Friday, January 18, 2008

"Cloverfield" -- * * * 1/2

After months of viral marketing, beginning with an attention-grabbing teaser before "Transformers" last summer, the J.J. Abrams-produced monster movie "Cloverfield" finally hits theaters today, and while it's not perfect, I've got to say, it's significantly better and weightier than the hype would indicate. In the dog-days of January, known for dumping inferior product, "Cloverfield" emerges as a new kind of event movie, one that dares to do something adventurous and different rather than the same old shit, and that's refreshing as hell. It challenged my ideas of what genre filmmaking could do, and also satisfied my most basic impulses/desires as a moviegoer. The film may or may not be what you're thinking it is-- it certainly defied all my expectations-- but it's an altogether remarkable experience.

As you're probably aware, "Cloverfield" (directed by Matt Reeves) is purported to be "found footage," a la "The Blair Witch Project," shot all through the perspective of a handheld camera. Though this is obviously a monster movie, this, sort of like "Titanic," is much more of a human story with the monster as a backdrop, and the opening 20 minutes are our exposition. Rob (Michael Stahl-David) is going away to Japan for his job, and a surprise party is being thrown for him by his brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and best friend Hud (T.J. Miller), who's the one holding the camera for the bulk of the movie. Midway through the party, word filters out that Rob and Beth, who've crushed on each other for a long time, finally hooked up a few weeks ago, but now are not on such good terms after Rob got weird after the one night together. Beth shows up at the party with some other guy, Rob gets in a fight with Beth, she storms out. Rob's in the midst of reeling from this on the terrace, when out of nowhere, there's a decibel-shattering roar, a rumbling from the ground up, and massive power outages around New York.

Something is attacking the city, and nobody knows what it is. Everyone flees the party, and Rob, Jason, Hud and a few others race through the city struggling to figure out what's going on. Soon enough, it becomes apparent there's some sort of building-eclipsing creature rampaging through the city destroying everything in it's path. As the city's going to fuck, Rob gets a crying voicemail from Beth; she's trapped somewhere, and can't move. The bulk of the film is chiefly about the group's search to find Beth in an increasingly dangerous environment. Oh, and lest I neglect to mention, this all is being taped by Hud over an older tape that Rob shot of him and Beth together the morning after they finally hooked up. Each time Hud has to stop or rewind the tape for some reason, we see part of the tape Rob and Beth shot together, which provide nice moments of relief from the intensity, and set up a very effective moment later on.

Opening with an unsettlingly long period of black screen and silence, before cutting to color bars and announcing this is government-found footage (discovered at the "area formerly known as Central Park"), "Cloverfield" cleverly utilizes the handheld camera conceit for its maximum potential, turning what could have been an ostentatious gimmick into an integral storytelling device. Our first images in the movie are of Rob and Beth's tape, shot on April 27, 6:42a.m., and then cuts to the new camera wielder, Hud, at Rob's party on May 22. Like anyone who's ever seen video a friend shot with a handheld knows, there are occasionally jarring jump cuts, sometimes mid-sentence or mid-word. While the handheld approach serves a narrative purpose, it mostly functions to provide a remarkably intense, visceral, you-are-there feeling that infuses the film with a sense of realism (no matter how unrealistic the content) at every turn.

While that concept does define the film the most, even without it, the direction and script (by Drew Goddard) here is of a much, much higher quality than something like "Godzilla." Made on a relatively low budget of $25 million and running a fast and furious 74 minutes (sans credits), the immediacy and propulsion of the narrative on display makes the film feel like it ended just as soon as it began. There's not an opportunity for boredom, and the directorial approach is all the more impressive considering how different our end result might have been had this been a big-budget summer blockbuster. It's important to note that this is the story of the people on the ground running away from the destruction and the monster, not the people fighting or attempting to destroy it. While the January release date still doesn't quite make sense to me, I think there's a very specific reason "Cloverfield" wasn't released in the summer: this is not a "fun" movie. It's thrilling, yes, it's exciting, yes, there's special effects, yes. However, this is a thoroughly and consistently bleak, intense experience that plays things very real and is significantly more disconcerting than "enjoyable."

There are numerous moments throughout the film where I was legitimately frightened, and they weren't due to "boo" scares or conventional horror movie moments, but rather, due to us being thrust right in the middle of situations that we wouldn't expect to be so close to/in. The initial roar/rumble scene at the 20-minute mark is genuinely unnerving, and there's a bridge destruction sequence early on that is viscerally terrifying. But possibly the best sequence in the film is one hinted at in the trailers, where our group is forced to walk through the tunnels from one subway station to another in pitch black, relying only on the sounds around them and the eventual use of night vision. There are a handful of sequences built on silence except for footsteps and sounds of foreign things moving, and every one hits their mark.

However, for a film so intent on providing an intense experience, I was caught off-guard by how well the emotional.human elements work. The idea of going back for someone, particularly a loved one, during a horrible, ongoing tragic event is a relatable one, and it completely worked for me here, never feeling manipulative, and avoiding cheap sentiment throughout. Though I initially thought I might have trouble identifying with all these distressed beautiful people, it didn't take long, and Reeves goes for some real, heartbreaking moments I personally wasn't prepared for.

Though I was informed after watching the movie that it was actually filmed on a soundstage in Los Angeles, the film genuinely fooled me with its New York setting. From an early-on view out the window at Columbus Circle to our central character hiding out at Spring Street's subway platform to running through the torn-up streets of the Lower East Side, this matte and green screen work is terrific. And don't believe for a second that Reeves/Abrams setting the film in New York is a coincidence, or simply a way to pay homage to monster films of yore. "Cloverfield" intentionally and explicitly is meant to recall the events of 9/11, and the echoes are positively chilling. There aren't just little hints, there are blatant, specific references that are going to hit certain people hard (starting off with a soft mention in a background of chatter of the phrase 'terrorist attack'). An early image of a building collapsing, resulting in dust flying towards the camera, enveloping over people as our protagonists take refuge in a ground-level store, seems to be an actual re-creation of 9/11 footage I recall seeing. From the panic/fervor in the streets of New York to people covered in dust hacking up blood to residents seeking escape over the Brooklyn Bridge to cell phones not working, the similarities are unmistakable and extremely effective.

Anyone who's expressed interest in the film seems to be asking the same question: what about the monster? Yes, you see him and you see him clearly. The creature is only seen in its well-lit entirety once; the rest of the time we just see it in quick glimpses and fragments. Needless to say, the latter moments are much more effective than the former. The policy of 'the less you see, the scarier it is' certainly holds true here, and I almost wish Reeves had the balls/restraint to not show us everything. Still that doesn't undercut how teasingly scary the monster is for the majority of the film, including when we're not seeing it at all. The fleeting moments when we do are the most effective, whether we're just seeing its tail, or its head turning and roaring at the camera. Best of all, there is literally no attempt to explain the origins or background of the creature, and why should there be? It's just not what the movie's about.

While I was mostly extremely satisfied by "Cloverfield," it has a notable flaw/distraction in our cameraman, Hud. Acting as our sort-of-narrator throughout, Hud often serves as comic relief in a film that didn't need any. While he thankfully isn't talking non-stop, he mostly serves to provide commentary such as "This shit is crazy, dude." It's nothing particularly bad or irritating, but he's the one thing that detracts from the realism on display. Also, while the first hour is thoroughly impressive and inventive and gripping, in the third act, the film starts to lose some momentum and credibility. I was still totally into the proceedings, but as opposed to the perpetually-raised tension throughout, I started to get relaxed, and some of the turns in the last 15 minutes or so (at least, before the excellent, powerful ending) sort of broke the 'what you're watching is reality' conceit and felt more akin to a silly monster movie.

I don't know if the film will hold up on repeat viewings, or it's just an incredibly exciting, first-time experience hinging on the element of surprise and appreciation of the new, but from where I sit right now, it's really something special. More than fulfilling the promise of its innovative marketing campaign, and actually showing a love for the medium, it grabs us by the throat and takes us along for the sort of ride that we all-too-often forget movies can deliver. "Cloverfield" may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's hard to argue that it's not thrilling moviemaking.


OpenID MilkForWhales said...

This is exactly the kind of "monster" movie I've been waiting for. Good review, can't wait to see this on monday.

6:13 PM  
Blogger Sanford Dickert said...

Rob - just gotta say - one hella of a great review. Thanks for recapping it so well.

9:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't get a chance to catch the 12am showing of "Cloverfield" last night, but am anticipating to see it tonight. I've been looking up perhaps anything and everything on the film since I've heard of it .. I definitely cannot wait.

Found an interesting article/clip montage on Maxim on "Cloverfield" and other movies that use the symbolic Statue of Liberty as a symbol of destruction of America.. and if you think about it, it really is pretty interesting.

4:19 PM  
Blogger Steve Schwartz said...

great review for such a fascinating movie!

i think what i liked most about it was that it bottled that panic and mob like survival mentality that is showcased so well in the first 20 minutes or so of zombie/disaster flicks. I think people who haven't enjoyed this movie have been looking at it and expecting the standard action movie and getting something just different.

i think this was the first time that i've sat in a movie. and half way through it, everyone's running to get away from something and i had the actual thought, "my god, we're not going to make it!" it's a good sign for a movie, me thinks.

11:23 AM  

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