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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Movie Review: "Cloverfield"

"This is some bullshit...!"

That's what I heard about two minutes before the end of the 7:40pm showing of "Cloverfield," the new and highly-anticipated movie from the latest Hollywood wonder-boy JJ Abrahams. When the screen went black, and "Directed by Matt Reeves" appeared, the same person said "I'm gettin' my money back, this is bullshit!" And he wasn't the only one. "Cloverfield" left this Brooklyn audience with a mutual vibe...dejected, disappointed, annoyed, ripped off...the two comments uttered by one lone voice pretty much summed it up.

And that's too bad, because I liked it. A lot.

"Cloverfield" follows the tradition of films like "Man Bites Dog" and "The Blair Witch Project." It's a high-concept mock-documentary, but this time with special effects. Imagine every monster movie you've ever seen, but instead of following the scientists who are trying to find out where the monster came from, or the military men trying to destroy it...what happens if one of the people running out of the monster's path just happens to have a camcorder. That's "Cloverfield."


The setup is similar to "Blair Witch"-- a video tape has been found by the military and has been archived as a classified piece of evidence of the event dubbed the "Cloverfield" incident. What we are watching is, in its entirety, the tape itself, having been tagged with DoD (Department of Defense) pre-roll, and a "Property of the US Government" watermark.

When the footage begins, we are introduced to a clever little flashback devise that is sprinkled throughout the films, mostly after moments of high stress. Its a tape of a guy named Rob (there are no stars in this film, by the way) making a recording after spending the night with a beautiful young woman named Beth. They have a great connection; they're playful, and in love, and planning what they want to do for the rest of the day. But then the footage cuts abruptly. The tape has been recycled (accidentally) and is now being used to document a party for Rob...he's moving to Japan for a job as a vice president for some company. The party is being documented by his friend, Hud. But there is a problem. When Beth shows up at the party, she's with another guy. This leads to a bit of drama-- something has obviously happened in the time between the original contents of the tape, and the new story being taped over it. But just as the drama has died down, there's a massive explosion, and a violent earth tremor, that knocks out electricity for blocks. From this point on, it's non-stop, leading up to that shot that flashed briefly in the teaser trailer...the head of the Statue of Liberty crashing through buildings and landing in the middle of the street, almost right in front of them. One of my favorite moments in the movie is when people start taking out their cellphones to take pictures of it.

The romance between Rob and Beth is the thread that runs through this movie. Without it, this film would have been about 30-40 minutes long. They ultimately need a reason to stay in Manhattan while all this craziness is going on (they had two chances to get out of the city, and a third at the end). It worked for me. I liked the characters. And I thought the situations worked-- nothing really felt forced. I also liked the length of the film; it ended EXACTLY where it needed to. It's a 90 minute tape,'s a 90 minute movie.

The effects were great, when they were explosions and rubble, and other inanimate objects. The creature itself, which I thought I had already seen (but hadn't) is like every other creature made in CG...fake. CG has really done a lot for blending effects into filmed environments, but creatures and people and other living things, unless they're small, or blurred or something, almost always look like shit. But they don't look any worse than the Godzilla movies I used to grow up with...and the Ray Harryhausen screw it. I still liked it.

Another thing I like about the movie is that you only know as much as the people in the film know...which is not a whole hell of a lot. We are completely in-the-moment with this experience. There are things that happen, and some clues that allude to certain things (pay close attention every time you see a television), but there are a few things that happen without explanation, or warning. The only thing that anyone ever knows is that the city is under attack by some big thing. No one knows what it is, nothing seems to be capable of destroying it, and the only thing we can do is get away from it.


As many people have noticed, New York destruction films seem to be emerging as a new genre. I mean sure, there have been films that have destroyed NYC in the past, but the post-9/11 world has brought us some new visions that are much more realistic and far more visceral. Anyone that was in New York City on 9/11, or glued to the television on the day of, and the days immediately after, will see a lot of familiar things in "Cloverfield." I could imagine that the filmmakers watch hours of 9/11 footage for inspiration. If you want to see something even closer to it in reality, rent Gedeon and Jules Naudet's accidental disaster film, "9/11".

But if the audience I saw this film with was any indication, it seems like a lot of people will be with this film up to the last 20 minutes or so, which is when the they seemed to turn on the film (the result of the search for Beth). But as the "flashbacks" suggested, this moment was exactly what needed to happen. And the ending is pretty much exactly the way it needed to be. Like "Blair Witch" and "Man Bites Dog", these things have to end; and all we really need is the tape to tell us what happened...

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