Life of the Party
Cloverfield / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | January 20, 2008 | Comments ()
Cloverfield is just one giant gimmick, but it’s so well executed that the film feels fresh and exciting even as it trots out predictable plot points and story devices without even bothering to acknowledge it. Monster movies will likely never feel really original ever again — monster attacks, people die, everyone runs, repeat — but Cloverfield isn’t about telling an original story, but by presenting an old one with a new look. It’s a decent and entertaining movie, but it’s damn near perfect at being what it wants to be, which is a thrilling, fast-paced, tech-based story about a giant creature tearing the hell out of Manhattan and killing some really good-looking twentysomethings in the process. The handsome young cast members are all but interchangeable, the relationship subplot comes straight out of whatever pamphlet falls out of the box when you buy Movie Magic Screenwriter 2000, and some of the relevant plot points strain credulity even for an effects-laden science-fiction/action flick. And yet, there’s something alluring about Cloverfield. It’s not that it works in spite of its flaws, but that it somehow succeeds because of them. Nothing here is great, but it’s really good.
The giant gimmick in question is that the entire film is shot from the point of view of a handheld video camera, with the tape presented as evidence of “sightings of case designate Cloverfield” recovered from an area “formerly known as Central Park.” As a result, the film opens with Rob (Michael Stahl-David) shooting around an apartment, eventually coming across his sleeping girlfriend, Beth (Odette Yustman). They’re in her dad’s apartment while he’s away, which underscores how young and unready the characters are for what’s happening in their lives and what will happen to them later; it’s like they’re inhabiting an adulthood borrowed from someone else. There’s a timecode in the bottom left corner of the screen that identifies the date as April, but eventually the tape skips forward to May, and the date eventually disappears once the action stays in the later time period. Of course, having the date inexplicably there and then not there make zero sense within the story’s universe, and really only happens to keep the slow people from forgetting what month the story is in, but that kind of willful piecemeal approach to exploiting the handheld style comes with the territory. Cloverfield isn’t about being real, but as real as a monster movie might conceivably be, and that’s going to necessarily mean fudging with the reality.
When the action settles down, it’s for a going-away party for Rob, and the camera is passed off to Rob’s brother, Jason (Mike Vogel), before eventually becoming the responsibility of Hud (T.J. Miller), who’s tasked with filming the partygoers and recording their goodbyes for Rob, including Rob’s now-ex, Beth. Hud is the viewer’s aptly named heads-up display, and it’s his camera so to speak that captures the action for the rest of the film. It’s also no surprise he’s given the role of documentarian: He’s funny and smart, but not as handsome as Rob or Jason, which in a movie like this one means he’ll be playing a sideline role. He gets the best jokes — actually, the only jokes — but must remain an impartial observer, lugging the camera around as the world disintegrates.
And that’s how the first third of the film unfolds: Blandly pretty people talking to each other about the kinds of problems that are not just meaningful but somehow insurmountable to certain people, like what to do if you like her like a girlfriend but can’t seem to get things uncomplicated. Hud and the rest of the revelers get increasingly buzzed, and at one point Hud follows Rob and Jason out to the fire escape to film their three-way conversation. They’re just sitting around talking when suddenly the ground shakes and the power goes out, and like that, the mood shifts from one of talky celebration to growing unease. And it’s awesome. The boys run to the roof to get a better look at the city, arriving just in time to see a building in the distance explode and scatter flaming hunks of debris across the neighborhood. The film has the feel of found, unrehearsed footage, with everyone talking and screaming “What the hell was that?” while the camera strains to capture it all. True to form, there are no traditional edits in the film. Everything takes place in a series of lengthy takes, and the only time the film cuts is when the camera is “turned off” and then resumes filming a few minutes or seconds later. As a result, there are no reverse shots during conversations, no over-the-shoulders, nothing you would expect to see in an action movie, and that skewed, pseudo-realistic take on things is a shot in the arm for what would otherwise be a stereotypical film. Basically, this is what it’s like to be young, slightly drunk, and running for your life.
Pretty soon, things get even worse, and as the nameless party members run away, Rob, Hud, Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), Jason, and Jason’s girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas), meet up on the chaotic street and form a plan to get off the island from what some people have seen is an actual giant creature. The rest of the film’s trim 90 minutes is devoted to their various attempts to stay alive, stay together, and make it to safety. In a plot point that makes the rest of the film seem tame and believable, the Army is immediately dispatched, invading the streets of Manhattan with tanks and ground troops while also setting up a few makeshift hospitals to take care of civilians injured in the attack. The film isn’t presented as an unbroken hour and a half, but still, only in a movie like this one could MASH units be set up in department stores two hours after a giant monster began playing dominoes with the New York skyline. That fantasy level of governmental response plays right into the film’s genre and gives the script the requisite timelines, like when the grizzled but well-meaning black commander tells the kids that they have until 0600 to make it to a helicopter pickup at Columbus Circle. It makes absolutely no sense that he would help them out, and that’s the whole point.
The handheld style gives the glimpses of the monster a startling immediacy, and though Hud over the course of the film manages to record ever greater shots of the creature, the best moments are the ones at the beginning of the attack, when the crowd seems to be running from nothing more than a bad idea, only to catch sight of what could be an arm or a tail or something before all hell breaks loose. Director Matt Reeves, working from Drew Goddard’s tight script that balances humor and suspense, has created maybe the most interesting monster movie since Alien, and one that focuses as much on the emotions of the characters as the action sequences. One fantastic sequence has Hud and the others pinned down in the street, hiding between cars as the Army unloads heavy arms fire and several rockets on the rampaging monster, when they make a break for it and hide out below ground in a subway station while the action rages above them. They try to call their friends or think of escape plans, but mostly, they just tend their wounds and wait it out, taunted slyly by the “No Exit” sign hanging above them. It’s the most static segment of the entire film, but also the most emotionally dense.
Reeves and Goddard, with an assist from producer J.J. Abrams, have come up with a surprisingly effective monster movie that succeeds at reinvigorating the genre even as it relies on every cliché you can think of: the hero’s quest to patch things up with his one true love; the goofy sidekick in love with the smart, edgy girl; the requisite carnage of friends and family; etc., etc. But that’s the heart of Cloverfield. It’s a modern film relying on ancient stand-bys, and it’s set in the present but willing to return to the well of history. Seeing New York skyscrapers decimated by fire, with dust clouds swirling down the streets and pieces of paper and ash raining from the sky, is a direct filmic reference to the Sept. 11 attacks, but people forget that one of the more common refrains of disbelief that day was that the destruction looked like something out of a movie. Cloverfield essentially closes the circuit, allowing art to imitate life imitating art, making the destruction of New York seem like a terrifying return to normalcy. The film is a taut, well-made thrill ride, but one that manages to touch upon something almost too dark for words: That watching it is like an exorcism.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.
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