I have been waiting for something to scare me for a long time. Until I saw Cloverfield, the last movie that I expected to frighten me was Hostel. It kind of failed. I actually thought of it more as a really dark comedy. With all the American cut n’ paste movies taken from Japan and all the Saw films, I have not really been sucked in by most of these viewing experiences.
There was a bit of good buzz on Cloverfield before it opened. I was all over Rotten Tomatoes because I needed a good reason to go through a movie theater experience. For me to go to a theater these days, the movie has to be damn good. So I took a chance and I saw Cloverfield. I am so glad I took a chance and did not wait for DVD.
Cloverfield takes place roughly within a day, and it is shot from the perspective of a camcorder. Are you still with me? I don’t know if you are, because this is – wait for the obvious reference – Blair Witch-style shaky cam. Director Matt Reeves’ idea was to put the audience inside this film as a character. It’s sort of like a first person shooter video game, like Half-life. You don’t get to see anything unless the guy holding the camera decides to focus on it.
Our cameraman for this experience is named Hudson (T.J. Miller), or Hud for short. Hud is a total meathead. When you first meet Hud, he says something stupid, and until the end of the movie, he’s either saying something stupid, inappropriate, funny, or a mix of all three. He’s your comic relief, and he gets off some good lines. I guess they pick this dumb-but-loveable guy as the cameraman because he doesn’t entirely know when his behavior is appropriate. You need that type of person to be shooting some of the horrific happenings of this night, because anyone else might have abandoned the camera after the initial explosions.
The rest of the survivors include Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), the apple of Hud’s eye; Lily (Jessica Lucas) and Jason (Mike Vogel), a couple who planned the surprise party; and finally Rob Hawkins (Michael David-Stahl), who is leaving New York for Japan to be a vice president at an unnamed company.
Rob is what you would consider the lead. Where these survivors go and why they make the decisions they make all hinge on his emotions. Rob is an idiot. Any other person put in this situation would take the fastest exit away from a gigundo monster. Instead everyone takes a frightening trek into the explosions, debris from demolished structures and a monster that is apparently invulnerable, at least from being hit by rocket fire, tank fire or bullets.
Rob and crew try to find the best possible way to travel to Columbus Circle. While they run for their lives, there are moments where we are privy to little details about this monster attack, as well as the status of the other important characters. One character whose well-being is in doubt is Beth (Odette Yustman), a girl Rob has feelings for.
Cloverfield doesn’t give you as much information as the average monster movie or horror flick would offer up to you. The best look you get of the monster is from news reports filmed off of television screens. Only toward the end do you get to see the monster up close, in terrifying detail. The monster is some mix of a tadpole, a fish, an octopus and the creature from The Host. It’s an amalgamation of creatures that looks like it evolved just for the purpose of getting on land and starting trouble. The monster even has offspring, but they are not nearly as cute as Godzooky. They are nasty little buggers, and when they encounter humans, they are completely relentless.
The creatures are obviously CGI, but you see so little of them that when they are on screen, they are believable enough; and since you have a first person camera capturing it, the effect of monsters jumping at the camera is menacing. The big momma monster is scary as well, because just one tentacle can tear tons of brick down on people’s heads. Its feet can flatten cars, and skyscrapers are like Lego blocks to it.
The damage these creatures do is what is truly terrifying. In one scene, the survivors duck into a convenience store. The monster tears down a certain monument, and the dust comes blasting by. If you see Cloverfield you might feel like this was inspired in part to the events of 9/11. A major horrific attack in Manhattan? Cloverfield can’t escape being compared to the real life terrorist attack. I’ll never know what my reaction to this movie would be if 9/11 was not a reality, but I’m sure that the thought of being caught in an unexpected attack would be frightening to me regardless.
I think what makes Cloverfield somewhat refreshing and unique amongst movies of its kind is that it straddles the line between reality and outlandish fantasy so well that it makes you feel for these characters who are stuck and have no clue how they are going to survive, or if they can survive. The problem with most CGI creature movies is that when you get shot after shot and angle after angle of a computer generated fallacy, your fright often subsides. I don’t want to see a clear shot of a monster doing back-flips and running quickly towards its prey. For most monster movies, the creature isn’t all that believable. Computer technology, animatronics, or puppetry doesn’t always hit the spot in the scare department.
Like I said at the start, I read quite a few reviews of Cloverfield before I went to see it. Some reviewers said that they needed to see more. Why isn’t a taste better than a full-blown meal? I have scores of questions that I’d like to ask writer Drew Goddard and crew, but I also have my own mind to work with. Since there is only the taped footage that stands as evidence of the Cloverfield event, you are left to wonder what happened after the attack. Who survived? What happened to the other party-goers who didn’t hang out with Rob, Jason, Lily, Hud, and Marlena? What happens to Mahnattan? Is it inhabitable again? Can the military prepare itself for another attack like this? Maybe a sequel will be made, one that is shot from multiple angles, not from a first-person POV. I, for one, don’t need one.
There are certain movies that leave you dangling off a cliff, that could continue their story for three or four sequels' worth. I think that Cloverfield is amusing, alarming, and terrifying enough to keep me satisfied. The actors put forward good performances, the monster is suitably scary, and the story takes turns that make me happy. Cloverfield is not typical horror fare, nor is it a weak filmmaking effort. January is supposed to be a time for movies not worthy of much praise, but I think that even with the Oscar-worthy gems coming down the pike, Cloverfield will still be high on my list of great 2008 films.