Movie Review: Cloverfield
By Matthew Huntley
March 24, 2008
If you're reading a review of Cloverfield, odds are you already know this mysteriously-titled movie is about a monster that runs amok in New York City. Perhaps you've already seen pictures, viewed clips on YouTube or read an assortment of blogs giving away the movie's closely guarded images. But if you haven't, don't. Paramount Pictures' marketing campaign did a stellar job of keeping its main attraction a secret. I went in without any clue of what the creature looked like, and my curiosity only boosted my enjoyment.
It's a shame so many movie trailers these days give away critical information meant to surprise audiences during the actual screening. But what was so ingenious about the ads for Cloverfield is how they really only gave away the movie's premise. Simply, something attacks New York City. What, terrorists? Godzilla? Armageddon? When it became known it was a monster, the level of excitement may have deflated a little, but the filmmakers have still made it worth watching.
The movie is all shot from the point of view of a single consumer video camera (similar to The Blair Witch Project). It opens with a slate informing us the footage we're about to see is the property of the government, code name Cloverfield. The tape starts off with Rob (Michael Stahl-David) recording his friend/lover Beth (Odette Yustman) after they've just had sex. The two record themselves spending the day at Coney Island, but their footage is erased when Rob's brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and his girlfriend Jessica (Lily Ford) use the same tape to record Rob's going away party (he's accepted a vice president position in Japan).
One of Rob's other friends, Hud (T.J. Miller), is put in charge of taping people's on-screen messages. Given the age range of the characters, I guess it's inevitable the movie sometimes feels like an episode of The Real World as Hud captures the group's gossip and drama, not to mention a girl he likes named Marlena (Lizzy Caplan).
Suddenly, an earthquake-like rumbling occurs and Manhattan quickly turns into a war zone. Explosions are seen in the distance, citizens run around panicking, and the head of the Statue of Liberty rolls down the street. The scene when everybody rushes outside into a cloud of dust and smoke all too eerily recalls footage from 9/11 (which I'm sure was intentional), and soon the entire city is put into a state of martial law.
Director Matt Reeves displays a good amount of restraint in the way he holds off showing us what, exactly, is causing the destruction. Our five main characters - Rob, Jason, Jessica, Hud and Marlena - start to make their way across town to save Beth, and their survival is put to the test in intensely staged scenes on the Brooklyn Bridge, underground in the subway tunnels, and atop dilapidated apartment buildings.
I feel obligated to inform you that after the screening, many members of the audience said they had problems with the handheld camera work (similar complaints came after United 93 and The Bourne Ultimatum). I personally don't have a problem with it since the strategy is justifiably driven by the characters' situations, and because I don't happen to find it distracting, but for some it causes motion sickness and dizziness. Some people even had to leave the theater.
Still, what I admired most about the movie is how it never cheated with its methods. In this day and age, when New Yorkers were able to capture 9/11 so terrifyingly up-close, as if they rehearsed it, I believed the footage in Cloverfield could accurately represent real-life footage. The hyper sense of realism created in the movie builds tension and makes it more engaging. It's also filmed, more or less, in real time, and I believed the Hud character would, in fact, make it a priority to continue taping their adventure across the city. Today, in the 21st century, if someone really was running for their life just as these people were, would they still bother to record it? Yes, I believe they would. Just think of all the hits they'd on YouTube or MySpace.
As a monster/disaster picture, Cloverfield isn't anything terribly new or original. It contains the usual explosions, people screaming, buildings collapsing, etc. But its single-camera technique is fresh for the genre and it's effective in the way it makes us feel like we're experiencing the action along with the characters. The actors are convincing enough (I wonder how much was improvised) and we do actually care about them. Aside from some cheesy dialogue ("You came back for me"), I believed everything in this movie could happen the way it does given the circumstances, and believing it somehow makes it more impactful.
NOTE: Because of its correlations to 9/11, I wondered if it's right for narrative movies to exploit that horrific day for the sake of entertainment. But since the movie sees its events as tragic and serious, and looks upon them with grave sorrow and reverence for the people invovled, I felt it was okay. Enough time has passed since 9/11, I think, that even if a movie like Cloverfield is considered exploitation, it shows we're willing to take advantage of a horrible event and turn it into art.