Cloverfield is not so much a reinvention of the marauding-monster movie as it is a riff on its possibilities—a fascinating and largely successful experiment in the manipulation of cinematic perspective. The immediately tired description of the film as Godzilla meets The Blair Witch Project is all too apt because that is precisely what it is, yet by taking a fantastical scenario and filtering it through a you-are-there digicam perspective, director Matt Reeves, executive producer J.J. Abrams, and writer Drew Goddard (at the time a veteran of Abrams’s TV shows, including Lost and Alias) simultaneously turn our expectations upside down while gratifying them in new ways. After all, in the era of YouTube, Facebook, and CNN’s I-Report, it’s hard to imagine the end of the world except through a digital intermediary.
The film’s conceit—some might say gimmick—is that we’re supposedly watching found video footage that has since become the possession of the U.S. government. An opening disclaimer informs us it was found in the area “formerly known as Central Park” and has something to do with “case designate Cloverfield,” all of which hints at disaster and death, yet also some kind of victory since the government is apparently still around. The early footage establishes the millennial-yuppie characters via a going-away party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), a twentysomething executive who is moving to Japan the next day to take a vice-president position. Rob is torn because he recently slept with Beth (Odette Yustman), his longtime best friend and secret crush, and doesn’t know how to handle the situation since he’s leaving. Thrown into the mix are Rob’s younger brother Jason (Mike Vogel), Jason’s fiancée Lily (Jessica Lucas), and Rob’s best friend Hud (T.J. Miller), who wields the videocamera for most of the film and provides a running dialogue that provides both comic relief and an informational stream of consciousness.
The party is disrupted by a sudden explosion in midtown Manhattan, which everyone witnesses from the roof of the apartment building, and the “accidental” nature of how the explosion is witnessed is a chilling moment in which the film’s violence-via-videocamera’s effectiveness is firmly established. Once everyone heads downstairs and joins other panicked and confused New Yorkers in the street, they are treated to the extraordinary sight of the Statue of Liberty’s disembodied head being hurled through the air, crashing against buildings, and then screeching to a halt in the middle of the street. Hud’s camera moves in for shaky, slightly-out-of-focus close-ups of the surreal disaster site, and he catches others doing the same thing with their cell phones, again reinforcing the underlying premise that, in today’s media-saturated you-can-record-it-all world, the calamity will always be recorded.
Soon, we are catching glimpses of the 30-story leviathan that is rampaging through the city, and even though a small group from the party escapes a disaster on the Brooklyn Bridge and are close to getting off the island, Rob decides they must turn back and head straight into the maelstrom because he gets a voicemail from Beth informing him that she is trapped and bleeding (possibly dying) in her apartment building. The rest of the film chronicles their desperate trip through the city as the monster rages and the military responds with all its firepower, which is never, ever enough.
Director Matt Reeves strings together some impressively tense setpieces, including a nightmarish journey through a pitch-black subway tunnel that turns into a true horrorshow when the leviathan’s scampering progeny show up, as well as a vertiginous jump into Beth’s apartment building, which has been knocked over and is leaning precariously against a neighboring office building. Reeves isn’t shy about connecting the film’s images of destruction with our mediated memories of 9/11, as we watch billowing plumes of dust from a collapsed building rushing down the street and a nearly shot-for-shot recreation of Jules Naudet’s footage from inside a store as the dust storm rushes past. There is a slightly unsettling hint of exploitation here, but only if you ignore the fact that science fiction and horror films are always at their best when they feed off our collective fears and traumas. The original Gojira (1954), after all, wasn’t just a rubbery monster mash, but a mirror held up to Japan’s atomic trauma of less than a decade earlier.
By depicting all of this via digital videocam, Cloverfield escapes virtually all the clichés of the genre while simultaneously delivering virtually everything you would expect from it. The fact that everything we see is “captured” gives it a strikingly queasy, familiar quality that makes the ridiculous scenario seem incredibly plausible. The camera is jerky and jumpy and sometimes out of focus, and Reeves and cinematographer Michael Bonvillain (another of J.J. Abrams’s veteran partners from television) do an excellent job of balancing the expected chaos with brief respites of clarity. In other words, they show us more than we would probably actually see if someone were wielding a videocamera during a monster invasion, but without compromising the integrity of the set-up; it always looks and feels like found footage.
The shaky glimpses we see of the monster make it much more terrifying than it should be, and the film falters the worst when it finally delivers the “money shot” and we see the beastie in a close-up that would make Norma Desmond proud. It’s an unfortunate lapse in the film’s otherwise rigid adherence to its less-is-more aesthetic (which also benefits the digital special effects in two ways: #1 it discourages too much effects work for its own sake, and #2 the low-grade quality of the imagery hides the flaws in the CGI, making the effects look strikingly realistic).
“People will want to see,” Hud says at one point, essentially justifying why he doesn’t just shut the damn camera off when he’s running for his life, “people will want to see how it all went down.” He’s absolutely right, but what makes Cloverfield so effective is the ironic fact that our vision is limited. We see, all right, but only the bare minimum to make the maximum impression. It is, in effect, the anti-Michael Bay aesthetic, which also extends to the film’s blessedly tight 73-minute running time. Unfortunately, this approach is not particularly duplicable as a means of reimagining every action-oriented genre (do we really want to see all our action via faux-amateur video?), but it sure works here to jangle your nerves and draw you deep into a story that would otherwise never have made it off the computer screen.
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Overall Rating: (3)
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