It’s a good thing that Cloverfield is only eighty minutes long [not including closing credits] – otherwise I might not have been able to leave the theatre afterward! As it was, I felt like I had been through an actual wringer when the lights came up.
There are different types of intensity: the kind of emotional intensity that comes with a disintegrating relationship, or an abusive one; the intellectual intensity of a well-crafted mystery, and the visceral intensity that comes from a good thriller, or horror film. Cloverfield provides plenty of that last one. After setting up the scenario with some careful characterization, Cloverfield shifts to warp speed and maintains it until the final frame.
The trailer has done one thing exceptionally well, set up the situation of the film. Some friends have organized a going away party for a guy named Rob [Michael Stahl-David] whose promotion to vice-president of something within some unnamed company is taking him to Japan. Not long after the party gets underway, the building shakes and the most terrifying night of their lives begins.
The evening is documented by Hud [T.J. Miller], whom we only see onscreen for a few minutes. The most prominent partygoers are Lily [Jessica Lucas], the woman who organized the party; Jason [Mike Vogel], Rob’s younger brother; Marlena [Lizzy Caplan], who hadn’t even planned on being there, and Beth [Odette Yustman], a long-time platonic friend of Rob’s.
Oddly, the film opens with Rob and Beth having a seemingly perfect day, but before we can be sure of that, it cuts to the party. Jason, who was to have documented the evening, forgot to change the tape, so the dire moments of the night are occasionally broken up by moments from that day.
Once the building shakes, though, those brief moments from that perfect day seem ancient history. In a rush, we get the scenes from the trailer – people rushing to the roof – then rushing for the stairs when an explosion sends something flashing in their direction; getting to the street; watching the head of the Statue of Liberty crash to the ground nearby.
It’s all they can do to maintain any semblance of sanity. What could do that? As they stare at the head in stunned disbelief, the ground shakes again and they begin to run in the opposite direction – taking shelter in a convenience store in hopes that whatever is out there will pass by. We get scenes with people in the street being covered with ash, reminiscent of 9/11. We get glimpses of part of the monster. As Hud shouts, “It’s huge and it’s alive!”
Over the course of the next fifty minutes, we gain looks at more and more of the monster. Godzilla it ain’t! It would probably eat Godzilla for a snack! A tentacle destroys the Brooklyn Bridge, killing thousands and preventing our partiers from escape. When the behemoth is hit by tank fire, smaller monstrosities fall from it. Nowhere is safe – not inside; not in the subway tunnels.
The film’s cinematography is credited to Michael Bonvillain, but much of the filming was done by T.J. Miller [Hud], according to a recent piece in the L.A. times. Another article [in USA Today, I believe] noted that many of the main cast did some Handicam work over the course of the shoot. And here, is where the genius of J.J. Abrams comes in [he had the idea for the film] – the story isn’t told from outside the action. We see, essentially, what the five main characters see. We are inside the movie!
Now, some critics will likely say something to the effect that Cloverfield is a feeble attempt to bring a kind of documentary sensibility to monster movies. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even though Hud starts out documenting Rob’s farewell party, this no documentary he’s making – it’s a home video gone horribly, tragically wrong. It’s an evening of merriment and fond farewells turning into Armageddon.
That Bonvillain and various cast members have managed to take all kinds of shots – including CG effects shots – and made them all look like Handicam shots caught by a terrified partygoer in the midst of Ragnarok, is absolutely amazing!
Almost as amazing is the way that Drew Goddard [who took Abrams’ idea and crafted the framework for the story] and Matt Reeves have made us care about five characters who would’ve been denounced as yuppies not that long ago. Considering that they do it through the device of a going away party – when most of these people would likely be at their lamest – only adds to the overall impact of the film.
As for the monster itself, well, it seems to be cobbled together out of a combination of alien insect and H.P. Lovecraft’s Old Ones. Even when we see it from a helicopter, we only see its back. And when its head becomes visible near the end, we don’t see the rest of it. Over the course of the film, we see all of it – a bit at a time – but we have to put it together as a whole, in our imaginations. It’s that brilliant bit of storytelling craft that combines with the film’s unique point of view to make Cloverfield a masterpiece of the genre.
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