Cloverfield (2008)

13 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The date was July 3rd, 2007. The movie was Michael Bay’s “Transformers.” The place was Paragould Cinema 8 in Paragould, Arkansas. The coming-attractions trailers included an engrossing “sneak-peek” that showed a scene of a Manhattan party being interrupted by exploding buildings and some sort of attack, seen from the point of view of a home-video camera. What’s going on? What’s attacking the city? Hell, what’s the title of the freaking movie? The end of this ingenious trailer only showed “From Executive Producer JJ Abrams” and “Coming 1/18/08.”

That was terrific. That had me thinking what the film was going to be when it was released. What we got was “Cloverfield,” released January 18th, 2008, which is pretty much the “inside-out” version of a monster movie, much like how “The Blair Witch Project” was the case with the ghost story. Like “Blair Witch,” the film “Cloverfield” is entirely the content of one video tape, as one among a group of people documents “how it all went down” as some thing attacks Manhattan.

That means the majority of “Cloverfield’s” running time consists of shakiness of handheld camerawork, undoubtedly giving some audience members motion-sickness. (I sat in the front row of the cinema—it’s no doubt after all.) You either get into it or you’re very annoyed by it. (But for those who say people don’t really shake the camera like the camera-holder does in this movie, newsflash—people running from disaster don’t usually care about keeping the camera steady!) Besides, I can see the effect that director Matt Reeves was going for with this—not the standard monster movie; mainly a major disastrous event seen from ground-level. After all, ever since 9/11, everyone likes to record anything out of the ordinary, to say the least.

“Cloverfield” starts out as a farewell video for a sincere young man named Rob (Michael Stahl-David) at his going-away party, as he is able to leave Manhattan for a new job in Japan. Documenting the party is Rob’s best friend, goofball Hud (TJ Miller, whose line-deliveries said from behind the camera make for appealing comic relief). Also at the party are Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel), Jason’s girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas), Hud’s crush Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), and, to Rob’s surprise, Rob’s ex-girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman).

“Cloverfield” spends a little more than 15 minutes with these people, making it feel like a different movie than what was advertised. This actually works in the film’s favor because it really sneaks up on you the same way it sneaks up on the characters when chaos ultimately ensues. It really got me when they’re just having normal conversation and then out of nowhere, the building shakes, things start blowing up, people ask “What was that?” etc. Once the madness gets started, the film becomes exhilarating.

And by the way, I’m sure the realization that the attacker in “Cloverfield” was just a regular monster, and not Godzilla (though pretty close in shape and size), disappointed a lot of hyped moviegoers, but I’m sure any reveal would have disappointed them, so forget that. As for me, I was one of the people who didn’t care what the attacker was, as long as it was sci-fi based and big enough to be threatening. The monster itself is scary when seen in glimpses, like when the camera switches to and from it in a hurry, and also when it’s kept in the shadows so there’s that foreboding aspect to “Cloverfield.” Even scarier though are these parasitic spider-like creatures that apparently come from the big creature and attack people. The creepiest scene in the movie involves these little beasts as they attack our heroes in a dark subway tunnel. These things mean business.

What exactly is this monster? Where did it come from? What can kill it? None of that is answered. “Cloverfield” has no backstory or any kind of explanation for the monster’s origins. All we know is that it’s big, it’s mean, and it’s here. That’s it—the whole movie stays with Rob, Hud, and company as they race to survive the night and escape the city before things get worse. That’s actually kind of refreshing, in that there’s no bizarre B-movie type of explanation like it came from pollution or something like that. And the actors playing these admittedly-generic characters are pretty good and quite likable for us to follow them. They, along with some first-rate special effects, add to the realism, grittiness, and terror of this “inside-out” monster movie.

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