a series mostly known for chaotic plotting and action. Age of Extinction is probably the best Transformers film since the first one (take that for what you will) but it still has all the hallmarks of the obtuse and convoluted plotting, absurd and obnoxious characters, juvenile humor, intense product placement, and often incoherent action. Gone are the characters from the first three films and in their stead is Mark Wahlberg (upgrade) as a Texan inventor named, get this, Cade Yeager. He and his teen daughter come into contact with Optimus Prime and are on the run from multiple forces. Apparently a bounty hunter is looking to target Prime. The U.S. has a black ops team tracking down Transformers in hiding. And Stanley Tucci plays a business tycoon who wants to make his own Transformers via their magic substance “Transformium.” Reading all of that, you realize the pieces still don’t really make sense, and that’s before the robot dinosaurs come into play. And yet Bay and his team have fine-tuned the entertaining aspects of the franchise and better consolidated them in the fourth film. A badass alien bounty hunter/collector is a great addition, adding the government as an adversary, Titus Welliver (TV’s Lost) as a cocksure special agent, Tucci as a corporate blowhard, and robot dinosaurs, it all sort of works on its own terms. Again, if you try and logically connect the pieces, it won’t happen. By this point, if you’re not a fan of the series, there’s no real reason to continue watching, but if you’ve found any semblance of enjoyment then there should be enough to keep your attention with the fourth film, robot dinosaurs and all.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Disney’s first adaptation of a Marvel property, it’s essentially a superhero origin tale mixed in with the “boy and his robot” formula borrowed from The Iron Giant. The story is fairly predictable but charming and unafraid to deal with loss and grief. The real star, though, is the inflatable robot Betamax (voiced by Scott Adsit), whose unfailingly optimistic and helpful nature is a loveable addition to a genre plagued with doom and brooding. The action sequences are colorful and well developed and paced. It’s an agreeable pilot film for a new animated franchise, and the characters are likeable and fun while still having enough emotional resonance to make the hard choices of sacrifice hit you in the gut. It’s a welcome change of pace to have a character interested, first and foremost, in the mental health of others. You just want to hug Betamax (parents, your children will be begging for the toys). The plot does follow many similar plot beats of the superior Iron Giant but this film is still enjoyable enough on its own terms.
Nate’s Grade: B
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I oddly felt fine… which is not a good sign for your apocalyptic movie. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a peculiar thing, all right. It takes place in the last three weeks of the human race. And lest you think the film wimps out on the promise of its title, think again. I was bemused for the first forty minutes, where writer/director Lorene Scafaria indulges in a series of one-scene vignettes of how humanity comes to terms with the certainty of annihilation. There’s an adult party where people joyfully try heroin, a hit man-for-hire service to bring back some of the mystery of death, and a restaurant where all the workers are spaced out on Ecstasy. I found each of these moments to be funny and a well though-out extension of the premise. But then the film’s diversions give way to the rom-com of our main characters, played by Steve Carell and Keira Knightley as your standard manic pixie girl. And the more time I spent with them the more I found myself not getting engaged. My emotional empathy was kept to a minimum; they’re nice people and all but I didn’t find them that interesting. The resulting movie feels like one of the weakest avenues given the premise. I credit Scafaria for not wimping out in the end, but as these characters faced oblivion together, I felt little emotional stirrings in my chest.
Nate’s Grade: C+
This is a fairly lackluster, flaccid, infantile comedy that aims to follow the same Judd Apatow formula of equal parts heart and raunch. Where this movie utterly fails is its choice of lead. Jay Baruchel (Tropic Thunder) is not a good leading man (his voice is very nasally and hard to listen to at times), but worse, his character, Kirk, is a callow, simpering, snot-nosed dolt. He has a dearth of a personality; he’s constantly berating himself or groveling for support by his oblivious family and mean ex-girlfriend. You simply don’t care. Kirk is not a guy worth watching. There’s empathy and then there’s pity. The movie wants to be a “nice guy gets the girl” story, but instead She’s Out of My League is a “guy with zero self-esteem and charisma gets the magazine cover model” story. At least in Apatow productions, the schlubby leads had personalities and redeeming qualities. I started enjoying the respites away from Kirk, time spent with his callous family members or his annoyingly juvenile friends. Anything to escape. The jokes have a pretty low ratio of hits to misses (an early ejaculation actually almost becomes an act break that keeps the couple apart), becoming subservient to a clichéd romantic comedy that wants to teach us that looks don’t matter. It’s what’s on the inside that counts. Have you heard that one before this week? If what’s on the inside is what matters, then She’s Out of My League has little to offer.
Nate’s Grade: C
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+