Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Michael Stahl-David, T.J. Miller, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman
Running Time: 84 min.
***1/2 (out of ****)
It's debatable whether it actually helps to know as little as possible going into Cloverfield. Shrouded in secrecy for months leading up to its release and at the center of a huge viral marketing campaign, the studio went to great lengths to make sure very little was leaked about the film. Just about all we knew was that it was set in New York City and it involved some kind of monster attack. Details about what this monster was, where it came from and especially how it looked were guarded closest of all.
On one hand this is great because it creates an element of shock and surprise when you see the film. On the other hand it isn't because when anything is hyped this endlessly and we essentially know nothing, you run risk of audiences being disappointed with whatever they see. Just ask George Lucas (although that's a little different because his Star Wars prequels did truly suck). Hype or not, internet or not, Cloverfield doesn't suck at all. In fact, it's very good and a true original as far as monster movies go.
After finally seeing it I've determined the most ridiculous complaint leveled against the film is that the shaky hand-held camera is annoying and nauseating Without it we'd really have no movie and nothing would distinguish it from any other run-of-the-mill monster movie other than the fact that the acting is a little stronger. But also, had the film not been shot this way, we probably wouldn't be hearing criticisms that the film evokes "9/11 imagery." It's okay to have New York City under attack, just please don't make it look real! This does evoke imagery of that day, but it's unavoidable. I'm convinced any disaster movie set in New York would, but this just LOOKS worse because of how it's shot.
We already, for better or worse, have gotten United 93 and World Trade Center so to complain about this now seems a little silly. I hesitate calling this movie frighteningly realistic because it deals with a premise so far out there, but that's just what it is. The people seem real. The situation seems real. And that's why it's scary. The way it's filmed and directed lets you feel like you're an eyewitness to something horrifying and enables you to envision yourself in these characters' places, maybe wondering how you'd handle it.
Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) has just taken a new job in Japan and his brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) are throwing him a surprise going away party. Rob's longtime friend Beth (Odette Yustman), who he slept with weeks earlier shows up with a date making for an extremely awkward situation. His best friend Hud (T.J.Miller) is given a camera and the task of recording everyone's final goodbyes to Rob. He very reluctantly agrees, unaware that he'll be recording much more than just a couple of well wishing testimonials that night. He's our eyes for most of the rest of the film as we see what's unfolding onscreen through his hand-held camera. He mostly uses this opportunity to goof off and flirt with his crush Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), who barely knows he exists. Rob and Beth argue about their "relationship" and she storms out of the party.
It's here where I wished I knew even less about the film than I did going in because what happens next is truly jarring, especially in the context of the friendly home video we've been watching thus far. Something attacks the city and that's just about all I can reveal plot-wise without spoiling anything. It's big, it's nasty and no one knows where it came from.. Rob's caught in a life and death situation with Jason, Lily, Hud and Marlena and it clear all he wants to do is get to mid-town to find Beth.
It's almost impossible not to compare Cloverfield with The Blair Witch Project, one of its obvious inspirations. Where the two movies diverge, however, is in their use of the hand held camera as a storytelling device. In Blair Witch it was essentially a gimmick used to convince us what we're watching was real. This does that, but takes it a few steps further. It cleverly uses the camera to incorporate flashbacks of Rob and Beth together, as the night's events are accidentally recorded over a day they spent together the previous month. As a result, the footage shows up intermittently during the film giving us a better sense of who they are. Hud, who's behind the camera also has a distinctive personality, which somehow finds a way to shine through in the way the film is shot, which in turn influences how we see events.
I can't recall once during the film where I stopped and thought to myself how creative the director was or how clever the dialogue. It really seemed as if no one was directing this and it had no script, which is probably the highest compliment of all. Despite his name being all over the project in the media, Lost creator J.J. Abrams is actually the producer while Matt Reeves, whose previous credits include Under Siege 2: Dark Territory and The Pallbearer, is behind the camera. He invisibly directs this with near-perfection.
Of course this has a draw back too in that an 84 minute home movie that doesn't play as if it's been edited at all will have the tendency to drag its feet at times no matter how suspenseful. If this went on any longer than an hour and a half it probably would have been too much but at this length it's just right. Reeves is also able to salvage a PG-13 rating believably because if something's too gory or gruesome to show he doesn't have to. Hud can just miss it. He's not supposed to be a professional cameraman. If there's a conversation that we're not supposed to see or hear, then we won't. Reeves can do all of this believably without us ever feeling as if we're being manipulated.
This especially comes in handy with the monster since he can take a Jaws-like approach to its unveiling, giving it to us visually in small doses throughout the film, only increasing the terror and suspense. The special effects and CGI don't become as huge an issue or as noticeable as they would be in your typical blockbuster because this sloppy style of filming distracts you from it. The execution of this technique is very, very clever and not something we've seen in a film of this magnitude before. While the ending feels slightly anti-climactic, I'm hard–pressed to think of a more satisfying one. A couple of alternate finishes are included on the disc, none of which vary much at all from the theatrical one.
It can't be overstated how wise a decision it was on Abrams' and Reeves' parts to cast, other than maybe Vogel, virtual unknowns in these roles. The performances are fine all-around, with the strongest coming from Caplan. Had what unfolds at the 20-minute mark not happened I still would have wanted to spend the entire running length of the film with these characters even if they were just sitting around the apartment talking.
Unlike Blair Witch, which was concerned primarily with using the camera to unspool its mythology, this film lets us get to know the characters and eventually come to care what happens to them. That they're fresh faces, not big stars helps speed along the process even if some of the actors resemble more famous names. Caplan and Yustman could pass as doubles for Zooey Deschanel and Jennifer Connelly, respectively. Both are also naturals and the camera loves them…even if it's a shaky hand held one. Michael Stahl-David is likable and believable as the lead. Because of the naturalness of all the performances you have to believe a lot of Drew Goddard's script was improvised on the spot. The actors provide a spontaneous feeling we probably wouldn't have gotten from more established actors, who out of habit would have turned in more mannered work. This proves that sometimes it doesn't pay to necessarily go for the most talented performers, but instead those best suited for the specific material.
It's tough to determine whether Cloverfield is a movie that plays better on the big screen or small. It feels like a giant event movie that needs to be experienced in a loud theater to fully absorb its scope, yet the direct immediacy of its technique lends itself to satisfying home viewing as well. Having not seen it on the big screen though, I couldn't accurately tell you how much is lost in translation, if anything. It's also hard to determine how well this will stand up on repeated viewings since The Blair Witch Project, hailed as masterful upon its release, now plays like nothing more than a clever stunt. There seems to be more going on here, but it'll take some time to tell just how much. If nothing else, its eventful release and box office success came as a huge relief during the notorious moviegoing doldrums of January. It's no surprise that a sequel is being planned, as unnecessary as it is.
Some may feel uncomfortable with the way the film brings to the surface 9/11 fears, anxiety and memories. Collapsing New York City skyscrapers and a decapitated Statue of Liberty can only bring one thing to mind and Abrams had to know that. He probably also knows that day has already been seeping into Hollywood whether we like it or not. But what is film, anyway, but our lives adapted on the big screen for display? If they ever stopped being that, I'd want to quit watching them. It's time to admit that Cloverfield has bothers so many people because it so effectively taps into that powerless, scary feeling of not knowing what's going on.