Cloverfield (2008)

2008 #40
Matt Reeves | 81 mins | DVD | 15 / PG-13

This review contains major spoilers.

CloverfieldAh, Cloverfield — probably the most hyped “film no one knew was coming” since The Blair Witch Project, if not even longer, and the most widely-discussed marketing campaign since Snakes on a Plane (all of two years earlier). And then, in what can only be described as a surprise, it got good reviews. Less surprisingly, it did pretty well at the box office. Even less surprisingly, they announced a sequel. So far more Blair Witch than Snakes on a Plane, then. Of course, not all reviews were good, and with all this in mind I finally come to see it myself.

Cloverfield works. It has flaws, but overall it works. The opening 20 minutes set up the characters fairly well, though it does take its time. One would hope the idea is to increase the tension by delaying the monster’s appearance, but I can’t help feeling it’s probably just because they think they’re providing a great emotional background. Those who compare these bits to Hollyoaks clearly haven’t seen that risible C4 pile of tosh — Cloverfield’s performances (largely improvised, at least in the early scenes) and direction are much better than that, even if the plot would probably fit snuggly on the teeny soap. I found the opening held my attention well enough, so one has to wonder about the attention span of those who switched off during it. The characters and their relationships may be archetypes, and consequently rather one-dimensional, but at least they show an attempt to make it more than a Big Monster Go Smashy Smashy movie.

That said, it’s when the monster turns up that things kick off. From then the film does a great job of creating an unrelenting chase/escape, drawing the viewer in with its first-person/eyewitness style. You’re never going to be fooled into thinking it’s a real thing that really happened, obviously, but it comes as close as it’s likely to. This is partly thanks to the camerawork, which I’ll get into later. The deliberate drip-feed of information about the monster is well handled also. Those expecting lots of exposition and answers have clearly come to the wrong film, and should perhaps stick to a more straightforward blockbuster. Those who complain that the monster doesn’t make sense, or the bug-parasite-things that drop off it make even less sense, are clearly missing the point — the characters don’t know what this is or what’s going on, so we don’t either; and it’s a sci-fi movie, so any number of explanations you care to put forward could explain things. There are a couple of misfires in this respect — the military’s willingness to explain their plan is unbelievable, and a shot of the monster towering over Hud is a step too far — but mostly it succeeds.

Talking of Hud, he’s come in for criticism, it seems to me for two main reasons: he’s not a great character, and he can’t hold the camera steady. Have the latter viewers ever watched home movie footage? Cloverfield does a spot-on replication of it, which naturally looks odd if you think of it as ‘professional film’ (where even handheld is only slightly wobbly). I challenge anyone to take a normal home video camera and put it through the same things Hud does and come out with any steadier a shot. Sometimes credibility is pushed by having Hud film other characters instead of the more interesting monster (surely where any normal person would point the camera), but it’s only an occasional and minor point. As for his character, he may be dopey, dull, and occasionally even irritating, but his purpose is to be the cameraman — if he were notably likable or, well, notable then you’d want him in front of the camera too. For the sake of the style, someone has to be behind the camera, and Hud’s a perfect fit. You get so used to him as the almost-unobtrusive cameraman that when he’s killed it’s very nearly an audacious shock, though it’s such an obviously audacious move that it’s predictable to most film-literate viewers.

Unsurprisingly, there’s not a huge deal of originality in Cloverfield. The monster itself may look different to the norm, but it stomps through the streets like Godzilla, the attack of its minions/parasites/whatever in a dark tunnel is a sequence we’ve all seen before (nonetheless, it’s effectively done here), and their chestbursting-like birth is obviously straight out of Alien (even if it’s toned down to a PG-13-friendly silhouette). Even the (in)famous handheld style has, of course, been done before. But in marrying all these elements Cloverfield creates something that feels fresh enough (pasting the first-person/handheld/eyewitness style onto almost any genre would give it a new angle, I’d imagine), and, for the most part, it both entertains and intrigues. It may not be quite Empire’s 5-star wunderkind, but it pushes close.

4 out of 5

Cloverfield placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2008, which can be read in full here.

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