January is generally a wasteland for movies. Its traditionally been a dumping ground studios use to release all the movies so bad they need to be put out while everyone with taste is distracted by the late fall Oscar contenders. Because of this it was a bit of a shock when high profile producer J.J. Abrams announced that his mysterious new project, Cloverfield, would be coming out on January 18th 2008. This was hardly the most unusual aspect about the project; when the trailer came out in front of Transformers it didn’t even have a title attached to it. All this insanity really caught me and other film aficionados off guard. I haven’t even gotten around to doing my 2007 year in review and now I’m already reviewing a 2008 film.
It was easy for rumors to fly about this project, after all most film advertising campaigns go out of their way to give away everything there is to know about a movie long before it comes out. Cloverfield on the other hand took the opposite approach and this lead to massive online buzz and theorizing. It should first be noted that the film’s initial premise of, a giant monster attack, captured on home video by a small group of survivors, is pretty much what you get here. There is no surprise ending, no “Lost” style twist. Instead this should be seen for what it is: an absolutely relentless thriller.
There’s a pivotal scene mid-way through M. Night Shymalan’s under-appreciated film Signs in which the audience finally very briefly gets a glimpse of the attacking aliens via a home video being shown on a news report. In many ways this is an 85 minute version of that scene. The film is meant to be a recording made on a camera owned by Rob (Michael Stahl-David). Rob is about to move to Japan where there is a job waiting for him, so his brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and friend Hud (T. J. Miller) decide to throw a going away part for him and borrow Rob’s camera to do it.
Mid way through the part a loud noise is made, everyone runs out to the balcony to see a massive explosion in the heart of New York. The party runs out to the street to see the head of the Statue of Liberty fly to the street blow, they then see a very quick glimpse of some sort of giant monster pass through the street. Rob receives a call from his girlfriend and learns she’s trapped in her apartment in the middle of ground zero. In spite of everyone else’s advice Rob decides to go back to save her followed by his entourage, most importantly Hud, who’s carrying his camcorder and decides to “document” the situation.
The entirety of Cloverfield is seemingly photographed with a handheld camcorder, this is in many ways an evolution of the work pioneered in The Blair Witch Project. Like that work there are certain conceits one must accept to really enjoy this film. Firstly you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you get too hung up by the technical constraints of a camcorder that the film ignores. The sound work in the film is clearly vastly superior to anything a camcorder microphone would be able to handle.
There are however less conceits here than in Blair, for example the reason the battery/ tape never runs out is that the film is roughly the same length as a commercial camera tape would be, the idea is that the film isn’t “edited” but rather a compression of what was available after Hud turns on and off the camera. So the film is real time in a sense.
The first thing that director Matt Reeves did right here was to maintain a real sense of reality, especially in the beginning. Reeves wisely decided to use almost all unknown actors for the film, and the film also uses very realistic dialogue. Early scenes at Rob’s going away party feature awkward conversations by people who don’t have witty retorts available to use. These people do not talk like movie characters. Up until the monster shows up one could easily be fooled into thinking this is genuine footage.
The camerawork is appropriately amateurish, which may or may not be a good thing depending on the viewer. If realistically shaky camera work is a problem, this isn’t the movie for you. This amateurship is not exaggerated at any point, and it probably won’t induce nausea in anyone who isn’t particularly susceptible to motion sickness, but it is there. What’s important is that this camerawork is not gratuitous, it is in many ways what makes the film special.
The comparisons between this film and Godzilla are inevitable, and they are also valid comparisons. It should be noted that the two films have more in common than the fact that both films feature giant monsters destroying a city. Godzilla has widely been an interpreted as a monster film that reflected the fears of its time and place, which in the case of 1954 Japan was a nuclear crisis. Cloverfield, is in many ways is trying to reflect the fears of our post 9-11 world, namely a fear of being caught in the middle of a completely unexpected disaster in the middle of an Urban center.
The film also reflects how such an attack would be recorded in our current culture of gadgets and Youtube. The original Godzilla, at least the American version, was told through a series of news reports by Raymond Burr. This reflected the increase of media technology in the mid-fifties through the new medium of choice, television. Here however the medium of choice is a personalized gadget, amateurishly shot by someone in a culture where everyone thinks the world cares what they have to film. With The Bair Witch Project many questioned why the “documentarians” would be holding a heavy camera while running for their lives. Nearly ten years later this seems like a non-issue, in fact Hud’s continual holding of his camera is a statement about this information age culture.
The film could also be compared to Jazz in that what makes it special are the notes it doesn’t play. By the end of the film we never do learn where this monster came from nor are we given an explanation of how the greater world is reacting to the situation. In fact I doubt the film is going to put an end to all the online theorizing, in many ways it asks more questions than it answers. But it’s these unanswered questions that make the film work, the chaos and confusion the characters are in the middle of add significantly to the film. That’s a big part of why it uses the camcorder set-up, it places us directly with this group and it denies viewers the opportunity to demand an expanded explanation.
The film holds off on showing the monster, but not in a manipulative way, when the viewer needs to see this thing it is put on screen, and by the end we are given a pretty good idea of what it looks like, although I don’t think I’d be able to draw a picture of it. The monster looks vaguely Lovecraftian, I wouldn’t be surprised if a Cthulhu Mythos interpretation shows up online. The CGI here is not top of the line, but it works, largely because we mostly get very brief views of the effects material. But getting a chance to see the monster is not why you should go to this; that is just not the point.
The true accomplishment of this film is not the effects, it the suspense. The ages have been filled with giant monster films, and none of them before now have even tried to be remotely suspenseful. This decision not to go for suspense in the past was wise, it’s hard to take something like Godzilla very seriously, especially when the effects consisted of a man in a suit plowing through paper buildings. But what Reeves and Abrams have done here is found a way to generate real suspense out of such an insane premise and they’ve done it by amping up the realism and placing the protagonists right in the middle of the crisis. Other films like Emerich’s Godzilla make the mistake of allowing the main characters into relative safety and then having them walk back into the mess. Here the characters are stuck in a chaotic situation and are completely defenseless.
Of course the film isn’t perfect. The biggest mistake here was to formulate the plot around a rescue “mission,” with Rob and company trying to save Rob’s lover from her apartment. I was able to take a lot for granted here, but there was a certain point where I stopped believing that anyone in their right mind would keep going along with this suicide mission. I understand why they went in this direction and some of this love story does pay off in a big way, but it really did stretch believability way past what I was going to accept. I also would have generally liked a little more character development out of our band of heroes. Still, one has to accept a certain limit to what can fit into this sort of experimental project.
At the end of the day, Cloverfield may not be the greatest cinematic achievement we see, but it will be an important time capsule. I think this film will be a real artifact of its place and time. It is certainly very different than anything you’d expect from a Hollywood disaster film, and that in itself is an accomplishment of sorts.
***1/2 out of four