White type on a black background reading Multiple sightings of case designate Cloverfield Camera retrieved at incident site U.S. 447 Area formerly known as Central Park

A few friends of mine and I saw Cloverfield on Saturday and I was very pleased with the film. It delivered exactly what it needed to and told a convincing and engaging tale from a unique perspective. For those not familiar, Cloverfield is the creation of J.J. Abrams, the creator of Lost. It tells the story of a group of friends whose going-away party is interrupted by the violent invasion of New York City by a massive creature. However, the story is presented as the unedited contents of a video camera SD card (the reason why the movie itself is one and a half hours), recovered after the events it recorded. The novel storytelling device is what prevents Cloverfield from becoming blockbuster dreck like Godzilla and, for me, added a terrifying realism to the entire film, which grabbed me from the moment the attack begins all the way through to the end.*

Note: I give no specific spoilers, but I do occasionally describe the movie’s structure, more often pointing out what is not done. I leave it to you to decide how ‘virginal’ you want you perspective to be going into this film.

Rob smiling in front of friends. One of them is behind him smiling, and in the foreground is a camera phone held up to capture his speech.

One of the main characters, Rob, whose party is interrupted by the Cloverfield incident. This party introduces and develops most of the characters, and sets a mood of normalcy that the movie skillfully reminds us of to keep us in the same mindset as the characters.

Giant monster attack movies are much like zombie movies: they draw you in with the promise of a thrilling creature or creatures, but in reality they’re simply a foil for the people affected by them. Filmmakers who don’t realize this have defeated themselves right out of the gate, by creating an arms race with themselves to keep ratcheting up the spectacle. Abrams and Reeves (the director) clearly realized this, as every device and scene is designed to put you in the shoes of the characters, fleeing an unknown in a city swarming with terror and confusion. I found myself pondering over and over: “What would I do in this situation? What will they do in this situation?” and the answer was often more frightening than the monster itself. With one big exception, I’d probably have reacted in many of the same ways, and have been just as helpless and terrified. This is Cloverfield’s real power.

Some criticism leveled at Cloverfield states that it’s essentially a monster attack movie told in a faux-amateur style, much like The Blair Witch Project, with a thin plot. The funny thing is that this is exactly what the movie is. It hits the goal it aimed squarely at. If this sounds bad to you, don’t bother watching it. If it sounds good to you, then you’ll have a great time. Unlike Blair Witch, Cloverfield has far fewer improvisational problems. Each scene is very intentionally blocked and delivered. Each interaction and even the blurry, frenetic shaking that obliterates any distinct visuals is planned to deliver information and emotion about what’s happening. The video and audio work in conjunction with each other, with little redundancy. Some scenes communicate more through background noise than whatever happens to be in the frame.

An explosion in the New York skyline, seen from a distance at night.

The incident begins in a terrifying but distant way that suddenly becomes very up close.

The head of the Statue of Liberty laying on the street, lit by a fallen streetlight's sparking. The head has large gashes in the metal.

Reeves and Abrams very smartly placed a few iconic images in their film. This is the one that drove the marketing campaign, along with the image of the rest of the Statue.

The heads of people moving across a bridge leading out of the city, lit by a helicopter light.

This scene gave me a real sense of panic. It felt so real, with people being herded off the island by the military, all of them confused and scared.

Aiding this tight immersion is Hud, a somewhat dim but well-meaning friend of the group who’s behind the camera for virtually the entire film. He takes his job of recording testimonials for his friend Rob’s going away party seriously enough that he becomes a self-styled documentarian once things take a turn. His need to fill space with slightly clueless banter is a brilliant device to allow us as the audience to not only have a narrator, but to also have a voice for our own emotions in the world. His character is very believable and what might make him annoying in real life becomes an great storytelling asset, allowing us to feel more involved in the drama and to give us a break with occasional and much-neede comic relief. Every scene carries information and implies more than it immediately conveys. But this is where the production company Bad Robot’s tendency towards convoluted narrative and hidden agendas bites them in the ass a bit.

The ad campaign, which relied primarily on the trailer, featured a great deal of viral marketing and ‘alternate reality’ content online. The campaign amped up the theorizing online (search for Slusho, Tagruato, and Tidowave to see more), and the trailer deceptively implied that there was more conspiratorial content than the final film delivers. For example, in the trailer, we get a large dose of military involvement, tents full of hazmat suits, and even a scene with a soldier’s face blurred out. Well, in the actual theatrical release, this is not the case. A great deal of conspiracy and back story was promised and not delivered. We end up with little-to-no framing story, beyond a sporadic sprinkling of the footage originally on the camera’s card. In fact, the film opens with a flat series of title cards that give bare-bones data about the tape (as one would expect in a military archive), and ends when the camera’s card no longer has any data to display. In spite of this ‘missing’ dimension, the film still brims with details and touches that add a great deal to the story and will likely reward repeated viewing. I’m sure there are websites devoted to picking it apart down to individual frames.

A sliver of a massive shape, covered up by dust a debris, moving behind some buildings at night.

For the bulk of the film, the characters only see pieces of the creature, so that’s all we see as well. It’s a very effective device.

Rob, Marlene and Lily, lit by Hud’s camera light, stand still to listen in a darkened tunnel.

Rob, Marlene and Lily are about to discover a wrinkle in their plan to get through the city.

I’d guess that Abrams decided to remove the censoring elements because it puts the film’s power in jeopardy. We, as the audience have to believe that we are seeing a recording that’s unedited and uncensored, otherwise we begin to doubt its contents and no longer try to interpret it. Instead, we would try to interpret why we’re seeing only these scenes. It would take us out of the moment, which would diminish the most powerful aspects of Cloverfield, the very reasons to watch it in the first place. The film succeeds when it puts us in the place of the military analysts who no doubt combed over its contents for post-action data, and makes us think about how terrifying it would be to be one of the people in the buildings when an unreal gargantuan tramples past. The idea that this is an immensely valuable military asset, one of the few recordings taken from inside the conflict, compels the audience to drink up the details and interpret what they see; really getting inside of the tale. This angle is the far more powerful approach and I’m glad they decided to eschew the more played-out censorship angle.

Soldiers, seen from the side, run up a street firing their rifles.

The military is portrayed with an interesting balance. They aren’t the devious arm of the government, or incompetent, or overly gung-ho. Their portrayal felt well-balanced and realistic. They are facing something they’ve never seen before. And it’s not going down.

A riderless carriage, drawn by a white horse, moves down an empty street, with flaming debris in the distance.

Quiet moments are well placed to contrast the chaos of earlier scenes. The rhythm of the film is very well-handled.

False expectations aside, Cloverfield is an excellent, well-told tale that takes a simple plot and an unbelievably incredible event and fills it all with so much human-scale drama that, with a little willingness, I didn’t become jaded and instead became more and more intensely invested. There are only a few eye-rolling moments where the characters charge into the flames, so to speak, in typical movie fashion, keeping us in the mix. The film acts much like a tightly-constructed short story: it moves a clear purpose and little waste. While it may not be for everyone (particularly those prone to motion sickness, though I had no trouble with it), it is an excellent work and I highly recommend it. Just be sure to pay attention all the way through to the very end.** This is Abrams after all.

MPAA Review: “Violence, terror and disturbing images.”

Ad Exec Review: “Some Thing Has Found Us.”

*Except when the annoying banter of a quartet of teenage boys in the back of the theatre interrupted the film. Teenagers of the world take note: you are not funny, you are not clever, and you will hate people like yourself when you’re mature enough to realize that you are not the center of the universe.

**I’ve been told there’s a secret bit of audio at the end of the credits, but trust me, we stayed and waited through all them and were not rewarded for our time. If it was there, as some say, I didn’t catch it.

3 replies on “Cloverfield

  1. Do you think there will be a sequel. I read somewhere Abrams saying that he made this film because there are no great American giant monsters, like Godzilla. But does that mean that this is a series he wants to continue?

  2. The director said that he was intrigued by the idea of telling the story from another perspective, but beyond that, I’m not sure. It could easily be lame, but if they play it right…

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