Cloverfield (2008)

Author: J.T. Jeans
Submitted by: J.T. Jeans   Date : 2008-02-26 10:58

Written by: Drew Goddard
Directed by: Matt Reeves
Produced by: J.J. Abrams

Reviewed by: J.T. Jeans

This review contains MINOR SPOILERS for the film Cloverfield.

Despite my own personal rule about not getting too excited by the traditional Hollywood Hypemachine, I have to admit that the hype surrounding Cloverfield had me pretty amped from the very beginning. I saw Transformers in the cinema on opening weekend, and I think the enigmatic trailer labeled 1-18-08 was probably the best part of the entire experience. It got my heart beating and my blood pumping in a way that Transformers only wished it could.

I'm happy to report that despite the hype and high expectations, Cloverfield pretty much delivered exactly what I wanted -- a tense, scary thrill ride that doesn't let up too much once the action begins. Unfortunately, this is also one of the film's greatest weaknesses, but more on that later.

The film opens with some suitably disjointed footage of Beth McIntyre (Odette Yustman) and Robert Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) spending time together prior to the film's core events. We get a brief but telling outline of the pair's relationship before jump cutting to Lily Ford (Jessica Lucas) and Jason Hawkins (Mike Vogel) as they plan a surprise going away party for Rob, which Lily would like Jason to document on video.

Jason dupes Rob's best friend, Hud Platt (T.J. Miller), into taking over filming duties. While Hud half-heartedly films testimonials from Rob's friends, he clumsily tries to woo Marlena Diamond (Lizzy Caplan), a fish out of water who is only at the party due to her friendship with Lily.

The first fifteen minutes of the film follows this set of characters from place to place and establishes their relationships with one another. They all come across quite well when you consider the medium on which the film is being made, and the acting is pretty solid from top to bottom. You believe these are just regular people who are joining up to celebrate the departure of a brother, a soon to be brother-in-law, a best friend, and a lover.

I think it was a good move on the part of producer J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves to hire unknowns for these roles because it helps with the suspension of disbelief. There's also just enough screen time dedicated to each character up front to make you care about what happens to them.

Unfortunately, the attention to character practically evaporates when the proverbial smuck hits the fan. Once the characters leave the party and events begin to roller coaster at a breakneck pace, there's very little time for further development. It perfectly illustrates one of the more restrictive aspects of the single handy-cam approach: we only see what Hud is seeing.

There's one particular moment in the film where things lull ever so slightly. We see Rob and Lily having a conversation, but we only catch glimpses from across an empty subway station. We hear none of the exchange, and are instead treated with some half-hearted conversation between Hud and Marlena. Had this been a traditional film, we could have got some coverage thanks to the scene cutting between conversations, but in this case it simply wasn't possible.

The trade off for a lack of personal time with the characters is a nail-biting injection of tension. I think Cloverfield has nearly perfected what The Blair Witch Project and Halloween: Resurrection was trying to do. Because we're only seeing what Hud sees, when something jumps out of the dark directly at camera, the home video look helps enforce the overwhelming sense that we ourselves are under attack.

Granted, most of the scares in the film are jump scares, but there's still a level of tension that Reeves manages to maintain most of the time, and I think that's down to the isolated nature of the "found footage" concept. You really feel as though you're there in the thick of it with these characters.

For a film with a budget of roughly $25 million -- meager by today's big blockbuster standards -- the creature effects are pretty good, the devastated New York is convincing, and there are some genuinely shocking moments that made me grip the arms of my chair. There's not much humor in the film, particularly once the smuck hits the fan, and some might find the ending to be a bit too nihilistic. I personally found it to be both tragic and suitable.

A warning for those with weak stomaches -- if you're prone to motion sickness, I suggest taking Dramamine before seeing the film. I personally didn't have any problem with it, but a friend who went with his coworkers told me several people had to get up and leave due to nausea. Some cinemas have even started hanging signs with warnings.

Over all, I think Cloverfield is a fine return to form for the giant monster sub genre. The character's aren't the deepest you'll ever see and there's no overt gore in the film, but the use of hand held video and dark locations makes for a tense, sometimes frightening experience. It should also be noted for you bare skin fans that there's practically no nudity to be found, so if you're looking to be tantalized, you won't find that here.

Hopefully this is a sign of better things to come in a genre that was critically wounded by the Americanization of Godzilla in 1998. If you have the chance to see it in the cinema, do. If you have to wait for DVD -- Buy It!

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