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: