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)

63 Responses to “Review: Cloverfield (2008) ***”

  1. I’m still not sure exactly what Scorsese was going for with Gangs of New York, but Aviator is clearly a throwback to various eras of film making re-envisioned through the techniques of modern film making. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to explain the bizarre color palette Scorsese shifts into during the golf scene, but he’s trying to evoke a feeling of that time period so the exaggerated performances make some sense, although really Blanchett was the only one who stood out as exaggerated to me.

    As for Nicholson in the Departed, that movie has a lot of references to Scarface (the original) and Public Enemy. I think Nicholson may just be doing his own persona on-screen, but I imagine Scorsese was pushing him to evoke Cagney and Muni. At least, I hope he was. I know many people were turned off by the stylistized technical song-and-dance of Departed and the over-the-top storytelling, but I loved it. As a fan of Scorsese, it was a lot of fun to watch him have his way with the cast, the story, and the audience.

    I can appreciate those that were less enthusiastic about it though.

  2. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the hell out of Jack (“Enjoy your clams, cocksuckers.”), but I felt a little cheated in that it was overly familiar. He proved with Schmidt that he can stretch and I want more of that.

    I’m an apologist for both Gangs and Aviator, but haven’t seen either one enough to justify my opinion so I’ll keep quiet on them.

  3. “Enjoy your clams, cocksuckers.” SUCH A GREAT LINE. LOL

    I also got a subversive little thrill when ol Jackie boy said that to the priests. I’m a fallen Catholic but still very spiritual. Even though I’ve left the Catholic church I would never even think to speak to a member of the clergy that way. That’s precisely why it’s so funny.

    I adored The Departed BTW. Saw it seven times before I bought it. It’s classic, vintage Scorsese with a Shakespearean chaser.

    I’ll tackle you boys one at a time. So to speak….LMAO

    Craig darling, it does appear that you were joking when you called Gwynnie “beautiful & talented”. Oh, Craig, Craig, CRAIG….Let’s hope so. How can you stoop so low?

    I won’t be darkly malevolent here. I have seen some people make this remark – & I won’t cuz I think it’s going a little too far. You know, people that say they liked Seven or enjoyed it cuz of Paltrow’s character’s eventual fate? That would be pretty damn nasty.

    I’ll give Margot to you guys. She was good in that. But, seriously, it’s a very well written part in a film that’s kind of whimsically lovely & epically tragic by turns. Gwynnie would have to be either terrible or on drugs to screw that up. So I really think that the fact that she’s good in in TRT has very little to do with her abilities as an actor.

    But speaking of that film….

    One other thing that I find greatly amusing (that has really nothing to do with Gwynnie per se) is the way that they set that scene up where you go through the whole parade of her lovers (women & men) while that cool music (was it The Velvet Underground?) takes flight in the background. That sequence is pretty inspired & always makes me laugh when I see it on TV. It’s a really fab way of establishing that Margot has been chronically unfaithful to Bill Murray (at the very least) without using any dialogue.

    But I guess that explains the SIL fetish, sweetie. I bloody loathe SIL with the passion of a thousand white hot suns. Gwynnie is only part of that hatred. It’s absolutely awful in my view. (Except for Judi, of course). I think SPR is a tad superior but not by much. I wanted The Thin Red Line to win SO BADLY. 98 was not a bad year for cinema at all. But you would think so going by the films that they nodded.

    (But Sasha loves SIL & I adore Sasha. So rather than making her upset on her blog I’m giving you the goods here & now, Craig.)

    Also, dearest one, what about the 5 Easy Pieces thing? I saw that years ago on the tube when I was a teenager. I have yet to revisit it. I thought it was the most horrid offensive sexist claptrap I’d seen in many a moon. You’re not a chauvinist at all, Craig. So you clearly have a different view. Maybe you could explain to the class….?

    joel, my favourite thing about GONY (BY A LONG SHOT) was DDL. If he hadn’t won all ready (or Adrien HAD previously) I would definitely have backed him in 2002. (As it was, for me it was pretty much a coin toss.) I thought he was AMAZING. I only saw it once (& never again). But there are moments where I literally held my breath. He’s such a glorified alpha male in that. So brutal. So strong. Completely immovable. Like an iron bar.

    Apparently he lifted weights & listened to Eminem continuously to get into character at the beginning. Bill The Butcher is a fantastic character & DDL just sweeps the floor with anyone else that comes in contact with him onscreen.

    Alexander, as I type this it’s approximately 10 AM Pacific on Saturday. I sincerely hope that you didn’t drive your car off the Golden Gate bridge. I want you posting here (& at AD) for a long, long time. Silly boy. Don’t drive when you’re tired. That’s how accidents happen – & for once I’m totally serious. I wouldn’t want something to happen to you.

    How was your Noir City Festival? I do hope you enjoyed it & that you’re walking around unhurt. Is that the festival where you & sartre were supposed to hook up? If that’s the case I want details. But I’m not gonna feel pity for you. LOL From what I understand you have a lovely girl that’s looking after you. So I’m positive that she made sure that your car stayed on dry land.

    Getting back to TP for a moment. Jack can be brilliant, bold or just a little bit too “Jack”. I loved him in that film. I think Frank Costello had many facets to him that translated as larger than life. If he had been an actual person instead of a film character that would have been true in any case. So for Jack to play him in such a rousing, over the top manner just fits IMO. I still think Jack deserved a nod. I think it’s some of the best work he’s ever done.

    Blanchett (in The Aviator) was just a waste as far as I’m concerned. The accent, the physicality…everything was wrong. Then she accepts her Oscar wearing a piss yellow dress (WHEN SHE’S BLONDE???? – Christ…) & says that she felt so flattered to get that award cuz many of the members actually knew Kate. So she must’ve gotten it right. OH JESUS…

    But the thing about acting is: unless you’re being directed by one of these unstable control freaks (a dickhead like Rob Reiner that gives you LINE READINGS for example) you are ALWAYS completely responsible for your own performance. If someone gives you leeway to find your character & pursue every avenue until you’ve accomplished what you want YOU TAKE IT. EAGERLY. They’ll do what they want with it in the editing room & it’s out of your control once it reaches that point.

    So maybe Marty is giving his actors more leeway as of late & allowing them to come up with a lot of different things instinctually. If a director is worth his/her salt he/she will be more of a collaborator anyway, He/she won’t be threatened by your suggestions. But I don’t think that happens in film very often. Directors have big egos. That’s why they’re directors. LOL I imagine a lot of them think that, aside from fulfilling their visions, that actors are pretty much dispensable.

    I’m a little hazy about the Blanchett/Susan Sarandon comparison, Alexander. Are you speaking in terms of versatility? Cuz Susan is extremely sexy in a classic old school Sophia Loren way…& Blanchett seems like a very cold fish to me.

    It’s only my opinion, but I think Meryl likely became MERYL STREEP (fabulous accomplished actor/film icon) the minute she won for Sophie’s Choice. That was the beginning of that legend. In 85, when she was nodded for OOA – & she had the phenomenal one two punch of Plenty that same year – I think the rep solidified for good. But that’s just my two cents…

    Alexander, I do think the world of you. I’m completely sincere.

    You can disagree with me (PASSIONATELY) any time you want, little baby….

  4. Don’t get me started on the travesty that is the public’s general ignorance of The Thin Red Line. It didn’t help that it had to compete with Saving Private Ryan, an over-rated Speilberg film (in my opinion) but it also didn’t help that the studio was so gun-shy about giving it a proper release. I’m still waiting for Mallick to go back to the original footage and do his own cut, or for him to restore Adrian Brody’s original performance in some kind of extended deleted scene or something. There’s a movie that deserves a massive Special Edition from Criterion with a commentary track explaining just how that production went. It would be fascinating to hear the real story.

    Great movie. Deserved much more than it got.

  5. I haven’t seen SIL in a million years but I stand by my enjoyment of it. I was also rooting for Thin Red Line, for the record. I i didn’t consider SIL to be the best movie, but then the Oscar winner so very rarely is.

    As for 5 Easy Pieces…all I can say is that it’s Jack’s best performance ever and the fact that he plays a prick and a first class chauvinist bastard, that doesn’t mean the movie itself is chauvinist.

  6. Point taken, Craigster. *grins*

    joel, I’m glad someone else loves TTRL & felt that it deserved BP. I know some people who hate it. And of the people that I’m close to that loathe it is a gentleman who told me that SIL is his favourite BP win. He is extraordinarily intelligent, too.

    *scratches head*

    Frankly, I don’t get it…

  7. The main problem I think with The Thin Red Line is that people thought they were getting a war movie and they got poetry.

    Too bad they were too stupid to know how lucky they were.

  8. “…people thought they were getting a war movie & they got poetry.”

    That’s beautiful, honey. Truly – & that’s exactly how I feel about that too. The cinematography is so gorgeous it’s just unbelievable. I’ve never seen grass & the jungle look so deep & green. Water so vibrantly turquoise it resembled Arizona jewelry. It had such an extreme sensual lushness to it.

    (And a huge LOL to the second line of your post. Let’s just say you hit the nail on the head, babe.)

    That’s what stays with me concerning TTRL. It’s the images. I can barely remember the dialogue. But it’s been 10 years since I’ve seen it & those scenes still burn brightly & resonate in my mind.


    The power of the movies….

  9. Some of the voice over sticks with me…but nothing specific. Mostly it’s the images and the feelings.

    Truly visual filmmaking.

    This will not be popular, but I like The New World even better. It’s a cliche to call watching a movie a transporting experience, but that one really was for me in a deeply personal way that is hard to articulate. I was highly emotional at the end and not because of how the story played out exactly, it was what it represented to me which was a regret over a loss of purity and innocence in the world.

  10. I know people that LOVE TNW. I adore Malick (Badlands & ESPECIALLY Days Of Heaven) but I’ve never seen TNW.

    So I can’t comment…

    But methinks you’re a highly emotional sort anyway…

    And I mean that in the most positive sense obviously. LOL

  11. Usually, with movies I’m not. I tend to intellectualize more than emotionalize (word?) but TNW broke down my defenses. Since it happens rarely, when it does it leaves a mark.

  12. Didn’t care much at all for CLOVERFIELD–too much BLAIR WITCH all over again, and overly bombastic, but what a fabulous review you wrote here.

  13. Thanks Sam. For better or for worse, I think a couple of things set Blair Witch apart from Cloverfield: 1) At the time, Blair was an original approach 2) it was done in a way that you could actually believe it was real. Cloverfield, despite their best efforts felt staged.

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