by David Cornelius
It seems impossible to properly discuss “Cloverfield” without first mentioning the hype. Internet-savvy readers are likely aware of the buzz that’s blanketed this film since last July, when a brilliant teaser trailer played before sneak previews of “Transformers” (and was quickly leaked in bootleg form across the net). The trailer contained no title, just a release date and a hint of giant-monster mayhem. A small army of the curious took it as a challenge, and over the past six months, they banded together in multiple web forums, attempting to decode every possible clue, almost-clue, and non-clue, making any wild speculation seem possible. Along the way, they unearthed a bevy of enigmatic websites, some real, some phony, in a desperate attempt to crack whatever mysteries producer J.J. Abrams was hiding from us.Even the title was (apparently) meant to be merely a placeholder, a fakey working title hiding the real truth. (“Cloverfield” was reportedly chosen as it was the street where Abram’s production offices were based at the time.) For whatever reason, Abrams and cohorts - director Matt Reeves and screenwriter Drew Goddard, both veterans of Abrams’ TV projects - gave up and decided to simply call the movie “Cloverfield,” a choice one can assume was made because: a) that was the title all along, and Abrams & Co. were simply jerking our collective chain; b) the title had been used so much in certain fan circles that to call it anything else at this point would be to cause confusion; and/or c) its sheer indefinability makes it a perfect match for this movie, which leaves so much unexplained, in all the right ways.
"Raises the bar for monster movies to Statue of Liberty heights."
Which brings us to the movie itself. They say internet hype can kill a movie before it opens, but not here, not with “Cloverfield.” This is a movie so brilliantly conceived and so perfectly executed that it exists removed from any preconceived notions. It is not its buzz.
If you’ve seen the teaser trailer (or its more conventional follow-up, or the various TV ads), you know everything you should before going in: on an average night in Manhattan, a group of friends are throwing a surprise party for their pal Rob (Michael-Stahl David), who is leaving the next day for a cushy new job in Japan. The party is interrupted by what appears to be an earthquake, and then a wild explosion, and then, as the panic increases, the head of the Statue of Liberty comes flying down the street. A monster has found New York, and it is pissed.
There’s not much else you need to know, although I suppose I can add that the bulk of the plot eventually involves some friends trying to find another friend, evacuation orders be damned. Which seems simplistic, but “Cloverfield” is not so much about complexity as it is the total, unbridled terror of the moment.
The entire film plays out as we watch the action as captured on a video camera; the conceit is that this videotape was found in Central Park, and we’re watching government-owned evidence of the attack. Comparisons to “The Blair Witch Project” are inevitable, although “Cloverfield” relies less on gimmickry and more on a sense of immediacy - by placing the camera in the “eyes” of its characters, it brings the audience into the story to chilling effect. This is a second-person adventure that has only been attempted a few times before in cinema history, and never as successfully.
(A side note: Unlike the queasiness that was induced by jittery, cheap look of “Blair Witch,” “Cloverfield” has been marvelously shot and cut by experts - cinematographer Michael Bonvillain and editor Kevin Stitt - such that its “shaky-cam” look never overwhelms the viewer. In fact, this is a beautifully crafted work, with great skill hiding behind apparent cinematic trickery.)
By putting the audience right in the moment, the filmmakers refuse us the right of complete comprehension. We are as dazed as the characters themselves. There are no God’s-eye views of the monster attacking the city, no cutaways to military officials offering exposition. Everything we learn about this horrible night is gleaned from half-overheard conversations yelled over other half-overheard conversations, or by quick glimpses caught in the fever of escape, or by news reports spied during the rare moment when we can pause to catch our breath.
This will allow for terrific analysis when the film arrives on DVD, where we can pause and zoom and rewind until every inch of every frame can be deciphered with the sort of precise study that could make a Rabbi blush. Yet “Cloverfield” ultimately demands to be seen on the big screen, where the movie is out of the audience’s control. Let the story’s obscure wonders wash over you, and thrill you, and shake you to the bone.
(Again, a side note to praise the crew. That the movie appears to be able to stand up to such inevitable scrutiny is a salute to the filmmakers, who have ensured the story holds up under the smallest details, and to the post-production crew, who make the effects work look seamless, even when such things are only being glimpsed in the corners of the frame.)
The handheld-camera device also plays as a cunning commentary on the age of YouTube. Watching this movie’s first-hand account of such complete devastation makes 9/11 seem like an eternity ago. Back then - if such a phrase as “back then” can be applied to something a mere six years prior - we got our images of the towers falling and the debris rushing through the streets via a few select news camera. In 2005, reports of the London subway bombings featured photos taken on victims’ cell phones. A slim two and a half years later, we’re squarely in the middle of the Web 2.0 era, in which everyone with any video-capturing device is ready to record their lives for others to see, anytime, anywhere.
“Cloverfield” implies that in today’s web-centric, reality show-driven world, there are people - everyday people, not just video hounds and wannabe filmmakers - who would indeed refuse to drop the camera, even if they were running for their lives. When the character of Hud (T.J. Miller) is granted with the task of videotaping friends’ messages at the party, his one-note explanation to all - “I’m documenting!” - quickly seeps into his core, and even during the night’s worst moments, he keeps the cameras rolling, using the same two-word excuse. To him, capturing the madness of the evening onto video is a must, even if he doesn’t quite understand why.
Hud is also the film’s comic relief, babbling on about the silliest of things (if he stops talking, he suggests, he’ll go nuts). The filmmakers never lose sight of the element of character throughout their experiment, and even when the script dips into formula for its character types, it still maintains a sense of honesty. Although there are adventure to be had, our leads (also among them Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, and Odette Yustman) are never heroes; they are regular folks stuck in a situation larer than they can comprehend. They do heroic things, but they also pause to cry and break down and, in one crushing scene, talk to a worried mom via cell phone.
This brief sequence, caught in a spare moment of down time in an abandoned subway station, is central to “Cloverfield.” Just as the lengthy party sequence and a clever bit of flashback (a previous day’s events on the tape, not recorded over) establish character and allow the audience to connect with the players in a disaster-movie-setup kind of way, this tiny scene, heartbreaking, devastating, reminds us that even though this band of twentysomethings is busy hiding from a giant monster and evading military crossfire, they’re just real people with real emotions and real families. By making them more than mere pawns to the plot, the filmmakers intensify our relationship with them, and their story. Even if you brush away the 9/11 analogies and YouTube metaphor, you’re still left with a crushing horror tale that makes us care for the people we’re watching, which in turn sweeps us up and carries us along for the ride.
A final thought. There are only a few glimpses of the monster, and I will play along and refuse to reveal its identity here. But I will announce that the creature is a breathtaking work of the imagination, one that refuses to assume that all giant monsters attacking big cities must look like Godzilla. The effects designers have obviously remembered that our own planet contains thousands of species that are beyond alien to us, deep sea lurkers that may just as well be from distant planet. The beast’s origins are never revealed - alien? sea creature? government experiment gone awry? - but then, they never matter. What we’re given is a nameless thing, and to invent it, the filmmakers have obviously challenged themselves to go beyond the obvious and the expected, and to stretch their imaginations in glorious ways.Indeed, if we were allowed the moment to slow down and marvel at the beast, we might just find it a thing of beauty. But then the screams kick in, and the explosions, and the running for our very lives, and no amount of alien beauty can trump complete human terror.
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originally posted: 01/18/08 00:00:00