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Published January 28, 2008

Last weekend, the movie Cloverfield was released in theaters. After hearing about J. J. Abram’s involvement with the film, the Lost/monster movie fan inside me drove me to check it out with some friends. I didn’t see any threads about it on the message board, so I thought I might post a few of my thoughts here since this seems like one of those “you’ll probably end up talking about it with your friends and co-workers” kind of movies.

*Note: Although there isn’t too much to really “spoil”, I will refrain from going into detail about any plot or character details that would be considered such.

As the Good Sir Tony will agree with me, the experience was not a bad one. In case you are unfamiliar with the concept of Cloverfield, I’ve included this handy and highly scientific equation for your benefit. Excuse the large size and my poor skill with image editing…


I’d say this accurately sums up the concept. Godzilla (giant monster currrently destroying city) plus The Blair Witch Project (film presented as “real” amateur footage) minus Godzuki (I wanted to put a pile of crap as the picture here to symbolize the overall awfulness of The Blair Witch Project, but Godzuki seemed so much more poignant) equals Cloverfield.

Your enjoyment of the film will depend on a few factors. First of all, I don’t think this is a movie that will translate so well from the theater to the home-viewing experience. Despite being shot in the style of a home video, the largeness of the screen combined with the crowd aspect of a theater really sells the concept. Second, your mileage will vary based on how much you are willing to buy into the experience as a whole. If you go into this movie ready to critique every line of dialogue and camera angle, your opinion of the movie will not be too high. However, if you go in willing to accept the concept that what you are watching is in fact real footage, or at least willing to project yourself as an audience member into the situation of the on-screen characters, you will find yourself swept up in a very intense experience.

Whereas The Blair Witch Project was fatally flawed with unlikable characters who made unrealistic decisions, Cloverfield doesn’t stretch the boundaries between real person and movie character too much. The dialogue and actions of the characters feel very natural, and it seems like much of the film was ad-libbed or improvised by the actors as they went along – reacting to situations as they themselves most likely would. Any kind of extraneous explanations of what is going on are avoided – the film doesn’t talk down to the audience in that the characters don’t feel the need to explain exactly what they are doing at all times because, due to the chaos of the situation, most of them have no idea what they are doing. Additionally, almost every action and decision made by the characters doesn’t fall under the thematic ‘veil of retardation’ that seems to plague most characters of horror and sci-fi films – these characters want to stay alive as much as anyone would in their situation, and act accordingly. In designing the monster and plot, the writers were careful to eliminate any easy escapes or solutions the audience may think of. I won’t spoil anything, but let’s just say that hiding out in a safe spot isn’t an option for anyone unfortunate enough to be in the city during the attack for numerous reasons.

The “home video”aspect of the filming works well. In the same way that first-person video games can be engrossing, Cloverfield draws you in. However, the lack of control of where the camera is pointing will likely divide viewers. Either you will get frustrated of the constant shaking camera and inability to see all of the action at once, or your frustration will become part of the experience – the fact that you can only see through the eyes of a character helps put you in the scenario and every obscured or blurry shot leaves you hanging, wanting just a little bit more to be visible (which, more often than not, is soon revealed). Concept aside, this is a big budget feature film, so the limitations of a home video camera are buffered with great crowd scenes, settings, and effects. The first time you see an entire building collapse is almost unnerving – there is no big wind up for the destruction that movies like Independence Day have trained us to wait for, rather it is sudden, violent, and has immediate consequences for the characters.

A final observation: anyone expecting a full explanation of the monsters sudden appearance, motivation for destroying the city, and exact mechanics will be disappointed. These are aspects of any film like this, but in this case the director realizes that the core of the film he is making remains unchanged regardless of these details. Besides, has there ever been a fully rewarding explanation for monsters like this in past films? Cite any number of explanations: radiation, nature punishing mankind for abusing it, an experiment gone wrong due to disaster or hubris. The end result is always the same. A giant pissed-off monster smashing a city. The important difference is that unlike the cardboard cut-outs and hollow buildings of Godzilla, the city in Cloverfield is no different than the one you live in. Full of life, friends, and people just trying to get by, real people who are excited about getting new jobs, meeting new people, or just having something to do on a Saturday night.

But not for long.

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