Posted on January 27, 2008 by Flames
Review by: Jason Thorson
Sometimes the most innovative ideas are so simple, it’s amazing they haven’t already been done. Such is the case with Cloverfield – a giant monster movie shot entirely from the perspective of a character’s camcorder. Produced by J.J. Abrams, written by Drew Goddard, and directed by Matt Reeves, all of whom are television vets having been responsible for episodes of Lost, Buffy, Angel, Alias, and others, Cloverfield is more than merely Godzilla meets The Blair Witch Project. It’s unique in that it attempts to give us fully developed characters to inhabit it’s high concept scenario and entirely besieged Manhattan setting.
Cloverfield begins as we watch home movies of a surprise going away party for Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) shot by his best friend and the film’s narrator, Hud Platt (T.J. Miller). As the party winds on, it becomes apparent that there are issues brewing between Rob and Beth McIntyre (Odette Yustman), whose relationship with Rob had blossomed into a full-fledged romance at the same that he’d landed a new job requiring his pending relocation to Japan. The tension between the two culminates with Rob sniping at Beth, causing her to leave. Hud and Rob’s brother, Jason (Mike Vogel), decide to have a heart-to-heart with Rob on the fire escape of his Manhattan Apartment. Suddenly, an explosion in the vicinity of New York Harbor marks the beginning of all hell breaking loose. Rob, Hud, Jason, and their friends, Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) and Lily (Jessica Lucas), find themselves scrambling into the debris-ridden street among a frenzied throng of panicked New Yorkers as a 25-story tall monster proceeds to destroy the city.
Cloverfield is outright frightening at times. The limited perspective with which this movie is shot is ideal for the giant monster genre. How best to represent the literally huge proportions of the threat facing our protagonists? We’re not watching this scenario unfold from a safe distance, but rather we’re put in the middle of the chaos and left feeling truly small and vulnerable. Director, Matt Reeves somehow ratchets up the tension without the use of dramatic irony. Instead he plays all the right notes at all the right times by milking the unconventional narrative perspective for every inherent benefit it presents. When our characters run for their lives, we’re forced to run with them. When huge sections of buildings rain down from the sky, we dive for cover. It’s a nerve-wracking and exhilarating movie watching experience.
The performances in Cloverfield are all decent, but it’s our narrator, Hud, played by comedian, T.J. Miller, that stands out as being the most entertaining. Hud provides just enough comic relief to keep us from being overwhelmed by our characters’ increasingly hopeless situation. Miller’s comedic timing is an asset for providing an authentic feel to the home video style dialogue whether the scene is light-hearted or terrifying. Hud is the classic “good hearted fool,” and thus the perfect everyman from which to anchor our perspective of the story.
Cloverfield has some problems, many of which are due to the experimental way in which the movie is shot. The most obvious problem is the number of scenes that are visually worthless due to the “camcorder” device. The movie falls into the perilous trap known s the imitative fallacy in which imitating reality detracts from rather than enhances the movie watching experience. Sure, it may be more realistic to have scenes in which the camera shakes to the point of inducing motion sickness, however, it makes for a miserable time eating popcorn while staring at the big screen. The other major problem is that despite its noble and fairly successful effort to include real characters in dynamic relationships, Cloverfield is still essentially a film built only to serve the unique way in which it‘s shot, which renders it mostly a complex narrative device rather than a fully realized story. It’s because of these factors that Cloverfield’s shelf life is short. It’s certainly worth seeing, if only for the spectacle, but I’m not sure I’d be interested in seeing it again.
The timing of this release couldn’t be better given the collective mindset around the world regarding potential threats, both foreign and domestic. The original giant monster genre of the 50’s and 60’s was a cinematic manifestation of cold war paranoia. Technological warfare had reached an apex with the use nuclear weapons in WWII and the subsequent threat was ever-present. The big screen representation of that came in the form of colossal beasts invading Japanese shores and destroying their cities. Today’s mindset is not dissimilar. Substitute the cold war with the war on terror and factor in how viral video has been an integral method used by soldiers on the battlefield as well as by terrorist cells to show the rest of the world their points of view and Cloverfield’s appeal seems like a no-brainer.
Overall, Cloverfield is a fun, scary, and mostly successful movie. It’s an experiment in filmmaking and that alone is as fresh and exciting as it is dangerous. Most importantly, Cloverfield is not a sequel or a remake, but rather a wholly original contribution to the genre I hold most dear. With daring filmmakers such as Abrams, Reeves, and Goddard infusing new life into the realm of scary movies, I’m hopeful that others will follow suit.
3 out of 5