Cloverfield seems to be the culmination of the recent trend of handheld hyper-realism in action and horror movies. After The Blair Witch Project popularized the shaky cam technique, numerous films, from the Bourne and the 28 Days Later series to The Kingdom, have used it to place viewers in the frantic rush of the action with varying degrees of success. Now, with the shakiest camera available, the disaster genre gets its turn with this movie that depicts a relentless monster attack on New York City without the typical cheesy histrionics and rah-rah jingoist instincts that taint the central lean, mean terror.
The film, of course, is the one that has been surrounded by Internet hype and speculation ever since its trailer was shown attached to Transformers with just the producers’ name – J.J. Abrams – and no official title. The big money shot was that the head of the Statue of Liberty fell to the street in the midst of a monster attack that strikes New York City. All of this, as the previews indicated and similar to the premise of Abrams’ show Lost, is filmed entirely like a POV shot of a handful of survivors who have a friend’s going away party interrupted by a large explosion incited by the gigantic monster.
It is a credit to Abrams, director Matt Reeves, and writer Drew Goddard that they have not buried themselves under their clever ad campaign, unlike The Blair Witch Project, which became nothing more than a gimmick after the elaborately fake back story on the website prevented us from really using our imaginations to figure out whatever was going on in the dark. The filmmakers here kept their big creature as their secret weapon and the movie itself is smart enough to reveal the monster’s true nature piece by piece like bread crumbs. And no, I will not reveal what the creature really looks like or how it gestates other than to observe that I think it could probably have Godzilla for breakfast.
We don’t even really see much of a back story of the origin of the monster, just like the group of twenty-somethings initially celebrating that going away party for Rob (Michael Stahl David) would not from their limited perspective. The first half hour is just focused on that going away party as one of the guys, Hud (T.J. Miller), starts filming farewell testimonials from all of the party guests with his video camera. He also keenly has his eyes on Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), who is only a friend of a friend of Rob's and has only stopped by on the way to meet up with others later. All of a sudden, a rumbling explosion goes off in the distance and an earthquake shakes the apartment. They go up to the roof to investigate until another gigantic explosion sends fiery balls all throughout lower Manhattan. Then the head of the Statue of Liberty rolls down the street.
From that point on, the movie is an exhaustive and generally engaging thrill ride, as we follow five people including Rob (Michael Stahl-David), his brother, Jason (Mike Vogel) and his girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas), Hud (who is the one holding the camera throughout most of the film), and Marlena. The story is not without a few clichés like the motivation for Rob and his friends to go towards the middle of the city to rescue Beth (Odette Yustman), a friend he had a one-time fling with but for whom he may have more serious feelings. But the film at least avoids creating any phony character development and simply shows these survivors doing what they can to reach her at the 49th floor of a high-rise apartment leaning against another skyscraper near Central Park.
One issue that has come up inevitably is whether using imagery referencing 9/11 such as the leaning skyscraper, the Empire State Building being knocked down by a monster, and the people consequently being covered with dust and crossing the Brooklyn Bridge is appropriate in a mass entertainment. After all, the movie, in a way, could be seen as the American 9/11 equivalent of the Japanese Godzilla, which was meant in the 1950s as a social commentary on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. While the issue is debatable, I will simply say that, albeit the movie could have been just as good without it, it does add to the realism of the “what if” scenario of the city in ruins and one reason, I think, we go to the movies is to face and exorcise our fears in a more accessible way.
It is also worth noting that the realism extends all the way through to the conclusion as the story progresses as only a monstrous invasion can within the circumstances. Fair warning, besides the fact that the shaky camera movement is as quease-inducing as it can get (even for an average person, Hud does not seem to be much of a cameraman), there are a few bloody deaths that do push the boundary of the film's PG-13 rating. The fact that the film does not sugar-coat its horror material or cheapen it with unnecessary machismo or patriotic heroics makes whatever comment the story tries to imply more effective and keeps it from feeling crass and insensitive.
From a technical standpoint, it is rather impressive how the film maintains the illusion that we are watching crude video camera footage. The visual effects seamlessly match the restless camera movement and the actors do a good job of reacting as everyday people would against the catastrophe often within long, unbroken takes (though I am sure the editors squeezed in a few breaks in between the herky-jerky swish-pans). I am still not sure, however, how the camera manages to endure what it does throughout or how Rob is able to get good cell phone reception to talk to Beth and others while walking through the subway tunnel all the way from lower Manhattan to 59th Street.
In the end though, Cloverfield successfully goes beyond being just a marketing ploy and works to provide some good scares. It is at the right spare length at 84 minutes and the filmmakers respect the classical Jaws tradition by preserving a full view of the creature until 70 minutes in. I only hope, however, that, for all of the film’s effective use of the handheld technique, the camera does not get any more erratic and disorienting than this.