My Favorite Movies – Cloverfield (2008)

21 May

By Tanner Smith

Before I start with “Cloverfield,” let me just state for the record that I’m not one of those movie reviewers (I’m not a “film critic” so much as “movie reviewer” nowadays) that are afraid to publicly change their opinions on certain movies–for that matter, I’m not afraid of rewatching those certain movies either. It happens. For instance, I may have given Cloverfield 3 stars out of 4 initially, and maybe my reasons still hold up–but you know what? It stayed with me. It stuck with me. I love revisiting it. I admire the craftsmanship. I get something new each time I watch it. Hell, I’ve even watched it at least 50 times in the past thirteen years since its theatrical release! Therefore, it’s a “favorite.” (So is its companion piece 10 Cloverfield Lane, but I didn’t underestimate that one right away–I gave it 3 1/2 stars.)

Watch a movie a few more times and your feelings towards it will probably change. And I’m not ashamed to admit it.

And this is why I have Revised Reviews…or reviews in which I revisit these films just so I can talk about why I love them after some time has passed. (Hence, “My Favorite Movies.”)

Anyway, back to “Cloverfield.”

I was there…I was one of the witnesses to the most devastating, confusing event I ever saw unfold in front of my eyes…the horror…everything seemed so normal, and then…buildings blew up…flaming debris flew all over the city…and then the head of the Statue of Liberty suddenly made its way onto the street!! But the most horrifying part of it all?

The trailer didn’t have a movie title! OH, THE HORROR!!

Yes, I was one of those moviegoers that was confused and yet intrigued by that infamous teaser trailer that came before the first “Transformers” movie back in 2007. The first-person camera perspective capturing all the mayhem happening in Manhattan added to the tension and made me want to see the movie so I can understand just what the hell was going on! There was no title in the trailer–just a release date: 1-18-08. (For a while, I thought “1-18-08” was the title!)

Six months later, we got “Cloverfield.”

While The Blair Witch Project helped inspire this film’s look, “Cloverfield” was the film that helped make the “found-footage horror” subgenre popular (and the success of Paranormal Activity, which was made with even less money, would help even more a year later). What makes it effective is how slowly it builds everything up in the first 20 minutes. Everything seems normal, with a bunch of 20somethings hanging out at a party and going through some drama they have to talk each other through. And then suddenly, midway through a conversation, BOOM! The building shakes, there’s an explosion, the power goes out all over the city for a moment, everyone’s panicking and wondering what’s happening, they watch the TV news as soon as the power’s back on, they all go up the roof to find out more, A BUILDING BLOWS UP, THERE’S FLAMING DEBRIS HURLING ALL OVER THE CITY, EVERYONE’S SCREAMING AND YELLING AND GOING CRAZY–

I love that. Everything can seem so ordinary before it all goes to hell. “Cloverfield” captured that perfectly. And having it come from the first-person camera perspective helped a lot in making it effective–we are there watching the action happen. And what’s even more impressive is the production value–because the film looks cheap (in that this disaster movie is shot on ground-level with a handheld camera), it’s easy to forget that we’re bearing witness to many big-budget pyrotechnics that fit right at home in a “Godzilla” movie (blowing up the Brooklyn bridge, the military firing at the monster in the street, etc.). And because we’re seeing it at this level, it’s more disturbing and intriguing.

Once the film gets going, it hardly lets up. Our heroes, including Rob (Michael Stahl-David), Lily (Jessica Lucas), Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), and the camera-operator/comic-relief Hud (T.J. Miller), are in the middle of a city evacuation due to the presence of a gigantic monster that’s attacking the city. (And because we only see the monster from afar, we don’t get any info about it–the only explanation for its existence is merely implied.) But Rob has something else on his mind, as he decides to head deeper into the city to save his ex-girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman), for whom he still has feelings. His friends decide to follow him (especially Hud, because after all, he’s got to film everything), and we’re treated to one scary situation after another.

There is a quiet moment in which our heroes are safe underground in a subway station–they separate from each other to take in everything that’s happened already and, in a truly disturbing effective moment, they listen to the action happening above ground and can only imagine what could be happening right now. I felt that moment, and the acting, especially from Lizzy Caplan, is spot-on.

The scariest scene for most people who see the film has nothing to do with the big monster (though we do get a nice “eating” moment with the beast near the end). It’s set in a dark subway tunnel, which our heroes have to walk through when most of the streets are blocked off. OK, fine, it’s dark and there are rats, but the trains aren’t running and the gigantic monster can’t fit in there anyway. What do they have to worry about?……There are smaller monsters that come from the big monster…and they find their way into the tunnel…and we don’t see them until the camera’s night-vision is turned on…and they attack!

Trying to make your way through a really dark place is scary enough. You never know what’s in the dark waiting for you…

Of course, people complain about the film’s shaky camera movements. (In fact, theater owners had to warn people who were prone to motion sickness not to sit in the front row when they saw the movie.) Director Matt Reeves wanted to capture a realistic amateur look, since the film is being shot by characters who hardly know how to operate a video camera in the first place. It is annoying, but when you really think about it, it’s sort of acceptable, especially in the scenes in which Hud is running for his life. I don’t think he’s as concerned about getting “the perfect flowing running shot” as he is about capturing “how it all went down.”

“Cloverfield” is a truly effective horror film, and I enjoy watching it more than I enjoy watching any recent “Godzilla” movie, honestly. It’s like a “Godzilla” movie in which the perspective is always from the witnesses of the mass destruction. And it would help give birth to other “found-footage” movies…for better or worse.

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