January 23, 2008

Movie Review: Cloverfield

Last July Michael Bay's latest creation, the live action adaptation of Transformers, arrived on the big screen. There it wowed audiences around the world while managing to kill a scant few brain cells. However, before we were able to see the robotic vehicles wage war around the world, we bore witness to a mysterious trailer. It had the Paramount and Bad Robot logos attached, and it concluded with the head of the Statue of Liberty crashing down into the middle of the street. It had no title, only a date. 1-18-08 was the date and it certainly set tongues a wagging. It was easy enough to figure out that it was a monster movie, but what monster? Godzilla? Gamera? Voltron? Pokemon? Perhaps Lovecraft's Chthulu? It was all pure conjecture and neither producer JJ Abrams nor director Matt Reeves were talking. So, we waited. Finally, the wait is over, the magical date has come and passed and we were able to experience the project whose date had been replaced with its codename: Cloverfield.

The film is a cross between the original Godzilla and Cannibal Holocaust (the more popular choice would be The Blair Witch Project, but where do you think they got the idea?). Take the monster genre and cross it with the idea of viewing found footage shot by someone (or someones) that are no longer around (missing, dead, you make the choice), the result is a thrilling and all encompassing film that will grab you by throat and refuse to let you go. You will be dragged kicking and screaming across a dangerous landscape where you cannot guess what lies around the next corner.

Beyond the surface of the concept, beyond the conceit of the handheld camera, this film is sure to hit home on an emotional level. Godzilla was made in the wake of the nuclear explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was a time when the threat and possibility of nuclear war was very real. Godzilla was, at least partially, a reaction to those fears. It is a frightening film that tapped into genuine feelings held at the time. It is a similar thing with Cloverfield. For those of you who saw the film, can you honestly say that 9/11 did not come to mind? Now, this is nothing political, I do not feel the film is saying anything specific about the event. Instead, the film is making us confront our feelings and memories by putting us right in the middle of this disaster, the senseless destruction and unnecessary killing.

Fortunately, the film is more than a comment on that day. Unfortunately, the film is likely to spark a "love it" or "hate it" reaction, at least that is what I experienced. As my father and I sat through the credits marveling at what we had experienced, we heard many commenting on their, shall we say, distaste for what they had seen.

Cloverfield tells the story of a monster invading New York City. However, rather than learning about the creature, where it came from, what it is, or what the military intends to do, we are forced into the position of running for our lives with a small group trying to avoid whatever it is that is lumbering around the city. Going beyond that, we are given a hint of the outcome of our band by the fact that the film opens by telling us we are watching footage from a camera found in the area formerly known as "Central Park." Whatever went down, it was big and the results will likely be felt on that version of NYC for years to come, if not forever.

For as epic as that sounds, the film is surprisingly personal and intimate. We are, after all, following a group with a camcorder and are not embedded with the military forces charged with confronting the creature. Add to that the very strong and very personal desire of this band's leader to return to the heart of the war zone to attempt to save the woman he loves. Very touching and rather cliched sounding, right? Sure sounds like it, but as it is developed it is more than that, we are drawn into their lives and this deep-seated desire feels more than a necessary plot point, it is vital to our hero's survival.

The film opens with a party for Rob that is being thrown by his brother, Jason, and his wife, Lilly. Rob is heading off to Japan for some great new job and this is his last hurrah in the Big Apple. One of the special things going on at this party is that a tape is being made with testimonials from friends to Rob to take with him overseas. Charged with this task is Hud who takes this opportunity to hit on a young woman he spies from across the room, Marlena. With the introductions out of the way, it is time for the fun to begin.

It all begins with an explosion in the harbor, debris is sent flying into the sky and rains down upon the partygoers who had migrated to the roof to see what was going on. Next step is to get out of town. This proves to be a bit tougher than expected, considering a giant creature is taking down buildings all over the place and everyone else has the same idea.

Then it happens, Rob gets a call from a longtime friend whose feelings are growing past the friendship, Beth. She is in trouble, trapped in her apartment. Upon hearing this Rob heads off to the rescue. Joining him are Jason, Lilly, Marlena, and Hud with the ever-present camera.

I could continue describing the plot, but to what end? This is a movie that has to be experienced, not told. It will certainly spark considerable discussion (after you get past the love/hate portion of your thoughts) afterward.

In my mind Cloverfield gets nearly everything right. Just like any movie there is always going to be room for improvement, but this gets pretty close. Frankly, I am surprised that it worked as well as it does and how completely effective it is. The nitpicks come into play when you think about everything that is filmed and how many times you would tempted to either turn the camera off or drop it completely in favor of running, not to mention having enough battery life to get as much as it does. It is a conceit I am willing to give a little leeway on, and is probably my biggest complaint with the film.

The acting and writing were both excellent. No, they are not award worthy performances, but they felt genuine. I was very happy with how well the characters were defined and how they played out. We were brought into their lives and got to know a little bit about them, enough to care about what happens to them. This is the kind of film where the characters could just as easily been monster fodder. Credit to screenwriter (and television veteran of Buffy, Angel, and Lost fame) Drew Goddard. He gives you just enough to be drawn in without giving so much as to seem fake.

The movie offers up no answers, only hidden clues (like the one hidden in the final scene) as to what is going on. Throughout we are given little snippets and see little pieces that could point one way or another, but this movie is not about the answers, it is about the people running with the camera. In this sense it is more disaster movie than monster movie.

The creature itself delivers the monstrous goods, as does the surprise that it is carrying around with it. The design is unique to stand apart from the inevitable Godzilla comparisons. It moves through the city destroying all in its path as the military tries its best to put it down.

Cloverfield reportedly had a budget in the vicinity of $25 million. Every cent is on the screen. The special effects were fantastic and completely convincing. I believed I was in New York with a rampaging monster and collapsing buildings all around.

I even liked the handheld camera. Yes, it was the shakiest film I have ever scene in my life, but it worked. It is an idea that paid of for director Matt Reeves. I am sure it cannot be easy to choose this and stick to it, there has to be some desire to show different angles or edit in a different shot.

What more can I say? From the opening moments I was drawn into the film and it never let me go. The camera shook, bobbed, and weaved for nearly ninety minutes, and I wanted more. I wanted to go running down those debris covered streets looking for the monster while having an equally strong desire to find cover and not leave, ever.

Something additional to note is the viral marketing for the film. There are a multitude of sites that are all tied into the film. Each offers a different piece of the puzzle, delivering clues as to what is really going on while never outright saying anything. No, I am not going to give you the sites, I am sure a quick search will turn them up for you. Perhaps some of this information will turn up in an inevitable sequel?

Bottomline. I was terrified, I was amused, but best of all I was right there experiencing it in the moment. This is the monster movie to finally erase the bad memory of the American Godzilla. Take your Dramamine, sit back from the screen and enjoy. Just remember to sit through the credits, mainly to hear the fantastic musical piece from Michael Giacchino entitled "Roar" but also to catch the audio cookie at the end (then go online to find what it was supposed to be).

Highly Recommended.


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