Cloverfield – A Review

America originally imported its monsters, bringing over vampires and werewolves as European moved here from the “Old World”. We didn’t really have any monsters of our own until H.P. Lovecraft gave us the product of a fevered imagination. Since then, we’ve gotten pretty good at generating creepies and crawlies but monsters of any magnitude seemed to elude us.

J.J. Abrams recognized that while in Japan, seeing the enduring appeal of Godzilla, and came home determined to give America a monster it could call its own. Today, Cloverfield is being unleashed to a highly anxious world. The marketing, starting with the untitled teaser trailer last summer, has been superb and cutting edge, heralding that this was going to be unlike the monster movies that preceded it.

The movie delivers on all its promises and makes the waiting worthwhile.

As we know from the trailer, six twentysomethings are part of a going away party when Something Happens. We also know from the trailer that whatever it was was big and strong enough to knock the head off the statue of Liberty and send it to SoHo. Right there we know we’re dealing with something that dwarfs Godzilla and any monster film from the 1950s.

Shot entirely from a camcorder’s POV, former Buffy writer Drew Goddard and director Matt Reeves manage to match an intimate love story with a world-shaking crisis. Our six friends are exactly the target demo for this film and audiences will buy into their relationships and genuinely care for the characters as the story unfolds. Goddard cleverly devotes the first twenty minutes or so to establishing our characters, their intertwined friendships and their personalities so when Something Happens, we’re invested in them for the remainder of the story.

Unlike the tried and true horror films from the 1940s forward, this one sticks with the rank and file as opposed to the military or the scientists who generally hog the spotlight in these affairs with just a token civilian or two. As a result, they’re left in the dark as to what It is and how It came to trash Manhattan and the audience is left to piece things together since we’re not running for our lives, left with little time to process the events glimpsed while rushing from falling buildings.

Why they remain in New York when evacuation is possible goes back to the love story and reasons why this will endure to repeated viewings. The video is actually being recorded over a previous tape that shows the idyllic day Rob and Beth enjoyed the day after they finally Did It. As a result, we understand their strong bond as glitches in the taping reveals moments still preserved from the day. So, when they’re separated during the initial attack, and Rob subsequently learns she’s hurt and can’t move, he risks everything to rescue her. Since he’s surrounded with friends, they accompany him, thinking there’s safety in numbers.

Also, unlike the traditional monster movies, bad things happen to good people. As a result, the sextet is winnowed down throughout the film’s second half, but in totally plausible ways. They act like real people, imperfect, and rising above that to help one another.

The cast of six are accomplished performers all in the early part of their careers but they are attractive and play well together. Fellow critics give a lot of credit to T.J. Miller’s Hud, our cameraman whose heard more than seen, and he deserves it but Michael Stahl-David’s Rob and Lizzy Caplan’s Marlena are the two standout performances for me.

So, about the monster. It’s big. It’s creepy. It’s unlike Godzilla and most other movie monsters and kudos go to the SFX team for creating something so unsettling, especially as we see only bits and pieces for most the time. Our few full figure shots are so fleeting that we don’t have time to process its exact anatomy so there are some things left to our imagination. And it didn’t come alone. It came with parasitic beasties that come loose and scuttle across Manhattan and when we encounter them along the way, we’re genuinely spooked.

The movie, complete with lengthy end credits, is a crisp 84 minutes. Any longer and the conceit would have stopped working. When the camcorder cuts out at the end, we’re satisfied. We’re also somewhat emotionally spent given the rush and since most of the film is in real time, it feels right. There shouldn’t be a sequel that would dilute the original’s impact, but since the creature’s origins remain murky, continuing elements can be done. I hope not, though, because this has the chance to endure as an American Original.

Stick around for the end credits if you want to hear an Overture that pays homage to the monster movies of yore.

By all means, bring a big bag of popcorn.

4 comments

  • JosephW

    I’m beginning to seriously think that I saw a completely different film than everyone else. This movie (after the party’s interrupted) was mediocre at best. When the camcorder cuts out at the end, I sat there waiting for some sort of on-screen reaction bit from somebody, but no–the credits begin.
    With Blair Witch (which did the camcorder bit–and viral marketing–MUCH better), when it cuts out, we KNOW why, or at least, we’re led to understand the why. We KNOW all the “heroes” are dead. We’re told this at the beginning, and we’re then led on a trip that explains the mystery (even if we never actually see the “witch” or any of the actual details of the kids’ deaths). Here, we’re given a false start: I thought Rob and Beth were actually married, then flash-forward to two other characters, planning a party for Rob, and it’s at the party that, no, Rob and Beth were just friends who slept together “once”–then, ooh, after that “perfect day” at Coney Island (shown at the very end of the film), everything falls apart? Why? Because Rob didn’t want to get any more deeply involved because he’s going to Japan? Sorry. Then there’s Beth’s injury which seems to get a lot better the more they all run. Until the very end–when Beth speaks directly into the camera–I thought the woman was Lisa, considering how she and Hud manage to pull Rob from the crash, and then the way SHE supported Rob’s weight when Hud went back for the camera. (Speaking of Hud, why did the monster, which seemed so eager to turn him into monster chow, spit him out/drop him? Did someone realize that he was holding the camcorder at that time and that had to be found which couldn’t have happened if it was inside the critter?)
    Sorry, but the film was far too short for its own good and, from what I’ve read elsewhere, the very same things that people criticized about Blair Witch are being lauded about this piece of tripe. (My only consolations from going to see the film were the Star Trek teaser and the fact the theater was giving away disposable cameras. I figure the camera was worth about $5 and I paid $8.50 for admission, so I spent less than I would have for a matinee show. I’m seriously hoping that Abrams does a much better job with Trek. And, yes, I’m aware that Abrams only produced this particular tripe.)
    I have no doubt the film will be #1 at the box office this weekend; the real question is how quickly will it fall out of the Top 10? I don’t expect it to stay long. Of the little bit I heard on the way out of the midnight screening I saw, there was little positive commentary (most people seemed in shock how quickly it was over), but no sort of cheering or applause, nothing to suggest people liked it all that much. (One guy I overheard was ticked off that he was going to miss class because he’d come to see the movie. One would have expected a “well, that was certainly worth skipping class for” type of comment, not a “I’m gonna miss class for that”.)

  • Bill Mulligan

    Since then, we’ve gotten pretty good at generating creepies and crawlies but monsters of any magnitude seemed to elude us.

    ?????????

    King Kong!

    The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms! (Which directly inspired Godzilla)

    Mansquito!

    We INVENTED giant monsters! Sure, the Japanese took the idea way further than we ever did but let’s not diminish our accomplishments. One King Kong is worth 1000 Yongary, Monster from the Deeps.

    As for Cloverfield, your review is spot on, sir. I loved it.

    I actually wish they hadn’t shown the full view at the end–it was fun trying to figure out its anatomy from the glimpses throughout the movie.

    (As for why it dropped Hud…I assumed it bit him in half and what we saw on the ground was the half that didn’t get swallowed.

  • Patrick Calloway

    (As for why it dropped Hud…I assumed it bit him in half and what we saw on the ground was the half that didn’t get swallowed.

    Hmmm, I hadn’t thought of that one. I had been going with the thought that it just didn’t find him very tasty, and so spit him out.

    Mark me down as one of those who loved it. Amazingly done, and perfect in length, a rarity in these days of padded-to-almost-three-hour features.

  • Bill Mulligan

    Yeah, I think they believe that we won’t pay $8 a ticket if we don’t get 2+ hours of movie. I say keep it snappy. ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS clocks in at a quick 62 min and there’s no filler at all–just lots of crab monsters attacking. I don’t know what movies these guys today grew up with but it sure wasn’t ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS. Maybe BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ.