Film in Focus: Cloverfield.

GodisintheTV 04/02/2008

Cloverfield is the new much talked about monster movie from director Matt Reeves and Producer JJ Abrams(both responsible for TV hit Lost) that clocks in at a short sharp 70 minutes. Using a unique point of view hand held camera style, its generated quite a bit of interest for its depiction of a New York skyline under attack from a monster who is rarely seen in full in the film. We sent not one, but two reviewers Jorge Costa and Stas Werno to find out whether it lives up to the hype...

Film - Cloverfield
Director - Matt Reeves

First up Jorge Costa gives you his take on Cloverfield:

A monster of clever advertising, the teaser for this (then still nameless), film came out before the crew had even started principle photography. Since then, hype for JJ Abrams' (Lost, Mission Impossible III), project has just snowballed into stratospheric levels through the ingenious use of viral marketing, giving the characters myspace profiles, and just generally enshrouding the entire thing in secrecy. Just what is stomping around New York? And is there more than one? And what is chasing the people down on ground level? And are they getting infected with something? And why does Hollywood love torturing the Statue of Liberty?!

I feel almost weary about saying anything at all about 'Cloverfield' for fear of spoiling the film, but it should come as no surprise that, after much speculation, the thing wondering around Broadway is in fact, a monster. Thankfully, director, Matt Reeves, and screenwriter, Drew Goddard, know that answers usually aren't as interesting as the questions themselves, so we never know what the thing is, why it's there or where it came from. We just know that it inconveniently crashes Rob Hawkins' (Michael Stahl-David) leaving-do just before he jets off towards the land that gave birth to Godzilla.

Before all the mayhem ensues, Reeves uses the party as a means to establish the characters, and their various connections and issues, with the main one being between Rob and Beth (Odette Yustman), which opens the film after the two shared a night together. They haven't spoken since, but Reeves cuts to these earlier episodes every once in a while through the fact that his best friend, Hudson (TJ Miller), has started taping over that day to record the party. For the fact that the film is entirely captured via a handheld camcorder is 'Cloverfield's gimmick - and it's a very good one.

Like 'The Blair Witch Project' before it, the effect serves to suck us in immediately with the fact that not everything is visible resulting in your eyes being glued to the screen for fear of missing something vital. The heightened sense of reality also establishes a stronger connection to the characters, but considering that the film aims for realism, it sometimes falters in creating realistic interactions between these characters themselves. Hudson in particular, with his constant bumbling comments and attempts at conversation with the completely disinterested Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), seems to solely serve the role of comedic sidekick. That, and of course, filling in as our camera man, which makes for a rather irksome combination at times. Similarly, a lot of what happens in the party, like the conflict between Beth and Rob, just comes across as overly-scripted.

But buckle up because from that first roar and that shot of fireballs swishing through the sky, the film becomes a complete thrill ride right until the very end. One more Hollywood contrivance sends Rob and friends into the heart of the carnage to save Beth, but hey! it gives us a spectacular cinematic experience to revel in.

Reeves effectively ratchets up the tension through various visceral set-pieces including unwise trips across the Brooklyn Bridge and through the darkened tunnels of New York's subway system. The latter is an especially excellent piece of intense filmmaking, one which, like The Blair Witch Project, shows that sometimes the scariest things are those you can't physically see. Or can't see coming or don't understand why they're happening in the first place, which suits the film - with its images of collapsing buildings, smoked filled streets and people covered in dust - as some kind of allegory to 9/11 in the same way that Godzilla was apparently one to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And if you don't understand it, then dissociate yourself from all the shit going down around you and take picture of the decapitate head of the Statue of Liberty with your camera-phone instead!

But the film doesn't really dwell on these things, which is a shame as it could have given the film another layer, much how 'The Host' incorporated its socio-political commentaries of inept and arrogant governments without ever sacrificing thrills, comedy or pathos. In this respect, 'Cloverfield' is actually a little bit bizarre as most of its critical social dissections occur via the multitude of websites that supported its insane marketing campaign. Stories of people going missing, dodgy substances, the mysterious destruction of an oil rig and a shady Japanese drinks manufacturer almost eclipse the intrigue generated by the end product itself.

Almost. Sharp-eyed viewers will find references to these things in the film and at the end of the day, this is a film review, so I guess I should be focusing on the film itself, though a discussion could be made that the advertising pretty much made the film and it calls into question of how we will view films in the future. Will it get to the point, if it hasn't been reached already, where an advertising pitch generates the idea for a film, instead of the other way around? Will we have to begin entertaining filmmakers by having to visit all these websites to fully appreciate a picture? I hope not and maybe I'm making this into a bigger deal than it really is for, like most recent high profile pictures, the hype does not kill 'Cloverfield' and in fact, it more than lives up to it. It's mean, lean, vicious, heartfelt and as an unpredictable, unrelenting action film, it's a fucking masterpiece.

Stas Werno sets Cloverfield in the context of modern Scary movie making:

I want you to think hard and be honest here - when was the last time you were scared by a monster film? In fact, when was the last time you even appreciated one on an even slightly serious level? Lets face it, by 2008 we've been subject to enough articles on BBC news and enough documentaries on channel 4 to know that the only 'monster' that is really likely to harm us is the hooded kind you will find waiting for you in a dark alley in Streatham. Or calories. Over the last decade films have adapted to our more scientifically knowledgeable society to reflect this. The genuinely scary movies have been the ones that explore what human beings can be capable of - I would include the likes of Wolf Creek and Irreversible in this bracket, whilst 'monster' films have served merely to entertain us or make us laugh - think Dog Soldiers and Deep Rising.

So why, nearly a decade in to the new millennium, is the most terrifying and original film to come out in recent memory about a big monster attacking New York? It could be the post 9/11 fear embedded in the minds of all Americans, severely affecting their culture the way the atom bomb burnt its mark into the minds of Japanese film makers decades before. It could be the revival of the long lost art of tension, fear of the unseen, a technique that made Jaws and The Haunting (1963) masterpieces of their time - one that until now was tossed aside in favour of sugary CGI. It could be the method of storytelling (the film is shot beginning to end as if through the video camera of one of the New Yorkers caught up in the middle of the devastating event), which whilst not totally unique, is perfectly executed, and acutely perceptive of our modern Youtube culture of recording every aspect of our lives. In fact it is because of all of these things, and so much more.

Hopefully, unless you've extensively researched the film, this review will leave you none the wiser as to what the film is actually about as the trailers and internet forum rumours have. This is intentional, as much of the films brilliance stems from its relentless roller coaster of surprise and awe. But of course you don't want to pay for your cinema ticket (and yes, it really does need to be seen at the cinema) having no idea what kind of experience you'll be letting yourself in for, so I'll assure you of this. You will leave the theatre shaking, but feeling refreshed and fulfilled, with soon to be iconic images burned into you retina - and you will still be talking about it 24 hours later. If I'm honest I can't say that of any film I've seen in recent memory, let alone a monster one.