Cloverfield Review

Cover Country : USA
Year: 2007
Genre: Sci-Fi/Horror
Format: Cinema
Running Time: 84 minutes
Distributor: Parmount Pictures.

Amid catastrophic chaos in Manhattan, a group of friends embark on dangerous attempt to rescue an injured companion while a terrifying and destructive entity menaces the downtown area....

Directed by Matt Reeves. Written by Drew Goddard. Starring Michael Stahl-David, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Lizzy Kaplan, Mike Vogel and Odette Yustman.

An internet-rumor buzz sensation for several months now, Matt Reeves' Cloverfield has opened to impressive box office receipts, earning it the number one domestic spot in its debut weekend. Somewhat ambitious in its camcorder-style, unscored presentation, it largely overcomes the pitfalls of that same ambitiousness and makes for a highly engaging and occasionally thrilling 84-minute romp. But the caveat emptor is that a few of these same unconventional elements have become, at least in today's climate, somewhat old-hat, and certain elements which would have stuck in the viewer's throat a decade ago now have a taste not unlike day-old beer.

Cloverfield (the very title is an arbitrary government-assigned name to the creature wreaking the havoc) opens with a title card indicating that the footage we are about to see is top secret, no duplication permitted, etc., documenting the events at "US-477," or the locale "formerly known as Central Park." Nice set-up. Then we see the camcorder footage setting up the characters. Twenty-something Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) has recently been promoted to a high-paying job which will relocate him to Japan. His brother Jason (Mike Vogel), best friend Hud (T.J. Miller) and Jason's girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) have arranged to throw him a surprise going away party at his spacious Manhattan apartment. Hud impulsively videotapes all of the proceedings to document the occasion (hence, the footage we're watching), all the while trying to put the make on his "crush," the spaced-out Marlena (Lizzy Kaplan). During the festivities, Rob briefly encounters Beth (Odette Yustman), with whom he'd recently had a romantic fling and whom he had unceremoniously dumped, and after they have some testy words, she retreats to her own apartment several blocks away.


With all of this comprising the first twenty minutes or so, the real festivities begin, literally, with a bang. Outside along the Manhattan skyline, a building explodes in flames. There's a momentary blackout and an earthquake-like rumbling. When the lights come back on moments later, the party-goers now intently watch a cable news broadcast reporting the sketchy details of unexplained and destructive phenomena going on in New York. Military helicopters are soon heard overhead, followed by the rumble of tanks and armored vehicles. Retreating to outside the apartment complex into the night, they find that Manhattan is quickly escalating into chaos. More buildings are levelled and razed by an unseen entity which seems to shoot fireballs. Another loud report, and the head of the Statue Of Liberty comes rolling down the street like a bowling ball.

With the military and the police herding civilians in the direction of the Brooklyn Bridge, Rob and his companions (basically all the characters I identified two paragraphs up) from the party and attempt to flee. However, the monstrous being behind the carnage shows up and wrecks the cable-stayed suspension bridge, spilling hundreds of fleeing pedestrians (including Rob's brother Jason) presumably to their death. Rob then receives a call on his cellular phone from Beth, who is now trapped and immobilized in her own apartment back in the most besieged section of town. Feeling responsible for her predicament, he defies the authorities (and logic itself) by double-backing into the war zone to try to rescue her. Lily, Marlena and Hud (who continues to film--his footage is what we're watching, remember) grudgingly accompany him.


That's probably enough plot exposition without giving away too much. The "let's rescue Beth" angle is pretty much the dramatic arc for this altruistic ensemble. And while the Blair Witch style photography would seem to be a distraction, it remains surprisingly effective, if we can forgive several shaky-cam "running away" shots which may keep some reaching for the aspirin bottle. Another curious item is the visual effects, not only of the inevitable reveal of the creature (it looks kind of like a Brontosaurus crossed with Jack Nicholson, but with a bad hangover) but also of the gradual annihilation of Manhattan. Buildings topple onto one another, when they're not blowing up real good, and military vehicles firebomb the shit out of the seemingly indestructable monster--all the while telegraphed in static camcorder shooting style rather than glorious Panavision. And then there's the little spider-crab critters who fall from the main behemoth like lice, and who inflict nasty one-on-one carnage to humans. It'll put you off Alaskan snow crabs for a long time.

That's the paradox of Cloverfield--a vision that warrants cinematic scope and yet delivers on the level of hand-held reality TV. And that may also be the key to its ingenuity. Whatever else the film accomplishes, it manages to consistently feel unabashedly real. The absence of a musical score--normally the soul of a motion picture--enhances this further. While the approach does veer towards the "been there, done that" realm, vis-a-vis other works utilizing similar techniques in recent years, Reeve's apt direction (from a Drew Goddard script) makes the film work in spite of its limitations.


If there's a genuine bitch to pitch, it's in the abrupt and unimaginitively vague conclusion. As with Blair Witch or any other "found footage" narratives, it is an expectation that the story dies when the camera gets smashed (or the batteries run out). And once upon a time, that kind of ending lent a creepy, enigmatic air to the tale, at least before it was done to death. Here, it's just lazy storytelling and particularly frustrating when so much, including the fates of certain characters, goes unexplained. But we can cut the Cloverfield team some slack on that point. The movie works marvelously on too many other levels to fly the "yeah, but that ending...." flag as the final word.


Review by Petch Lucas, for Pitofhorror.com

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