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Cloverfield (A Movie Review)

Updated: Oct 27, 2022




Starring Michael Stahl-David, Odette Ustman, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Lizzy Caplan, Mike Vogel, Anjul Nigam, Margot Farley, Theo Rossi, Brian Klugman, Kelvin Yu, Liza Lapira, Ben Feldman and Elena Caruso.

Screenplay by Drew Goddard.

Directed by Matt Reeves.

Distributed by Paramount Pictures.  85 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

You know that old joke about a screenwriter pitching a movie to the suits by trotting out two completely incompatible movies as touchstones?  Well, I can picture the pitch meeting for Cloverfield, where the writer proudly dropped his coup de grace on the money guys:

“It’s Godzilla meets The Blair Witch Project!”

In fact, Cloverfield is like nothing so much as a Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow) film with shaky, hand-held cameras and without the Emmerich.

Instead, it is produced (but not written or directed by) hip auteur JJ Abrams (Lost, Alias, Mission: Impossible 3, the upcoming Star Trek movie).  Abrams and his people have been doing a terrific job of using new media to get a buzz about the film while keeping it rather mysterious.  Even the title of the movie is willfully inscrutable – what does Cloverfield have to do with anything?  (Turns out it is a reference to an old address of one of the filmmakers and has nothing to do with the film.)

The coming attractions trailer just showed a bunch of Manhattan 20-somethings videotaping a big going away party when SOMETHING HAPPENS.  We’re not sure exactly what it is, but there is fire and dust and New York seems to be under siege.  There was also a clever preview website to whet the appetites of the fanboys.

Of course, savvy internet promotion does not guarantee a good film or even a hit.  To prove that fact, I give you four words: Snakes on a Plane.

However, as a blockbuster wannabe, Cloverfield mostly delivers the goods.  If you get technical it’s just a new coat of paint on a decades old storyline, but it has a lot of style even if it doesn’t have that incredibly much substance.

The characters are rather one-dimensional – a problem that I think is more due to the movie’s format than the script – that it was all a home video of a going-away party which happens to capture the destruction of a city.

People being filmed on home video, no matter how casual they may try to be about it, are always going to be performing a bit and not letting you too far in.  There are some hints of attitudes, crushes and pathos – but eventually we are looking at people who are acting like people who are acting for the camera.  The young, completely unknown cast does its best with their under-written characters, but mostly they go from drunken revelers to horrified witnesses of the mayhem.

So the very thing that the filmmakers leaned on to give the film a bit of immediacy has the unfortunate side effect of also distancing us a bit from the characters.  Since we only know these people rather superficially, it is harder to work up as much sympathy for them when a giant monster attacks New York.

Yes, now that the big secret is out it is just a hair anticlimactic.  The mysterious force wreaking hazard was a giant lizard creature – the type that have been stomping on cities in Japanese horror films for decades, in everything from Godzilla to Ultra Man.

Oh sure, this one has some interesting quirks – particularly the deer-sized flea-like creatures which drop off the monster to do their own particular form of mayhem.  In the meantime, people panic and die while the military tries futilely to destroy the creatures.

The early scenes of Lower Manhattan buildings crumbling to the ground still are just a little too reminiscent of the World Trade Center disaster, but once you settle in to the story that uneasy feeling mostly leaves you.  Also, on a side note, the destroyed New York sets in this film, while very well done, are not quite as realistic and impressive as the ones in the other recent Manhattan apocalypse film I Am Legend.

The makers of Cloverfield have learned their monster movie rules though.  Particularly smart on their part was limiting our exposure to the monster.  Through much of the film we only see him in brief flashes – a leg here, a tail there, a brief flash of the face.  These hints are much scarier than in the end when we actually see the monster for extended periods of time, where the creature looks a bit CGI.  Also, like in the old-school monster movies, the monster seems to grow or shrink to fit the area it happens to be destroying.

However, even with its flaws, Cloverfield has a good time playing with B-movie conventions and makes for a rather engrossing thriller.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2008  All rights reserved.  Posted: April 16, 2008.

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