Reviewed by Scott Weinberg
In one robust 80-minute burst of barely-controlled mayhem, the movie Cloverfield demolishes two generally-accepted beliefs: 1. That we've seen all there is to see from the "giant monster" flick, and 2. That the PG-13 rating is automatically the kiss of death for a horror movie. Having survived the six-month onslaught of clever-yet-overwhelming marketing for the flick, I was happy just to sit down and judge the thing as, y'know, an actual movie. And I'm very happy to report that not only is Cloverfield a very good monster movie, but it represents a very welcome advance for the aged sub-genre. Between this flick and the Korean import The Host, one can't help but enjoy the mega-monster resurgence we're being treated to. Enjoy it now ... before all the chintzy copycats show up.
Cloverfield shares a few things in common with the 1999 hit The Blair Witch Project: They both rode into theaters atop a huge wave of "viral" marketing, they both employ the dicey "found footage" technique (which basically means the whole film looks like someone's hand-held home movies), and (best of all) they both manage to inject a lot of color and energy into a frequently derided sub-genre. (I don't know about you, but I'm still pissed at the Godzilla remake for ruining monster movies for half a decade.) Suffice to say that the monster-lover in me was more than satisfied by what Cloverfield had to offer ... but I didn't quite expect the movie to be quite so ... intense!
The plot couldn't be simpler (or catchier): It's an average May evening in New York City, and a bunch of young adults are enjoying a "going away" party for a nice guy named Rob. All of a sudden the lights start to flicker, and then there's a muffled explosion in the distance ... and then all holy hell breaks loose. At first our central foursome are compelled to join everyone else and flee the city, but it turns out that one of the gang is trapped somewhere in the mounds of rubble. And so we begin an all-in-one-night rescue mission that's jam-packed with close scrapes, unexpected demises, massive beasties ... and more than a few unpleasant surprises.
Clocking in somewhere real close to 79 minutes, Cloverfield doesn't waste an ounce of celluloid. We're given just enough character development to keep us interested in the players, but beyond that the flick is a sci-fi / horror / disaster / adventure combo that caters to the genre crowd without relying on obvious tricks or stock conventions. Some may wonder about the "need" for the first-person storytelling technique -- hell, why not just do it like a normal monster movie? -- but in this case, the "Handycam" approach adds a whole lot. The cool irony about the movie is that the "low-tech" approach actually allows for more realistic effects! Once you "buy" the movie through its own peculiar lens, you start to "buy" everything it shows us. So when the monster finally shows up in all his glory (and boy does he!), the video-style cinematography helps create an thrillingly "believable" behemoth! (In other words, shoot Cloverfield in normal fashion, and it might look a lot like that Godzilla remake, only with a much better screenplay.) The "you are there" conceit works exceedingly well here; much more than a gimmick, it adds urgency and intensity to a story that, really, we've all seen several times before.
Even the untraditional approach to casting works in the film's favor. Eagle-eyed film freaks may recognize a few of the young faces (Lizzy Caplan and Mike Vogel, for example), but for the most part the leads are relative newcomers. Sure, they all look like fashion models, but having some fresh faces on board also helps to sell the "realism" package. Special kudos to screenwriter Drew Goddard for delivering an impressively no-frills monster mash; the script is wonderfully bereft of pointless "monster-food" characters, aimless subplots, and phony sentiment. (Plus there's also a handful of very amusing zingers, so listen carefully.) And while everyone seems to be giving fair credit to producer J.J. Abrams, it would be foolish to overlook the work of director Matt Reeves. He's not a first-time feature director (anyone remember The Pallbearer?), but Reeves has done a lot of TV work with Mr. Abrams, and together they've crafted a virtually seamless monster movie that manages to be epic and oddly intimate at the same time.
Beneath the surface of this darkly crafty movie, there lies a bubbling cauldron of possible subtext. (Very few monster movies are actually "about" monsters, as I'm sure you know.) If the movie -- on more than one occasion -- reminds you of a certain event that happened in New York City one September ... I highly doubt that's an accident. Some of the images may feel disturbingly familiar, but hell, what's wrong with that? If Cloverfield was inspired by 9/11 the way the original Gojira was inspired by the decimation of Hiroshima -- I guess each culture tries to defeat its fears (and painful memories) through artistic expression. Plus, monsters usually "work" as a pretty entertaining metaphor.
Interesting characters, a consistently intense tone, some great FX work, a smart script, one bad-ass monster, and a pretty impressive finale. Damn good stuff. Plus, like I said, it's actually kinda scary. And whoever did the sound design should get two Oscars right now.