Tuesday 5 February 2008

Cloverfield (2008)

Tuesday 5 February 2008
Director: Matt Reeves
Writer: Drew Goddard

Cast: Michael Stahl-David (Robert Hawkins), T.J Miller (Hudson "Hud" Platt), Jessica Lucas (Lily Ford), Odette Yustman (Beth McIntyre), Lizzy Caplan (Marlena Diamond) & Mike Vogel (Jason Hawkins)

A group of friends have a party cut short, when a giant monster arrives in New York -- with one reveller catching the ensuing carnage on video-tape...

As teaser trailers go, it was something special: a group of young adults being filmed by an unseen cameraman, in the middle of a leaving party that's interrupted by loud noises outside. After heading up to the roof for answers, a huge explosion rips up the New York skyline, sending them scurrying for safety in the streets... narrowly avoiding being crushed by the decapitated head of the State Of Liberty – as it bounces down the road, skidding to a halt beside them...

How could you not be excited?

After months of hype (which you probably missed if you're not online and have YouTube bookmarked), Cloverfield is finally unleashed on mass audiences. It's a monster movie in the old tradition of Godzilla, given a modern spin by virtue of its hand-held filming technique. It's been likened to The Blair Witch Project from day one, and that's an accurate comparison to make...

The film begin as if someone just inserted a classified US government video-tape into the cinema's projector (no credits/studio logos), and we're thrown into the documented situation...

A group of friends, preparing a party for mutual friend Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who is leaving to take a job in Japan. Amongst the revellers are: Rob's brother Jason (Mike Vogel), his girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman), sexy friend Lily (Jessica Lucas), acquaintance Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), and best-mate Hud (T.J Miller) who is persuaded to film the whole event.

An extension of the trailer's "first contact" heralds the end of the slightly torturous opening -- which does a decent job of acclimatizing you to the swaying camera and character relationships, but you're really just waiting for the creature to turn up and cause mayhem...

That human/monster conflict is Cloverfield's strength and weakness, as the ensuing series of perilous scrapes for the characters alternate between being tense, exciting, disturbing, dull, limp, boring and irritating. Given the one-person POV of the film and the streaming nature of events, there are times when the characters have to interact, reflect, plan... and such moments aren't always successful. You even find yourself wishing Cloverfield was a traditional film sometimes -- and we could cut to a more exciting situation whenever a scene slows to a crawl.

But, of course, that would ultimately ruin the fun. Thankfully, whenever cameraman Hud happens to cross paths with the monster – glimpsing it smashing down skyscrapers, demolishing a bridge, or being fired at by tanks and RPGs – everything about Cloverfield is gripping action spectacle.

The film's greatest success is undoubtedly its monster – which appears from out of nowhere, is never explained, and glimpsed in plausible ways by the camera's eye. But the beast is never treated as an irritating tease, as it's seen on news reports from circling helicopters very early on -- but it's so physically bizarre that you can't pin down exactly what you're seeing....

Was that a tusk? Is that a tentacle or a tail? Is it a giant elephant crawling around on four knees? Even when we get big, wide shots of the beast at the end... you still leave the cinema not wholly sure what you saw. It's a patchwork in the memory, and that's just perfect.

For such an epic film, it's even more remarkable that director Matt Reeves managed to make it for a measly $25 million. The short running time (84 minutes) also seems twice that length, and you certainly get exactly what you expect for your ticket.

But, beyond the remarkable handling of the creature, phenomenal buzz/hype, and effective filming techniques to drag you into this "reality"... everything else is just average. The unknown actors do their best with one-dimensional characters, but the story strains at times and we're never emotionally connected to Rob – even when he resolves to rescue his girlfriend from a stricken building.

I was also disappointed that scurrying "parasites" the monster gives birth to (think miniature versions of the bugs in Starship Troopers) weren't utilized very well. You could have based a whole movie on those critters attacking New Yorkers, but they only appeared a few times and their existence seemed like a way to stretch-out the story.

There are rumblings that a sequel is being considered, possibly showing the night's terror from the perspective of a different cameraman. If true, I think that would be a big mistake. Any sequel immediately loses Cloverfield's ace card: the mystery of its marauding monster. If Reeves and producer J.J Abrams have any sense, they'll forego sequels... or at the very least dream up a different creature.

Cloverfield is, rather predictably, a triumph of style and effects over story and acting. The characters only make superficial connections with the audience, but there are plenty of well-orchestrated moments of chaos (with obvious 9/11 overtones) and it's a refreshing take on 1950s B-movies for the YouTube generation.

Ultimately though, it's all about the monster... so just be glad the big beastie doesn’t disappoint.

Paramount Pictures
Budget: $25 million
84 minutes

PICTURE: 1.85:1 | SOUND: Dolby Digital / DTS / SDDS |