SCARY MONSTERS ATTACK
by John Topping
published January 18, 2008
now playing nationwide
Cloverfield is, I think,
going to be a Love It Or Hate It And There Ain't No In-Between kind of movie. This reviewer fell
firmly into the camp of “Loved It.”
Few will argue that it’s a unique vision, especially for a monster movie. The story
is told entirely from the viewpoint of a consumer’s high definition video camera, of which the raw footage has become an official
government document in the future. Therefore the entire film is hand-held and jerky, as if
shot by amateurs – a rather bold move for a major studio like Paramount to agree to finance.
Of course, they have nothing to worry about; there is huge money behind its promotion, and
it’s certain to make back its initial investment this opening weekend. With horror movies, it
really doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad. If it does happen to be good, that’s
just icing on the cake. Cloverfield is more than icing; it is poised to be a classic of
It may sound like an outrageous statement to make, but it is unique in
much the same way that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is, visually speaking. That
film is told almost entirely – but not completely – through the eyes of a paralyzed man.
Accordingly, it’s a valid argument to say that Cloverfield is even purer in its integrity. The downside of the pseudo-amateur hand-held camera work is that you might get queasy. In fact, I had to
leave my seat because it made me almost vomit; so if you suffer from vertigo or are prone to dizzy spells, sit this one out. In fact, they ought to incorporate the retro-marketing ploy of including barf bags with the price of your
The upside of the shooting technique is that it achieves an immediacy without which it probably would have been just another dumb
horror film. But this brilliant stroke puts you in the center of the action and it doesn’t
allow the filmmakers to divert (too much) to the kind of standard Hollywood idiocy that jolts you out of the story. They have to keep it real or it won’t work. There are
definitely exceptions, like when the group of characters we’re following have an unlikely light moment mere seconds after experiencing, in
a subway tunnel, what was certainly the most horrific moment of their lives.
It all begins (essentially) at a surprise farewell party that a group of twenty-somethings throw for a friend in downtown
Manhattan. Then panic strikes when the at-first unseen monsters attack. The imagery of chaos and confusion evokes 9/11 (intentionally, no doubt), down to a building collapsing
and the ensuing cloud of debris rolling through the canyon of skyscrapers. In the midst of
evacuating the city, a character gets a phone message that an ex-girlfriend he had a fight with earlier at the party is pinned down in her
apartment, immobile and vulnerable to the monsters invading the island. He insists on making
his way up to midtown to save her; a posse of three friends go along with him. (Hey, the
movie needs a reason for them to stay in the city, plus it manages to squeeze out a love story this way.) There are gigantic monsters as tall as buildings, sort of the like the squid in 20,000 Leagues Under
The Sea (only on land), and smaller monsters that are like dog-sized vicious spiders. And
in keeping with the real estate values of New York, the monsters are only interested in attacking Manhattan; the other boroughs just don’t
have the same appeal.
The audience with whom I saw it with was thoroughly engaged with the edge of your seat intensity all throughout the
screening. However, the ending is rather abrupt, and is reminiscent of the unsatisfying ending
of The Blair Witch Project. With those characters, it was 16mm film; in
Cloverfield, it’s HD Video. In both, the cameras just sort of stop, and that’s the end
of the movie (which here is immediately preceded by a character pointing the camera at himself with a message to future viewers, which also
brings to mind Blair Witch, but that’s where the similarities end). People get mad when
a film ends without a resolution, and that’s what made much of my audience reject it with disapproving groans. But it didn’t bother me, probably because I totally accepted the conceit that we’re watching what is now
government property; and besides, the complete doom of this Armageddon was foreshadowed.
The film is unusual in another unconventional way: it’s quite short. Not counting the
end credits, it is barely an hour and fifteen minutes long. But that ties into the integrity
of the film's conceptualization. No film is perfect, and Cloverfield is certainly no
exception, but it was the most refreshing surprise in this genre that I’ve seen in perhaps a generation.
johntopping @ stageandcinema.com