You know that old
joke about a screenwriter pitching a movie to the suits by trotting out two
completely incompatible movies as touchstones? Well, I can picture the
pitch meeting for Cloverfield, where the writer proudly dropped his
coup de grace on the money guys:
meets The Blair Witch Project!"
Cloverfield is like nothing so much as a Roland Emmerich
(Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow) film with shaky, hand-held
cameras and without the Emmerich.
Instead, it is
produced (but not written or directed by) hip auteur JJ Abrams
(Lost, Alias, Mission: Impossible 3, the upcoming Star Trek
movie). Abrams and his people have been doing a terrific job of using new
media to get a buzz about the film while keeping it rather mysterious. Even
the title of the movie is willfully inscrutable – what does Cloverfield
have to do with anything? (Turns out it is a reference to an old
address of one of the filmmakers and has nothing to do with the film.)
attractions trailer just showed a bunch of Manhattan 20-somethings
videotaping a big going away party when SOMETHING HAPPENS. We’re not sure
exactly what it is, but there is fire and dust and New York seems to be
under siege. There was also a clever preview website to whet the appetites
of the fanboys.
Of course, savvy
internet promotion does not guarantee a good film or even a hit. To prove
that fact, I give you four words: Snakes on a Plane.
However, as a
blockbuster wannabe, Cloverfield mostly delivers the goods. If you
get technical it’s just a new coat of paint on a decades old storyline, but
it has a lot of style even if it doesn’t have that incredibly much
The characters are
rather one-dimensional – a problem that I think is more due to the movie’s
format than the script – that it was all a home video of a going-away party
which happens to capture the destruction of a city.
People being filmed on
home video, no matter how casual they may try to be about it, are always
going to be performing a bit and not letting you too far in. There are some
hints of attitudes, crushes and pathos – but eventually we are looking at
people who are acting like people who are acting for the camera. The young,
completely unknown cast does its best with their under-written characters,
but mostly they go from drunken revelers to horrified witnesses of the
So the very thing that
the filmmakers leaned on to give the film a bit of immediacy has the
unfortunate side effect of also distancing us a bit from the characters.
Since we only know these people rather superficially, it is harder
to work up
as much sympathy for them when a giant monster attacks New York.
Yes, now that the big
secret is out it is just a hair anticlimactic. The mysterious force
wreaking hazard was a giant lizard creature – the type that have been
stomping on cities in Japanese horror films for decades, in everything from
Godzilla to Ultra Man.
Oh sure, this one
has some interesting quirks – particularly the deer-sized flea-like
creatures which drop off the monster to do their own particular form of
mayhem. In the meantime, people panic and die while the military tries
futilely to destroy the creatures.
The early scenes of
Lower Manhattan buildings crumbling to the ground still are just a little
too reminiscent of the World Trade Center disaster, but once you settle in
to the story that uneasy feeling mostly leaves you. Also, on a side note,
the destroyed New York sets in this film, while very well done, are not
quite as realistic and impressive as the ones in the other recent Manhattan
apocalypse film I Am Legend.
The makers of
Cloverfield have learned their monster movie rules though. Particularly
smart on their part was limiting our exposure to the monster. Through much
of the film we only see him in brief flashes – a leg here, a tail there, a
brief flash of the face. These hints are much scarier than in the end when
we actually see the monster for extended periods of time, where the creature
looks a bit CGI. Also, like in the old-school monster movies, the monster
seems to grow or shrink to fit the area it happens to be destroying.
However, even with
its flaws, Cloverfield has a good time playing with B-movie
conventions and makes for a rather engrossing thriller.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
Posted: April 16, 2008.