Cloverfield (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Cloverfield is to the monster movie as The Blair Witch Project was to the ghost story. This movie is going to divide audiences. There are those who will be unable to endure nearly 90 minutes of constantly moving hand-held camerawork. Some will experience motion sickness. Others will just be annoyed and disoriented by the experience. These are legitimate reactions, but Cloverfield isn't trying to present another run-of-the-mill rampaging monster movie. You can rent a bunch of those on DVD. Do we really need another one? Instead, producer J.J. Abrams and his creative team want to represent a catastrophic event from ground level. If 9/11 taught us one thing, it's that when disaster strikes, cameras are turned on. Cloverfield's gritty, in-your-face style is uncompromising. If you're looking for a nice, clean movie filmed with a steadycam, you'll have to look elsewhere.

Cloverfield owes a debt to The Blair Witch Project. The most obvious similarity is the decision to show the entire event through the lens of a camera. The structure is similar as well - a slow build-up as we get to know the characters. Here's where one of Blair Witch's flaws creeps into Cloverfield. The opening sequences last too long. They're supposed to be introducing us to the protagonists, but they're dull and a little tedious. We start itching for something to happen. For 20 minutes, experiencing Cloverfield is like watching the home movies of strangers. (But maybe you're into that sort of thing...) As with The Blair Witch Project, however, once things start happening, the intensity explodes off the screen. The inability to see exactly what is happening is part of the film's appeal. Some will find it frustrating. Others will find it exhilarating.

The film - which is essentially the content of one video tape - begins in April with a cute little scene between lovers Rob (Michael Stahl-David) and Beth (Odette Yustman), who have just spent their first night together and are filming each other in the morning. Things jump ahead to a night in May. Rob is leaving for Japan the next day and this is his going-away party. In attendance are his brother, Jason (Mike Vogel); Jason's girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas); Rob's best friend (and the cameraman), Hud (T.J. Miller); and Hud's crush-from-afar, Marlena (Lizzy Caplan). Things are going well at the party until all hell breaks loose outside. There are explosions. Buildings topple. Projectiles hurtle through the air. In a matter of minutes, New York is in chaos. This time, however, the attacker isn't a terrorist - it's a giant monster. And it appears to be immune to everything the army throws at it.

First of all, don't expect linear storytelling with all of the holes plugged. Nothing concrete is revealed about the monster (although there is speculation). Is it from outer space? From deep in the ocean? Why is it in New York? What are its capabilities? What eventually happens to it? By confining the action in the film to what's on the videotape, Cloverfield eliminates the need to talk to these points. In fact, we never get a completely clear shot of the creature (at least not in the sense one would expect from a traditional motion picture), although there is a very nice close-up headshot late in the film. Still, the movie follows the Jaws rule that monsters are usually more intimidating when they are shown infrequently and only in brief glimpses. Even having seen the movie, I would be hard-pressed to give a coherent description of the thing. All I can say is that it's big and it's ugly.

The disaster wrought upon New York raises shadows of 9/11. How could it not? A scene in a street where a skyscraper collapses and the dust cloud rolls toward the characters is a carbon copy of one of the most horrific images from that real-life tragedy. Cloverfield also offers the destruction of icons: a decapitated Statue of Liberty and a devastated Brooklyn Bridge. There are plenty of landmarks to go after in New York without having to touch the Empire State Building. That place has already had enough attention over the years from King Kong. One has to wonder whether the filmmakers went too far in so forcefully evoking 9/11. Then again, to tell this story in this way, was there an alternative?

What does the handheld camera bring to Cloverfield? There's a sense of immediacy that couldn't be obtained in any other way. We're in the trenches with these characters, not looking at them from a safe distance. There's an intensity that couldn't be achieved in any other way. Consider, for example, the scene in the subway when Hud turns on the camera's night vision. No other approach could have yielded that result. In fact, today's viewers might be more willing to accept this perspective than those who booed The Blair Witch Project after it made the leap from art houses to multiplexes. It is, after all, the point-of-view presented by many video games - the so-called "first person shooters." And there's something else to consider: make Cloverfield conventional, and how is it different from the 1998 version of Godzilla?

Try as he might, director Matt Reeves (making his first feature in a dozen years) cannot develop his human cut-outs into three-dimensional people, and that's what keeps Cloverfield from being truly memorable. When the characters die - as some of them are bound to - there's no real remorse. Some times, there's a little shock but no sadness or sense of loss. However, the use of largely unfamiliar actors is an asset. As in The Blair Witch Project, we're not connecting these performers to their past roles (although Lizzy Caplan bears a striking resemblance to Zooey Deschanel).

It's necessary to cut through the hype to get to the real Cloverfield. I'm not sure the way it is being marketed does it justice. The movie is interesting because it's so damn different. It takes a worn concept and invigorates it by applying an innovative approach. The style will anger and offend some viewers but, if you're able to accommodate the camera, the movie delivers. There are moments of high tension and the sense of danger feels closer and more real than in any recent motion picture. The missteps - the greatest of which is the interminable introduction - are forgivable because the payoff is strong. In some ways, Cloverfield gives the impression of having been produced on a low budget, but the special effects are first rate. The monster and the devastation it causes look real. We believe. And, ultimately, that's the reason why Cloverfield works - because this film takes you into the heart of the maelstrom and leaves you there.

Cloverfield (United States, 2008)

Director: Matt Reeves
Cast: Michael Stahl-David, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan, T.J. Miller, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman
Screenplay: Drew Goddard
Cinematography: Michael Bonvillain
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 1:18
U.S. Release Date: 2008-01-18
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1