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.