Cloverfield (2008) / Sci Fi-Horror

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and disturbing images
Running Time: 85 min.

Cast: Michael Stahl-David, Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman
Director: Matt Reeves

Screenplay: Drew Goddard
Review published January 27, 2008

Cloverfield's premise isn't dissimilar to The Blair Witch Project in that it is a mock home video taken of a terrifying event shot by one of the eyewitnesses.  The opening written blurbs indicate that the tape is somehow now being used by the government to as a document of events found in the area which used to be Central Park.  In this case, the setting is Manhattan, with the camcorder used to capture the goodbyes and well wishes of the friends and acquaintances attending the going-away party of Rob (Stahl-David, "The Black Donnellys"), who is set to go away to Japan, leaving his group of 20-something friends behind.  The close-knit circle of friends and family have their petty squabbles before all hell breaks loose in the city environs outside.  Power fluctuations, massive explosions, and mass hysteria soon erupt, causing the group to decide to try to get off of the island of Manhattan before they are caught up in the crossfire of the military and whatever major force they happen to be attacking, all the while being documented on camcorder for the purpose that it could be important.

The film, produced by J.J. Abrams (MI3, "Lost") plays out a bit like a Godzilla flick if seen from the view of the helpless victims whose city is being destroyed and trampled by a massive creature they know not the origins or intent of.  To analyze the film as anything more than a visceral experience is probably overdoing the basic focus of the film, which is to be intense, in-your-face and realistically terrifying.  From my perspective it's not really all that scary, but it is effective in its use of camcorder video enhanced with very realistic CGI effects, similar to the Toyota Tacoma commercials which feature the likes of the Loch Ness monster or a meteor captured by a camcorder with special effects added in.  It's not the sort of thing I would consider worthy of making a full-length film out of (certainly a short would have sufficed), but I'll give the filmmakers credit for coming up with a decidedly different angle to the traditional monster movie, with sufficient ingenuity to keep me entertained enough to recommend the film as a unique cinematic experience.

In this post-9/11 world, it's hard not to be reminded of the horrific (and real) footage taken by bystanders of the World Trade Center when impacted by the airplanes, as well as the destruction and hysteria caused when the buildings collapsed.  In this fashion, Cloverfield taps into an already existing fear of mass destruction of our civilization through major carnage that we know can happen with a force of considerable size.  Rather than terrorists, the film suggests some sort of creature of unknown origin destroying buildings, streets and aircraft, but the footage is not much different than actual disasters we see continuously on the news and on video-sharing sites like YouTube.  It's an evolutionary film that captures the feeling felt by millions when seeing such unfiltered footage that gives us an immediate impact of a visceral nature when viewing them on our computer or television. 

If there were one thing I could have done without, it would be the obviously manufactured soap opera elements of the five basic partygoers we are forced to follow along the way.  One can't really call what goes on character development, as these actors look too much like the typical slasher-flick fodder, petulantly annoying and consummately vapid, we're used to seeing get slaughtered time and again in horror movies.  With a concept this big, the concept sells itself, so why think so small?  I'm also a bit intrigued that the power and cable throughout the city never really goes out.  Where I live, strong winds cause tree limbs to knock out power lines and we get power outages just about anytime a major storm comes through.  For a film that is supposed to give us a fairly realistic depiction of what things would seem like if confronted by an attack by giant monster(s), the tendency for contrivance and artifice still runs a little too strong for my taste to declare an indisputable success all around.

From an objective standpoint, Cloverfield is a very interesting idea for a b-movie that succeeds in giving us special effects that blend well with high-definition camcorder footage.  On that level, it's an evolutionary horror/sci-fi film that borrows elements from a variety of sources to give us a hybrid that isn't quite like anything else out there in a time when horror is dreadfully over-recycled and sci-fi almost wholly relegated to television series and z-grade STV.  I can't claim to have really gotten into the movie more than 30% of the time, but even if I felt emotionally detached to the characters and their plights, from a film buff's perspective, I found the techniques and ideas utilized to be interesting above and beyond the bad drama and schlocky cheese factor.  A sequel has already been under discussion, and considering its sizable box office intake, it seems inevitable.  Despite my enjoyment, I'm not particularly enthused.  I saw it once and liked it enough, but not enough to ever want to see it a second time, and unless another unique angle were employed, certainly not enough to want to see another just like it anytime in the near future. 

Qwipster's rating:

2008 Vince Leo