As Cloverfield begins with a distant, rhythmic booming sound, a title informs us that we’re about to see footage taken from a camera recovered near the area “formerly known as Central Park.” One wonders what happened to the park and, more importantly, the city around it. Since this is a monster movie, it surely can’t be good for the people of New York. The question is: does it bode well for those of us in the audience who want to see a giant monster on the loose, stomping on innocent citizens and knocking the hell out of beloved architectural landmarks? The short answer: yes and no.
After the ominous opening, the film staggers to a creaky start while we spend 20 minutes “getting to know” a group of 20-somethings with whom we wouldn’t want to talk at a party for any longer than it took to establish that they weren’t going to sleep with us; people with names like Jason and Lily and Beth and Hud acting out some kind of soap opera involving a going away party and two friends who’d had sex with each other. When it comes to characters in monster movies, I have one simple rule: be interesting, be naked or be gone. These dimwits struck out on all three counts and I was already checking my watch and squirming in my chair praying for the shit to start hitting the fan 15 minutes in. You can call it a clever, suspense building, diversionary tactic if you want. I call it boring.
Just when I was getting ready to tune out completely, an unusual New York earthquake finally, mercifully interrupts the party. Soon, news reports start to come in of an oil tanker sinking in New York harbor. Fear and confusion set in as the partygoers try to find out what’s going on. Suddenly, watch-and-wait turns to run-and-hide as a huge explosion lights up the nighttime horizon and giant chunks of burning wreckage begin raining down upon the city. At last, we get the money shot from the trailer as the smoking head of the Statue of Liberty lands in the street with a clang. This isn’t an accident and it’s not some kind of terrorist attack. This is something worse.
That’s right, a big, nasty monster is attacking Manhattan. Nobody knows where it came from and nobody knows what it’s so pissed off about. We get only fleeting glimpses of it and all the information we have comes from a video camera held by one of the characters. There are no scientists standing around computer monitors surveying the situation and proposing solutions. There isn’t even a score on the soundtrack to let us know we’re watching a movie. There is only chaos, terror and carnage as we follow Fred, Velma, Daphne and the rest of the Scooby Gang in their attempt first to get out of Manhattan and then to get back into the city to rescue one of their own.
It’s a decent set up and it allows for several interesting set pieces. The best of these take place in a subway tunnel and another on the Brooklyn Bridge. A less successful sequence involves a half-toppled skyscraper that put me in the mind of 70s disaster flicks like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno – for better and for worse.
Along the way, we find out the monster isn’t just a big angry dinosaur, it has a few tricks up its sleeve that seek to add new wrinkles to the genre. Unfortunately, without saying too much about it, the wrinkles are a little derivative of other monster movies that have come before and once the suprise quickly wears off, they feel like a gimmick.
As for the the shaky, first-person camerawork that is the movie’s calling card, it’s both a benefit and a liability. It added to the tension and confusion and lent the film a “you are there” feeling, but for me it was also annoying to watch. Your tolerance for this type of thing will go a long way to determining how well you like the movie. My suggestion: do not watch this movie with a hangover. Also, the illusion of reality was frequently broken as the filmmakers occasionally attempted to wedge in bits of exposition in order to move the story along. They tried to disguise it and make it look natural, but it felt forced.
It turns out there are plenty of other nitpicky details you could seize upon if you decide you really want to hate this movie. For starters, if the Statue of Liberty’s head just landed at your feet, would you stand around it in awe like a monkey from 2001 taking pictures with your cell phone to post on your Facebook page, or would you be running like hell in the opposite direction? Also, some very helpful military types turn up at the right time and the right place to keep the story going. It’s difficult to believe they would be so friendly in such a crisis situation and it’s the kind of thing that will piss you off if you choose to dwell on it. I chose not to for the most part.
Mostly, I liked the idea of a monster movie where you’re never given an explanation of what is happening or why, and the visceral filmmaking style certainly helped ratchet up the tension and highten the confusion, but I genuinely would’ve preferred a more straightforward approach: more carnage, fewer annoying people. Also, the liabilities of the hand-held camera gimmick, for me, nearly outweighed the benefits. Finally, at a sparse 85 minutes, I was hoping for a lean, mean, low-down and dirty monster picture. Tellingly, what I got felt like it was over 2 hour long. They could’ve easily lost 10 or 15 minutes at the beginning of the film and it would’ve made for a much better entertainment.
In the end, Cloverfield gets enough wrong to leave me wishing it was a better movie, but it also gets just enough right and provides a unique enough take on an old genre for me to recommend it to people who are drawn to this kind of thing. Though it feels like a missed opportunity, it’s still worth a look.
Cloverfield. USA 2008. Directed by Matt Reeves. Screenplay by Drew Goddard. Cinematography by Michael Bonvillain. Starring Michael Stahl-David, Odette Yustman, Lizzy Caplan, T.J. Miller and Mike Vogel. 1 hours 25 minutes. MPAA Rated PG-13 for violence, terror and disturbing images. 3 stars (out of 5)
Filed under: Review