a critiQal film review Cloverfield (2008)

Plot: Five young New Yorkers throw their friend a going-away party the night that a monster the size of a skyscraper descends upon the city. Told from the point of view of their video camera, the film is a document of their attempt to survive the most surreal, horrifying event of their lives.

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Ever since the early previews got us interested, we’d been wanting to see “JJ Abrams secret movie” Cloverfield so much we were planning on actually venturing into theaters for it this past January – a month we normally never go to theaters.

As we were about to go, however, news reports of people getting motion-sick from the jittery camera shots made us reconsider, especially since we were both recovering from bouts of the flu at the time.

Hoping the small screen would lessen any motion-sickness (and feeling hale and hearty), we couldn’t wait to check out Cloverfield now that it’s on DVD.

But would this “secret” monster movie be nothing more than just hype, or were we in for a treat that really shouldn’t have been missed in theaters?

The cast is mostly unknown actors, a must for any film aiming for a home video feel – after all, if the people are recognizable, unless they are playing themselves it’s going to destroy the amateur home video feel the film is shooting for.

While most of the cast have nothing to do except party and then die, some of the characters, especially Michael David-Stahl as Rob, have to convincingly stay in character while fleeing from some impressive special effects. Fear and determination are Rob’s main emotions, and David-Stahl helps the viewer connect with his character by doing a good job of displaying both.

TJ Miller, portraying Hud, isn’t on screen a whole lot, but as the camera operator, he is easily one of the most influential characters of the film. While his face gets very little screen time, his voice sounds out more than any other character.

That voice is the viewer’s guide to what’s happening as much as what’s seen on the film, and Hud’s mix of stupidity and shock are both annoying and somewhat endearing to the viewers. Sure the guy is an idiot, but at times that comic relief is exactly what’s needed, and the viewer connects to Hud to a large extent because of that.

The shaky camera angles, while annoying at times, really help draw the viewer into the film as the viewer can both picture themselves filming just like that, and because the viewer has to concentrate a bit more to figure out what’s happening on screen. Plus, it puts the viewer right in the middle of the action – so close, in fact, that they are unable to get more than glimpses of the creature for most of the film.

This is actually a good thing, as most monster movies fail in the same regard – the monster isn’t as horrible as the audience has imagined in their heads. So when the monster is revealed, the viewer is inevitably disappointed. And while normally seeing the monster is disappointing, never seeing the monster is even more so. This is especially true since the viewer can see the tricks of light and shadow that conceal the monster from view are just pathetic attempts to heighten the mystery – a mystery that goes unsolved if the monster is never revealed.

This was the downfall of the earlier “home video” film, The Blair Witch Project. While the film did a good job of introducing a new way to film a movie, the non-appearance of the actual monster was incredibly disappointing.

With Cloverfield, the filmmakers have taken the best parts of The Blair Witch Project and added to them, giving the viewers quick glimpses of the monster throughout. The viewer never gets the feeling the monster is being kept hidden from them – instead, it’s more that the camera has yet to get a good angle on the creature.

As the film progresses, the monster is revealed further and further, until the audience finally gets a good look at the creature. While it may not meet everyone’s expectations, the buildup and furtive glances at the creature go a long way toward preparing the viewer for what to expect, thus lessening their disappointment when they finally see the creature up close.

Thankfully, the creature is different enough to be unique on screen (no, it’s not Godzilla – despite a somewhat subtle reference to that monster icon earlier in the film). It’s definitely an odd creature – and it isn’t alone, thanks to another menace not revealed in the previews.

The special effects in Cloverfield are outstanding, and the viewer never wonders if any of the film was shot on a soundstage. Whether it’s the popular scene from the preview where the Statue of Liberty’s head comes careening down the street, or the monster itself, the special effects usually are able to keep viewers tuned in to the implied reality of the film.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, most noticeably during the death of one of the members of the group. Thanks to a ridiculous shot of an Alien-like human takeover seen through a well-lighted curtain, viewers may find themselves pulling away from the film a bit – especially when the characters react to the obviously ridiculous scene the same way they’ve been reacting to the other scenes in the film.

Taking the amateur videography of The Blair Witch Project to new heights, Cloverfield looks to usher in the new era of “home video” films with a bang. While it does have some flaws – including the scene mentioned above and a ridiculously cheesy ending – Cloverfield manages to bring the over-sized monster movie down to a more personable level with it’s audience.

If Cloverfield is any indication of the “home video” films to come, count us in. In the meantime, be sure to check out this one on DVD for yourself. It’s definitely worth a rental.

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