Saturday, January 19, 2008

Cloverfield

With this tape, we are so gonna win $10,000

Just when you thought that Hollywood had run out of ways to tell the "Big Monster Destroys Big City" formula, there comes "Cloverfield," a Godzilla-esque flick that married the "Blair Witch Project" and spawned a very frightening, hyperactive child." Told completely from the point of view of a guy wielding a digital video camera with seemingly endless battery life, "Cloverfield" manages to play on the senses like a ride on a very old, rickety roller coaster that also has the ability to throw bowling balls at your head. Wait... that almost sounded like a bad thing. Well, it's not. "Cloverfield" is surprisingly effective.

The movie starts with "standard use" camcorder stuff, at a going away party for a young man named Rob (Michael Stahl-David) who has landed a new job in Japan. His friend Hud (T.J. Miller) is using the camera to tape testimonials, spy on people's love life drama, and other ultimately meaningless, character-building tidbits that set the stage for a "you think you've got problems now" scenario when things start exploding in midtown Manhattan, and the head of the Statue of Liberty goes rolling down the street. At this point, Hud becomes something of an amateur documentary maker and he even manages to add a bit of comedy relief to what would otherwise be a hopelessly horrific situation. There is a giant creature of sorts laying waste to every skyscraper in its path. We don't know, at least initially, what it looks like and this amps up the fright factor a great deal.

The monster's place of origin is not revealed to us either, naturally, but Hud speculates that it could have come out of the ocean or from another planet. All we do know is it is impervious to modern military weaponry, and there are even little parasites on it (that are about the size of a compact car, which should provide proper perspective) that look like what would happen if Godzilla had visited a prostitute on the seedier side of town.

There is a lot of frightening imagery in "Cloverfield." Skyscrapers coming down in massive clouds of dust evoke memories of 9/11. Images of tanks firing at the monster felt startlingly real. The incinerated New York skyline, seen only in glimpses here and there had a rather haunting quality. And when our heroes go into a tilting building to rescue one of their friends, we feel as exhausted as they do when they climb up nearly 60 floors of stairs.

The device of filming it with such an "amateur" technique, provided it doesn't nauseate you, has a way of bringing the viewer directly into the story and behind the heels of everyone else running for their lives in a panic. Director Matt Reeves showed great instinct and restraint here by choosing to keep the monster off-camera for most of the film, not only because it adhered to the film's logic, but because it is a time-tested horror device that the less we see of a baddie, the more scared we are. There is no way the film would have been effective at generating scares if it had been filmed in sleek, "steady cam" style. The slightly grainy quality of the film has a way of unsettling us further, and it allows our imaginations to fill in details lost in the murk. Because we aren't provided with any information that our main characters haven't been, we are simply witness to, and members of, the surrounding pandemonium. Perhaps the most fright-inducing aspect of "Cloverfield" was the sound, which compensated for the visual jogs. This is a film that demands viewing in a movie theater or a decent home theater with the volume turned way up.

Granted, there were logistical questions I wanted to ask when the lights thankfully came back on during the closing credits, but I blocked them out. Who could possibly try to make sense of such a thing, anyway? "Cloverfield" was a well-made, highly entertaining film that for its short 84-minute duration removed me from my seat and planted me into that hellish nightmare version of Manhattan. My only advice would be to sit several rows back, particularly if you want to avoid a case of stomach-churning vertigo.

Gouda's Final Grade: B+

2 comments:

kenjamd said...

I have nothing but praise for this flick. My one funny thought while watching it happened after someone figured out they could use the camcorder as a flashlight. It ends up playing alright to set for the next scene, but it was awful funny seeing everyone walking in FRONT of the person carrying the light!

Allie D. said...

LOL! It's like they were practiced actors or something! :)