Review: Cloverfield

What is it? After months of hype and speculation, the J.J. Abrams produced monster movie Cloverfield finally hits the big screen and you know what? We still don’t know what it means. And that’s okay. From the get go this has been a high-concept affair – “Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla” – and it mostly delivers what it has been promising since we first saw the head of the Statue of Liberty come sailing out of the sky back in June.

As the film opens, we are introduced to the basic concept of the film; that the entire thing is going to be shown to us through the first person lens. We are told the video footage we are watching was found in an area of what was formerly known as Central Park and it is part of something code-named Cloverfield. That’s as much explanation as we’re going to get over the next 80 minutes or so, about the length of a standard miniDV tape. We watch the story unfold: It starts with typical home movie footage of a surprise going away party. We get a little bit of story and are introduced to some of the party guests – Jason (Mike Vogel), his girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas), the guy holding the camera, Hud (T.J. Miller) and the object of his lust, Marlena (Lizzy Caplan). Then we meet the guest of honor, Rob (Michael Stahl-David) and we learn he’s got a shaky romantic past with Beth (Odette Yustman).

Nothing is blatant here. Everything we learn we infer. The tape we’re watching assumes we know all the players and their relationships. In this way, screenwriter Drew Goddard is both incredibly clever and quite frustrating. If we’d been given more information, we wouldn’t buy the premise, but without traditional story-telling markers, it’s hard to find empathy for the characters. It’s a fine line Goddard walks and for the most part he pulls it off. He’s especially good at injecting humor at the proper moments (usually through Hud, who is almost never seen) allowing us a moment’s laughter before again sending us back into the terror.

Once the monster attacks, though, all bets are off. Things get jumbled and shaky and we are kept just as off-balance and in the dark as the people we are following. Like them, we never get a good look at the monster, instead just catching glimpses as it slithers by in the distance. What we do get, however, are some interesting cultural visuals. When the creature first attacks, taking down a building or two, our gang runs into a convenience store to avoid the carnage. The resulting wall of dust which envelops the street is so reminiscent of 9/11 footage as to make me slightly uncomfortable. From there, the plot becomes a quest, as Rob realizes he must rescue Beth, who is trapped in her apartment. And away we go.

To be fair, Cloverfield is not breaking new ground. Matt Reeves, who is part of the creative team behind Lost, is almost invisible in his direction. And this is a good thing. With one or two exceptions, we never question the home video footage. His most visible contribution comes from the way he inter-cuts the footage of the ongoing action with the images previously on the tape, always reminding us of why Rob is doing what he’s doing.

Yes, the ending is a bit abrupt, it remains consistent with the way the rest of the film is shot. We don’t get any answers because the people shooting the footage don’t get any and while that’s not completely satisfying, to end it any other way would have destroyed the integrity of the film.

(Originally published at FirstShowing.net)

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