Friday, March 19, 2010

Archive: 'Cloverfield'

Movie Review
Cloverfield (2008)

Shrouded in mystery from all the rumors, "Cloverfield" has finally arrived, but was it worth the hype? While others may disagree, I think so. It's a stylish and clever little gem of a movie that is more than just a monster movie for the YouTube generation. As a hybrid offspring of "The Blair Witch Project" and "Godzilla," the movie is better than you would expect and packs quite a punch. The purposely in-your-face feel brings a sense of unbalance and panic to the entire ordeal as it's entirely shot in a queasy camera fashion that'll have your head spinning and your heart pounding.

Directed by Matt Reeves and labeled with the name of producer J.J. Abrams (creator of "Lost"), the movie opens with a black screen stating that the following is a government file entitled "Cloverfield," a still strangely neutral title that is never explained. Also never explained is the origin of the giant monster ravaging through Manhattan. This massive thingamajig is literally indescribable as it's some bizarre cross between a reptile and a spider that also happens to release mini spawns of itself that run around the streets biting victims, especially in dark subway tunnels. And unfortunately for the small group of people we follow throughout the course of the film, the refuge of a subway tunnel is exactly one of the spots they find themselves escaping through.

We first meet the small group of attractive, mainly self-absorbed twentysomethings at a farewell surprise party through home-video style footage. The party is for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who is just about to leave for a promotion in Japan. His brother Jason (Mike Vogel) is given the job to tape goodbyes on Rob's video camera for him, but he pawns the job off on his friend Hud (T.J. Miller) who becomes our cameraman and narrator for the rest of the time. There's also Lily (Jessica Lucas) and another woman, Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), who Hud is especially attentive towards. She says she's on her way to meet some friends, but she never gets there. Something hits, the room rumbles, the lights flicker, and everybody heads to the roof to get a better look.

There's an explosion out in the distance, and things really get underway when everybody runs down to ground level and the head of the Statue of Liberty comes barreling down the street. The initial scenes of destruction are explicitly reminiscent of 9/11 with crumbling skyscrapers causing billows of smoke to spread across the street, making people frantically run out of the way. Even the movie's working title was "1-18-08." You can't help but wonder why they would evoke such similarities, but then again, how could they avoid it when telling the story in this particular way?

The destructive creature is scariest from a distance through clouds of smoke and debris as a giant presence looming about the city. It's less effective during a full frontal viewing of the thing's face. The building suspense comes from only seeing glimpses of the horrifying thing, which is still impossible to describe coherently. No unnecessary explanation of its existence is needed, either, due to the focus on the action in the video tape. The hand held camera brings a sense of immediacy that couldn't otherwise be portrayed, and it is what makes the film uniquely its own. The camera guy also brings some comic relief to the situation with his own side remarks about everything.

The movie makes up for its high costs in stunning special effects of demolishing New York with a low cost on no-name actors and actresses. Their acting, which isn't so much acting, is what makes them seem like people we could very well know. It puts a face on the victims of mass destruction, faces that could be our own, looking into the depths of something we do not and cannot understand. The characters work to the movie's benefit because there are no stereotypical roles with no real hero. They're all selfish but also selfless, especially Rob who puts his own friends in unnecessary danger to save his sweetheart, Beth (Odette Yustman). These people are meant to be everyday people, and the movie very well makes them appear that way.

The screenplay by Drew Goddard (who worked on "Lost" and "Alias") is smarter than you think, throwing in some unexpected turns while still containing everything within the context of the video footage. It's comprised of a string of well-crafted and harrowing sequences that are actually pretty scary. Along with the subway scene, there are numerous others involving the collapsing of the Brooklyn Bridge and the scaling of a ruined skyscraper leaning against another. And at only 80 or so minutes, it's over before you know it, making for perfect popcorn cinema. But stay tuned at the end because, although the movie is entirely void of any music, the pounding score through the credits is worth giving a listen, along with something else.

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