Shrouded in secrecy and a pervasive viral marketing campaign, prolific television producer J.J. Abrams’ (‘Alias,’ ‘Lost’) latest film, “Cloverfield,” lands in US theaters at a rather curious time. Mid-January is typically when movie studios flush the crap out of their dumpsters and into the cineplexes, so I was surprised that a film with an A-List pedigree would be released now. I suppose the producers were banking on effective buzz allowing them to get the drop on a soft box office. From the looks of it, the gamble will pay off. The word-of-mouth buzz I had heard prior to seeing the film indicated that it was “Godzilla” meets “The Blair Witch Project” and the stern warning about the potential induction of motion sickness posted at the theater ticket counter reinforced that assessment. After seeing the film, I can say that it does play out pretty much as advertised, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The film is essentially the contents of a single camcorder tape which the opening screen informs us was recovered at a site designated by the Department of Defense as ‘Cloverfield,’ formerly known as Central Park, NYC. It opens in April with a cute scene between Rob (Michael Stahl-David, “The Black Donnellys”) and Beth (Odette Yustman), young lovers who have just spent their first night together. It then jumps ahead to a night in May. Rob is leaving for Japan the next day and his friends are throwing him a going-away party.
Among the attendees are his brother, Jason (Mike Vogel, “Poseidon”); Jason’s girlfriend Lily (the rack-tacular Jessica Lucas, “The Covenant”); Rob’s ‘main dude’ (and the cameraman), Hud (T.J. Miller); and Marlena (Lizzy Caplan, “Mean Girls”), whom Hud has a crush on. The party is going well until all hell suddenly breaks loose outside. There are huge explosions, buildings begin crumbling and the Statue of Liberty’s head crashes into the street. Within minutes, New York is in total chaos. But the attack isn’t terrorism – it’s a giant monster rampaging through the city and it appears to be immune to everything the army is able to throw at it.
The film itself is one long chase through the rubble of Manhattan as Rob and company try to rescue Beth while dodging the monster and the army. In true Cinéma-vérité style, the film is disjointed and full of holes by design. What exactly is the monster? Where did it come from? Why does it seem to be impervious to conventional weapons? By keeping the film confined to what’s on the video tape, the filmmakers negate the need to answer these questions. In fact, we never really see the monster in its entirety. The film uses the effective “Jaws” method of only showing bits and pieces of the monster to generate tension and fear until the end, when we get to see most of it in all its amphibious, spider-crab sea lice shedding glory.
“Cloverfield” is quite an exciting film, primarily thanks to the in-your-face hand-held camerawork, which has some interesting implications. First and foremost, it serves to heighten the intensity and immediacy of the action. Not just through the frenetic camera movement, but also through the inherent lack of peripheral vision. The limited field of vision afforded by the confines of a camera lens does more to tweak the viewers’ fear response than any number of creepy-crawlies.
More interestingly, though, it can be seen as a commentary on our increasingly MySpace/You-Tube obsessed culture, exemplified in the scene were the severed head of the Statue of Liberty crashes into the street and everyone’s first reaction is to whip out their cell phones and snap pictures and video. The film’s other technical coup is how the sfx are integrated and the sequences are edited together to make the film look like one single, unbroken take. The work is top notch.
The film isn’t without its problems, though. There appear to be some inconsistency issues with the size of the monster. In some scenes it’s as tall as a skyscraper, while in others it’s only as tall as a brownstone. That and the fact that the monster seems to be everywhere at once leads me to speculate that there is supposed to be more than one monster stomping around by the end of the movie. There’s also the issue that the camcorder’s battery seems to last for more than six hours, despite using the built-in spotlight and the night vision feature.
The pacing of the film is also problematic. For the first 20 minutes or so, watching “Cloverfield” is like watching bad home movies. These early scenes are supposed to establish the main characters and build a connection with the audience so that we’ll care about them later when the shit hits the fan. Instead, we see twenty-somethings acting painfully high schoolish and scenes which are supposed to be Cinéma-vérité looking obviously scripted. But once the action starts, it never lets up and maintains its intensity admirably.
The plot is pretty thin and the characters are forgettable, but “Cloverfield’s” primary success is that it takes what could have been a tired and worn genre flick and effectively repackages it in a unique and exciting way. The film’s style has its inherent shortcomings, but I think they actually add to the film’s appeal. “Cloverfield” may be little more than a technical exercise; a 90 minute gimmick, but it’s an effective gimmick nonetheless.
Matt Reeves (director) / Drew Goddard (screenplay)
CAST: Lizzy Caplan … Marlena Diamond
Jessica Lucas … Lily Ford
T.J. Miller … Hud Platt
Michael Stahl-David … Rob Hawkins
Mike Vogel … Jason Hawkins
Odette Yustman … Beth McIntyre
Anjul Nigam … Bodega Cashier