DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: CLOVERFIELD

Friday 18 January 2008


Cloverfield (2008) dir. Matt Reeves
Starring: Michael Stahl David, T.J. Miller, Odette Yustman


What an unpleasant surprise “Cloverfield” is. Viral hype marketing seems to have overshadowed the actual movie that is “Cloverfield”. Expectations run high when the writers and producers of “Alias” and “Lost” plan a secret sci-fi monster/alien movie. Unfortunately there’s nothing to reveal that isn’t in that wicked-awesome trailer we saw in front of “Transformers” last summer. For a film that aspires to realism ironically is one of the worst examples of style over substance.

It’s Manhattan and a bunch of good-looking successful youngsters have assembled for Rob's surprise going away party (like one of those parties on “Gossip Girl”) . We watch several characters mingle with one another and gossip over the usual things – all of it captured on handycam by one of the characters, Hud. Then, a loud bang, shake, rattle – outside some Armageddon-like disaster has struck (btw. J.J. Abrams wrote “Armageddon”). We continue to follow a handful of party-goers as they navigate their way through war-torn Manhattan to reunite with Rob's girlfriend.

The main fault of the film is the reason why it was made in the first place – the entire movie is seen from the point of view of Hud’s handycam. And Hud is a BAD camera operator. Most of action we see only glimpses of when Hud isn’t running away from monsters, ducking from falling rocks or dodging gunfire. And when we do get to see something, the camera is swishing past at rapid speed, or skewed at such an extreme angle that nothing can be deciphered. This is the Spielberg trick (“Jaws”) – monsters are scarier when we don’t see them on screen. This is true and the monster moments are frightening, but it’s not just the monsters we don’t see, we don’t much of anything. Having been exposed to three Bourne movies, NYPD Blue and enough Dogma-style films, audiences are attuned to the shaky camera, but this is another realm of shaky. I’d say only 25% of the film is framed properly, the other 75% is either tilted, sideways or upside down.

By using this technique “Cloverfield” aspires to 'realism'. But of course in any real situation any sane person would just put down the camera and run for their lives. So this artifice is as shaky as Hud's camera. It worked for "Blair Witch Project" because the characters were filmmakers, and they were actually making a movie. In "Cloverfield" there is no reason for someone to continue filming while their lives are in jeopardy.

Knowing the creative backgrounds of Abrams, Reeves and writer Drew Goddard, what is most disappointing is the actual story, which is paperthin. Strip away the stylistic crutch and we're left with Godzilla. The story doesn't evolve or unfold, nothing is revealed - it's getting from A to B, with only a few obstacles to hurdles. Granted our characters are facing a mean sonofabitch of a monster as well as army of badass insect warriors. And when we do see these monsters it's really cool - but it's too bad we feel nothing for our characters.

None of any of this is original either. The "found footage" preamble we see at the beginning is "Blair Witch Project" and even the idea of a handheld special effects film, perhaps was inspired by Neill Blomkamp (that guy Peter Jackson chose to direct HALO). Watch Blomkamp's short films and you'll see what I mean (see below).

There's no reason why "Cloverfield" couldn't have shot the film traditionally and kept the same point of view. We then could have some more monsters and there would be few pukers in the audience too.

By the way, here's "Alive in Joburg" by Neill Blomkamp:


Justin said...

I have a few thoughts. In the YouTube generation we are in right now, it is perfectly reasonable to assume a young person would film "the end of the world". 9/11 was caught on film by people standing on the streets. There was no reason for them to do it, but they did anyways.
Also, I don't think this movie is supposed to be a "story", but rather a documented experience. We are supposed to see what these people went through. In their reality, they did not plan out a pleasant story while running from a monster. They just ran, and they recorded what they saw when running. It is a documentary and in that documentary we see normal people trying to survive. I don't have much of a story to my life, so I wouldn't expect them to either.
Lastly, why would Reeves and Abrams want to make another generic monster movie? This movie would have been terrible if it was filmed traditionally. There would be no reason to watch it because as you said, there is no true story, we don't care about the characters. The only way to reasonably achieve the effect that they gave us, was to have a regular person record what was going down as it was going down. Knocking a movie for making people sick is like saying a roller coaster is too intense, or music is too loud. Get over it.

Anonymous said...

I usually more or less agree with you, but I think you've missed the whole point here. Cloverfield is like a shard of information around which we have to create our own fill-in-the-blank storyline, world view, backstory, you name it. It's a monster movie from street level with all the faults of a document that would result from living through that night in New York. I admire the filmmakers for taking such a risk with a genre as old as the movies. And then selling it so brilliantly. Man, they doubled their investment the first weekend. More power to them.

Alan Bacchus said...

I'm actually very glad this film has been successful - as opposed to say, "Wild Hogs". I admire these filmmakers too - and would rather see them take risks - even if I don't like the movie.

Anonymous said...

a part of me wishes there was more orchestrated action, like Transformers style, but then again, that wasn't exactly the movie makers' goal