Mark Reviews Movies


3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Matt Reeves

Cast: Michael Stahl-David, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan, Odette Yustman, Mike Vogel, T.J. Miller

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence, terror and disturbing images)

Running Time: 1:25

Release Date: 1/18/08

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Everyone wants to know what the monster in Cloverfield is or at least what it looks like. I can't tell you what it is, because the film wisely doesn't tell us either. I wouldn't dare tell you what it looks like, and it's not because people will despise me for giving it away. I wouldn't dare mention the appearance of the monster, because the monster is inconsequential. By this, I'm not suggesting the film keeps the monster from the audience; we get a few good, long looks at it from different angles later on once we've gone through the obligatory peeks and hints (The vast marketing campaign would be a huge scam without giving people what they expect to get).

What I am saying is that the monster itself doesn't matter; what matters is how the monster affects those caught in its carnage and us. Director Matt Reeves and screenwriter Drew Goddard (on a side note, both TV vets) haven't redefined the giant monster genre as much as they have given it a very deliberate focus. They've boiled it down to its essentials and, in the process, rediscovered what the point of watching a giant creature rampage through the streets of a metropolis is. After all, Godzilla didn't start out about watching monsters fighting; Gojira started as an attempt to cope in some small way with the atomic bomb.

A text prologue briefly tells us the video we're about to see, now property of the Department of Defense, was found at the site formerly known as Central Park (It's now called "US-447"). A camera turns on; it's a fine April morning. Even finer for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who looks out of his high-rise apartment over Central Park and then walks to his bedroom where Beth (Odette Yustman) is sleeping peacefully. He wakes her; they talk. Suddenly it's a month later on the tape. Rob's brother Jason (Mike Vogel) now has the camera.

Jason and his girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) are planning a going away party for Rob, who's about to leave for a job in Japan. They walk around, sort of fighting, and at the party, Jason hands the camera over to Hud (T.J. Miller) with the assignment to get testimonials and farewells from Rob's friends. Hud, though, has his eyes on Marlena (Lizzy Caplan). Rob arrives, and soon after, so does Beth with another man. As it turns out, Rob and Beth only got together once, even though Rob has been in love with Beth since college. Things go poorly for Rob that night; Beth leaves on a bad note. It all means little when the city is shaken by what at first seems to be an earthquake.

Whatever it is, Hud keeps taping. The news reports are vague. An oil tanker has capsized near the Statue of Liberty. Rob decides they can all see it from the roof. "Is it another terrorist attack," we hear someone asking along the way. An explosion ignites in the distance, flaming shrapnel raining down on the city. Outside on the street, smoke hovers in the distance. There's a panic. Do people see a giant form move somewhere in the smoke? They certainly see the head of the Statue of Liberty fly from afar, crashing into buildings, and landing yards away from our heroes. Suddenly, a building collapses; a cloud of debris sweeps towards them.

It is impossible to watch the film without connecting the destruction and the resulting terror and shock to 9/11. The imagery in these initial scenes more than echoes it; the film essentially recreates images that have been burrowed into our collective consciousness. When the Army arrives and forces a mandatory evacuation of Manhattan, the citizens march across the Brooklyn Bridge, reminding us of the blackout of 2003, an instance where we initially thought the worst. Here, the worst does happen on the bridge. It's sudden, shocking, and, while it has no basis in reality, it's grounded in the earlier recollections.

"Grounded" might sound an odd word to use for a monster movie, but it's the right one here. There's no irony to the creature, and the film is sincere in its allegory without overdoing it and in its scenario. It is as grounded in a sense as close to reality as one could expect from a film about a giant monster. The film is shot on handheld digital in a vérité style, but the picture is crisp and clear (the special effects blend in incredibly well on the format as well). The cinematography, credited to Michael Bonvillain (another TV vet), is frantic, almost haphazard, and what starts out as a gimmick is essential to the film's success.

There's immediacy to the destruction and pandemonium unfolding. After the initial devastation, the film follows the five heroes as they figure out the best plan of action only to have the plan change at each step with each new realization of how hopeless the situation has become. Goddard's script strips away the usual monster movie stuff. It's not about how to stop the monster (the Army talks about some ways, the worst-case scenario being leveling Manhattan) or where it came from (Hud offers some theories like the ocean, space, or a military experiment gone wrong); it's solely about these regular people, their fear and shock at the mayhem in front of them.

Information comes in slowly, with news broadcasts showing things falling from the creature that might be as deadly as the big thing itself, an Army man telling the group he's not sure what the thing is but "Whatever it is, it's winning," and an enigmatic but dreadful scene at a makeshift emergency center in a mall that hints that "whatever it is" might have intentions more personal than massive destruction. Along the way, our band of survivors confronts trials. They're caught in the middle of a firefight with the giant, trapped in a subway (the night vision view on the camera gives us a successful moment of fright), and, in the film's biggest setpiece, forced to cross from an upright building into one that has crashed into it.

The first-person perspective keeps these challenges intimate, and the characters, while not fully developed by any means (too much baggage for what the film's accomplishing), are likeable. Hud provides the gallows humor as he narrates his way through the carnage, and the love story between Rob and Beth is aided in flashbacks that cleverly don't mess with the narrative method.  The performances are natural all around, with a notable one from Michael Stahl-David.

There are some surprisingly affecting scenes here, like the reaction to the mayhem on the bridge and Rob telling someone's mother her son is dead over the phone, and the final moments are haunting. In making the monster genre personal, Cloverfield succeeds in telling a story of lives interrupted by chaos. "Relevant" might also seem a strange word to use about a film about a giant monster, but the film's concept of a found document works thematically, too. It's a time capsule of our current fears displaced onto our nightmares.

Copyright © 2008 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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