“Good luck tonight Travis”
Cloverfield is a damn good time at the movies—something that one can’t say very often in January, the month usually utilized to dump films while Oscar-bait from the previous year gets released. Seeing the first teaser attached to Transformers in July literally gave me goosebumps at the potential for what it could be. I will admit that while the hype was high, the past couple months saw it wane. The gimmick started getting a tad stale and the tv spots began to ruin the momentum it carried so well before anyone knew what it was. Producer J.J. Abrams knew what he was doing, though, as the end result exceeded expectations, taking the colossal monster genre as background dressing for the human tale of love and regret which came up front and center. I just feel bad for director Matt Reeves and writer Drew Goddard because it is their film yet everyone describes it as Abrams’. Whoever deserves credit, they are receiving a ton from me. Every detail was painstakingly considered, there were actually some genuine scares (usually hard to come by for me), and the story had some weight and meaning, allowing the fine performances to have something to play for, rather than just running for their lives with egos and self-preservation the only thing worth living for.
My main fear was on whether we would see the monster and how that visual would ruin the movie. Stuff like this only truly works for me if the creature creating all the havoc is something foreboding and unseen, always lurking and able to attack at any moment. Here, though, we actually get a look at the behemoth pretty early. From its tale attack on the Brooklyn Bridge to its full visual on tv screens in a local electronics store, we know exactly what it is causing all the destruction. The beauty of the filmmakers is that they never needed the monster for the film to work. It is a secondary character used only as motivation for our lead Rob to hunt out his love Beth and a means to preventing him from reaching her easily. Maybe the world falling apart around them is the catalyst for their feelings to finally boil to the surface, however, the fight is always going on around them; it’s not about defeating the enemy, it is about living for something bigger then yourself, doing what you can for the people you love in a time of desperate need.
Cloverfield asks a lot of its actors throughout. Filmed on a first-person camera, there are many long takes and unbroken scenes to express the aesthetic choice of this being a real primary account of the invasion found later on after the smoke settles. Emotions run high, death takes a realistic toll on both body and mind, and adrenaline flows forth to keep these heroes on the run to get out of Manhattan alive and intact. Each holds his/her own to make it all seem real, injecting humor so that the bleak moments can break with levity. Death is starring them in the face and, like anyone of us would do in that situation, they try to mask their fear with laughter in order to release some of the tension building higher and higher inside of them. Michael Stahl-David, as Rob, is by far the best of the group. He needs to go from deeply in love to tragically scorned and angry, happily surprised by his friends to scared for his life, and confident to risk his own being for another to devastated as he must explain the death of someone close to him over the phone. His emotions run the gamut and he pulls them all off with grace. Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, and Odette Yustman hold their own with the immense pressure of their situation weighing down on them as well. When tragedy strikes, and it does often, they must react realistically to every situation. Special mention also goes to T.J. Miller as Hud Platt, our surrogate guide through the mayhem, acting as our camera operator, complete with commentary and comedic relief with every turn.
With the strong performances and the taut, simple script from Goddard, I have to praise the work of Reeves at helming the piece. With little to work with in order to have the audience relate to and rally behind these characters, we are thrust into the action pretty early on. Goddard crafted a yarn that succeeds from getting the small things right. Rather than go big budget effects, he relies on the human interactions to portray the action. Reeves understands this and allows for a brilliant documentary feel. If you are susceptible to motion sickness, be warned that the camera is very shaky and possibly even handled by Miller while he chases after his friends. The askew angles and amateurish cropping of frame add to this completely, keeping all the action truncated on the edges because if it were real, the viewer would only look when something catches his eye. Turning to see what they think they saw shows off the end result, increasing the fear and anticipation for what might come next. All the monster effects are adequately rendered and the utilization of digital camera tricks—fantastic use of nightvision in the subway, awesome instance of auto-focus confusion with Hud, and precise usage of the fact that this is all taping over a previously filmed event (Rob and Beth’s day out in Coney Island) which shows through wonderfully—shown to full effect. Complete with an ending that truly encapsulates what went on this fateful day in NYC, Cloverfield delivers on all its promises and becomes so much more than just Blair Witch Project mainstream. Every moment is real and touches you in a very personal way. It is an experience, a spectacle; not to be confused with the monster movies that only show you what is happening, this one puts you in the action, making you feel it all yourself.