Saturday, January 19, 2008

Movie Review: Cloverfield

Director: Matt Reeves

Writer: Drew Goddard

Starring: Michael Stahl, Odette Yusman, T.J. Miller.

Growing up, my mother always told us that whenever we left to go somewhere, whether it was a quick run to the grocery store or a drive up to a semester of college, that we say 'I love you' to one another. No matter what transpired moments before your departure, you never left angry. This is essentially the human angle of Cloverfield. Yes, just as it looks, it's a survivor/suspense flick, but it's the previously unstated love between two characters that drives the plot. It's simply about a man going to save someone he knows he loves, but never got the chance to say it.

In this peculiar genre, it's easy to have the characters be two-dimensional meals for what moviegoers are really paying to see - the marauding creature(s). For someone who is drawn to character-driven movies, I saw this as a weakness in the movie. However, for a survivor film, it does the best it can - the idea to cut between scenes of the attack on Manhattan and a carefree day trip to Coney Island (as the movie was designed to look like a recorded home video) gave enough background information on the characters for one to actually care about their well-being. While some may have found the going away party scene that took place before the Cloverfield monster reared it's ugly head boring, I felt it was completely appropriate and could possibly have been longer. While the personalties of many of the characters are barely apparent, Cloverfield does well considering the precedent for the category. Hud, the camera operator (Miller) adds a human element to the action scenes and is the source of comic relief.

The cast is by no means awe-inspiring in their portrayal - but it's accomplishment enough that they were believable enough to avoid making scenes laughable. Because the typical survival horror movie has such flat characters that typically run around until their deaths, they are great fodder for spoofs - think about how much 'Blair Witch Project' has been lampooned. Cloverfield appears to have avoided this pitfall. The dialog is relatively realistic - rather than having his protagonists spout inspiring soliloquies, Goddard is smart enough to keep things simple - The majority of the population WOULD say "Oh Shit, oh shit, what was that?" when confronted by a gigantic monster rather than something a John Knowles novella would end with.

On the note of realism, it's clear that producer J.J. Abrams and Director Matt Reeves tried to make the attack as immersive as possible. New Yorkers take pictures of the destruction with camera phones before fleeing and the possibility of another terrorist attack (if you listen closely) is mentioned. It's little subtleties like these that help Cloverfield avoid a cartoony feel that so many of it's kind fall victim to.

Perhaps what impressed me most was the pacing of the film. For as simple as the plot is (no spoilers), it's surprising to find that it lasted an entire hour and a half. Because the makers wanted to stick to the idea that the movie is footage captured on a digital camera, there are few breaks from the scenes of destruction (except for the occasional aforementioned Coney Island clips, which are no more than a minute long each), and there is no 'summing up' of the movie where the format is broken to take it from the traditional cinematic perspective. As soon as one sees the clawed Statue of Liberty head in the street, the movie doesn't stop. The hand held camera enhances the suspense - typically before a scare in a movie, the tension is built up before a sudden sound or sight startles the viewer, but in Cloverfield the constant jerking around of the video makes any moment readily available for a scare. Because you never know when you're going to get hit, the movie goes much faster.

Some may complain that the film reveals too little about the monster. I have concluded that minimal information about it's origin, reason for being on earth, or final outcome of the film is the same reason why the viewer only gets a few good looks at the monster - the moviegoer is better off trying to justify it on his own. If the writer was to include a scene summing up the attack, whether it was set before the footage or after, there would be no pleasing everyone. It takes a mature person to simply accept that some things in life go unsolved, and it is those who will be satisfied with Cloverfield once they walk out of the theater.

Final Verdict: 88/100 (Bro-tally Worth Seeing in Theaters)

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