Cloverfield (2008) — NYC joins the giant monsters club

“My name is Robert Hawkins. Approximately seven hours ago some *thing* attacked the city. If you found this, if you’re watching this then you probably know more about it than I do.”

Kyle’s rating: “call me up before you’re dead / we can make some plans instead”

Kyle’s review: There is an excellent chance that, like me and my friends, you walked out of your showing of Transformers last summer entertained and happy but also possessed of a specific nagging question: What was that preview with the battered head of the Statue of Liberty slapped well into the streets of New York City? What the heck did that? How are we going to stand the wait for 1-18-08?

Whether you played the online viral marketing games between then and now, or just bided your time and resolved to stay mostly unspoiled, at this point you almost certainly know that the film in question is Cloverfield, and the medium ostensibly is the movie: a group of people throwing a goodbye party for a friend are using a (surprisingly resilient) video camera to record party farewells, and as a mysterious massive monster savagely attacks NYC, the man with the camera resolves to document the attack for posterity even as it becomes more and more dangerous to be running around holding a camcorder up to one’s eye.

I haven’t been too impressed with J.J. Abrams up until this point, but Cloverfield (which is arguably his baby, despite his claiming only a producer credit on the final product) has won me over to his camp. Presenting the film as found footage (no doubt locked up Ark of the Covenant-style in a government building), keeping the running time to a bare minimum while still allowing the first 15 or so minutes to build up the characters and the rationale for them to eschew easy escape(s) in favor of an impossible rescue mission, and giving us plenty of cold, hard facts about the circumstances and the monster while retaining a healthy amount of nagging questions: GENIUS. If Lost had stuck to this sort of blueprint instead of falling afoul of ‘too many questions’ and ‘not enough answers’ I might actually still try to watch it.

According to online reports, many theaters are filled with shouts of “That’s it?” after the film ends, disappointed audience members blinking in fury and contemplating asking for their money back. Back in July 2007, no average moviegoer knew what to expect from this film. Come its release, apparently some still have bizarre or impossible expectations.

Cloverfield is a terrific movie… but I don’t think it is a particularly great film. Which is to say that it entertains and puts a fresh spin on quite a few monster and survival movie clichés. But it doesn’t exactly “reinvent the wheel” on those fronts, nor will it be a serious Oscar contender come this time next year. Part of the reason that Abrams has grated on me up until Cloverfield: He seems to be a master at creating mysterious scenarios not easily unlocked and increasing the tension, but for the most part he seems incapable of delivering answers memorably or in a timely fashion. His television work suffers greatly from that aspect.

Thankfully, Cloverfield is a self-contained movie with a beginning and end so you don’t have to worry about open-ended questions (well, sort of: see ‘Intermission!’ for some extracurricular information you can’t possibly figure out from the film itself but don’t necessarily HAVE to know ahead of time to enjoy the film).

Some of the best films have simply concepts executed with great fanfare on the screen. Cloverfield follows that tradition with a simple plot: amidst a NYC being devastated by a monster attack, a group of friends vow to traverse dangerous ground in order to save a friend in distress who may or may not still be alive. Were you expecting something grander, on the basis of that initial trailer or the veil of secrecy that descended liberally upon the film? Please don’t tell me you were expecting Voltron! (Internet inside joke)

Quite a bit of sniping at the film focuses on the characters. Because they are “good-looking” in an The OC kind of way (I say “hooray!”) and have the sort of meaningless problems that such people in TV shows/films tend to have (specifically, the singular inability on the part of our hero, Rob, to tell Beth, the long-time friend whom he was recently intimate with and has since given the cold shoulder to, that he truly loves her). One of my favorite Cloverfield reviews talked about how amusing it is that such problems are “insurmountable” to “certain people” (like Rob and his immediate friends) and implied that it is hard to relate to such weak-willed/unrealistic characters.

I saw Cloverfield with a girl that I’m tremendously fond of, yet I have no idea if she likes me in return or even if our going to a midnight Cloverfield showing counts as a “date.” I actually don’t know for sure if our recent nights out count as dates, come to think of it. So when people express disbelief that good-looking people with amusingly meaningless problems can be related to, I say: they are me and I am them!

Of course, should you really care about the characters when this is a monster movie and all that matters is how cool the monster is? Well, hold on. Although the monster is a constant presence in the film, it is not on-screen that much. Keeping in mind the short running time, though, it seems like the monster is around more than it is. Make sense? When you’re watching Cloverfield and the monster makes its presence known, from that point on you should be on the edge of your seat enthralled or possibly throwing up on your shoes from the shaky cam (that stuff usually bothers me but I was golden through the movie; my only advice would be to avoid the first couple rows, perhaps).

(dramatic writing pause here)

You know what? Everything prior was written after contemplating my initial midnight release viewing of Cloverfield. From this paragraph on, the everything is emanating from a Kyle only a few hours removed from a late-night second viewing of Cloverfield. And I have to say that I am SUPER ENERGIZED and seem to be prepared to STAY UP ALL NIGHT LONG due to the INTENSE EXPERIENCE that is CLOVERFIELD or perhaps that coldbuster from Jamba Juice earlier came with a free extra booster shot of ILLEGAL NARCOTICS NAMELY SPEED.

At this point (early a.m. the Thursday after Cloverfield was released upon the world; a scant six days later) the film is firmly ensconced in the pop culture landscape. The story and secrets are well-known, there is an ‘unofficial Rob’s party CD’ mix available on iTunes (although the tremendous “Roar!” Cloverfield Overture remains available only in bootleg form), and Hasbro has announced plans to release a collector’s toy of the Cloverfield monster much later in the year (if you’ve got $100 to spare). I suppose now we turn to Abram’s Star Trek re-imagining and the remaining seasons of Lost for amusing mysteries, if necessary. Cloverfield is a known quantity and no longer possessed of its air of secrecy; now to be judged on its own merits.

I’ve got to say: Cloverfield was just as flippin’ amazing the second time as it was the first. For a big budget film of such a concept, we were probably only going to get one grand attempt. Thankfully, we got this, which is a note-perfect disaster film that nobly balances genuinely good characters with the relentlessly vicious reality of the situation they find themselves within. I have absolutely no complaints, with the caveat that I loved every actor and every character, was probably not going to be offended regardless of how overt or veiled the 9/11 imagery was handled, and only get motion sickness when I’m actually in motion (I will NEVER ride ‘Star Tours’ at Disneyland or anything similar every again, though I LOVE roller coasters). Not everyone will be so lucky. But for those who can endure, I’m enthusiastic and sleep-deprived-crazy enough to make my first such call in 2008: Cloverfield is a masterpiece.

Oh, and Lizzy Caplan is so awesome that I can’t even believe it. More Lizzy Caplan in 2008!

Justin’s rating: The center gives way; the beast slouches toward Babylon.

Justin’s review: One reason I am such a huge fan of theme park rides is that when I’m strapped into a moving car on rails, I know I’m about to be subjected to an experience that’s hand-crafted by ride creators to point me in the most interesting direction, give me the most thrilling ride and make me feel a certain way. As I have no control over where the ride is going, I get into a zen-like state where I simply accept the ride and soak in the ambiance and story. I have absolutely no problem losing my imagination in what’s going on around me.

A lot of Cloverfield’s hype and reviews are being compared to the obvious Blair Witch Project — both utilize first-person camcorders to tell their tale, both shake so much that movie theater ushers had to heavily invest in vomit-cleaning sawdust, and both were catapulted into rabid fame using internet viral marketing. Nobody quite knew what to expect, going into Cloverfield; we knew something happens in NYC, something that is not pleasant and causes people to start reenacting frantic Benny Hill performances. Coming out, some people loved its visceral, in-your-face thrills, some people hated it because it wasn’t what they expected, and I felt like I’d just been on a really nifty theme park ride that deserved another trip.

The adage goes: if you can’t tell a new story, then tell an old story a new way. We’ve seen loads of giant monster movies (thanks ’70s!), but it’s amazing what a change of perspective can do for a genre. Cloverfield is shot entirely with a camcorder and nothing but (or so they’d like you to believe). Camcorder-style movies are somewhat unsettling to most people, but not just for the obvious earthquake jitters. It’s that, as movie viewers, we are so incredibly accustomed to establishing shots and the “larger picture” of what’s going on, that we strain and struggle to see what’s just outside of the camcorder lens. We’re trapped inside a claustrophobic little box that’s being pointed every which way, taking us for a ride through Armageddon ’08. That may make some people want to bang on their screens and demand to be let off, or else. I was pretty cool with it – although once I settled in as a mental spectator for this “ride”, it lost all the nail-biting suspense it could’ve had for others.

For the first 20 minutes or so, our camcorder ride slowly drudges through a farewell party to Rob (“Rob” Hawkins), during which your theater attendants will be so kind as to give you real booze to make up for the inconvenience of this scene. Happily, some uppity Thing(tm) decides it’s yearning to be free on the shores of America, and hops on by Ellis Island for a closer look at the town that spawned Sex and the City, Friends, and Diff’rent Strokes. Youthful naivite is quickly wiped away by immense disappointment when a homeless man urinates on the 350-foot tall beastie, and massive carnage ensues.

For Rob and his various guests, this does not spell the most magical evening on the town. It does spell a lot of screaming, running, explosions, a giant head of the Statue of Liberty cruising down Broadway, and parasites who make you explode. Really, if New York needed another reason to keep tourist traffic away from its town limits, this would be a great deflection shield. So why not head over to Wisconsin instead? Sue makes GREAT cheese. And she knows goats.

With maddingly few exceptions — a news report here, a fortuitous meeting of an Army command center there — the characters (and us) are denied the larger picture of the event. Instead, we’re in the thick of the madness and terror, and it’s all much, much more interesting than a goodbye party.

I can easily see why many serious moviegoers, eager for the next Nicolas Cage flick where he sports another freaky hairpiece, would shrink back from this type of movie. Underneath all the hype and transparent horror, this is your average dumb fun Big Monster Movie. It doesn’t pretend to be much more than that – maybe it feels a little more believable, but there’s no reason for the discerning viewers to be expecting Oscar sililoquies when the Army is firing rocket clusters into the underbelly of Godzilla II in the middle of Tokyo II. Some movies are made for the little kid in us who just claps their hand in glee when something goes “kablooey”.

Once again I’m vindicated to live in the Midwest, where nary a giant monster has terrorized these lands since Paul Bunyan. Westward, ho!

Lissa’s rating: It’s Open Water, but with a huge monster instead if sharks. At least it wasn’t sharks.

Lissa’s review: There’s a huge challenge when you tell or imply the ending of the movie in the first few minutes. When the audience knows the character or characters are going to die (or probably will die), they sort of detach. What’s the point of caring about someone when you know they’re going to die a possibly gruesome and bloody death? It’s a hard challenge to give yourself. I’ve seen it work (Moulin Rouge! comes to mind), but more often than not, it just doesn’t. Cloverfield tried that gambit, and while I don’t think it failed spectacularly, I don’t think it succeeded, either.

Look, I understand there’s not a lot of time for character development in these movies. People don’t go to movies like Cloverfield or War of the Worlds for the deep and scintillating characters; they go to see things go klabooie. But still, make us care about the characters. I mean, showing people being kind of petty and shallow doesn’t really make me root for them to live, even if it might make them more… accessible, I guess is the word? And when I know they’re likely to kick it, I’m really not looking to plumb for hidden depths.

Anyway, it might be a surprise that I was willing to watch Cloverfield, being that it sort of falls under horror. But I’m up for a good sci-fi flick these days, and so hey, why not. And it was okay, although I just can’t summon anything remotely resembling enthusiasm — or vitriol — about it. The monster was pretty horrifically scary, but yeah.

I do have to say the camera technique bugged the heck out of me. It’s actually the reason I’ve never seen The Blair Witch Project, and the reason I despise Evil Dead. It just makes me nauseous and motion sick, and those are never fun feelings. I know it doesn’t bother others, and I see the point of it, but it just physically bothers me.

The other thing that kept sticking out to me was that this movie was so, so, so obviously post 9/11. I don’t mean this in a bad way, mind you, or in a good way. Just in a general observational sort of way. But there’s a spot where the Chrysler Building (or the Empire State building, I forget which) collapses, and it just brought that 9/11 footage right to the forefront of my mind – especially when the clouds of dust hit. And in my head, I could see the effects guys watching the footage of 9/11 that day, and mostly being horrified, but that little disengaging coping mechanism in their brains saying “Oh, so THAT’S how it looks when a skyscraper falls.”

And I’m not saying this to be mean, but because I know that’s what I’d have been thinking if that was my line of work. And see, now that the whole world knows what it looks like when a skyscraper falls, you have to do it right because we know what it looks like if you don’t use this huge working model in front of you. Of course, I don’t watch many horror movies or disaster movies, so maybe they’ve been doing it right all along. It’s not like people haven’t taken skyscrapers down before. But it just really stuck out to me and surprised me.

Anyway, I didn’t hate Cloverfield, and it did get me to stop what I was doing and watch anxiously several times. I didn’t love it like I loved Signs or Aliens or Silence of the Lambs, which are the three horror flicks I can think of that I do truly like. It’s worth the rent, I think, and you’ll likely enjoy it more than I did if you like horror, and less if you’re really looking for something with characters and thought and emotion outside of fear. So, while “meh” probably isn’t considered a ringing endorsement for a movie, in this case, “meh” is good.

Didja Notice?

  • That really is one resilient camera
  • Hud totally managed to woo Marlena big-time in a very short time, thanks to the circumstances. Go Hud!
  • The government slides at the start of the film state that the footage was recovered from a SD memory card. However, the actors constantly refer to tape as the filming medium.
  • It SEEMS like the Empire State Building collapses only to be seen again in the background in a matter of minutes. However, it is apparently the Woolworth building that we see collapse, not the Empire State Building.
  • People say that there is no way that the camera could last the seven or so hours that the film spans. But it doesn’t record the entire time: Hud turns it off purposefully or accidentally, resulting in time jumps and the sneaking-in of footage from Rob and Beth’s day together. So the camera only recorded for the length of the film: about 74 minutes
  • Although if taken at face value the time stamps on the footage that we see place the monster attack as occuring over the span of Friday-to-Saturday, May 22-23, 2009, there are MILLIONS of people feverishly proving and re-proving their theories that it was actually 2007, or that when those of us (including me!) were watching that very first midnight showing the action was (supposed to be) taking place at that very moment in New York City. Since all the main characters have MySpace pages and all of them last logged in on January 18, 2008, a lot of people think it happened then, with the visible weather in the film supporting all kinds of different theories. Keep in mind, though: IT IS JUST A MOVIE.
  • SPOILER! although (Kyle) did not notice it on first viewing, being forewarned to watch for it allowed (Kyle) to catch it the second time around: during the final Coney Island footage, in the distance you can see something large and fast crash into the ocean with a large splash. Although many who caught it immediately assumed that was proof that the monster was of extraterrestrial origin, it’s apparently a little more complicated than that . . . (see Intermission entry below for the Truth)
  • SPOILER! If you stay through the end credits, at the very end a garbled radio transmission is heard. When recorded and reversed, it is a voice (apparently that of director Matt Reeves) saying “It’s still alive!”
  • If you pause Cloverfield at 1:06:51, you’ll see an image of king kong attacking a plane. [thanks Blinkfan!]

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