I’m, like, your main dude.
The story of Cloverfield does not begin with a surprise party or with found footage of a disaster. It started here in the real world, when a trailer appeared in movie theaters in July 2007. It showed a going-away party in New York City interrupted by some sort of large-scale attack. As fiery debris fell all around the characters, they rushed outside to see the severed head of the Statue of Liberty crashing down onto the street, right in front of them. The trailer ended by name-dropping producer J.J. Abrams (Lost), followed by “1-18-08.” It was certainly attention-getting, but it revealed very little of what the movie was about. More intriguingly, it didn’t even tell viewers the movie’s title.
Word of this trailer raced through the Internet faster than prunes through Grandma. Was “1-18-08” merely the release date, or was it also the movie’s title? Was the title not revealed because this would be a remake/sequel to an already-existing property? Abrams and the film’s director, Matt Reeves (Felicity), held a “1-18-08” panel at the San Diego Comic Con, in which all they did was act secretive about the movie. In time, word got out that “1-18-08” would be a giant monster movie, captured entirely with an ordinary handheld camera, similar to The Blair Witch Project, but on a larger scale. Finally, after months of rumors and speculation, the title was revealed as Cloverfield, and the movie did indeed open on Jan. 18, 2008 — to enormous box office success.
Now that all is said and done, Cloverfield makes its DVD debut. People are gonna want to know how it all went down.
What we’re looking at is footage from a video camera recovered by the U.S. government at the “area formerly known as ‘Central Park.'” It begins at a going-away party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David, The Black Donnellys), a New Yorker leaving to start a new job in Japan. Rob recently slept with his longtime crush Beth (Odette Yustman, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), but now they’re on the outs again. Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel, Poseidon) and Jason’s girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas, The Covenant) try to comfort Rob and help him sort out his love life while the party rages on around them. Catching all this on tape is Rob’s pal Hud (comedian T.J. Miller), who only has eyes for fellow party-goer Marlena (Lizzy Caplan, Mean Girls).
These interpersonal crises get more complicated when what appears to be an earthquake rocks the entire city, and a massive explosion is seen in the distance. But this is more than an earthquake. A gigantic…something…is wandering through the streets, knocking down skyscrapers, snacking on tasty humans, and playing fetch with the Statue of Liberty’s head. While the smart thing to do would be to get the hell out of there, Rob instead fears Beth has been injured, so he and his friends venture deeper into the city — and directly into danger — to save her.
(This is your one and only SPOILER warning.)
If there’s any reason I can recommend Cloverfield, it’s not for the story, but it’s for the visceral punch in the gut. Several punches, actually. Here we have a group of ordinary (if good-looking) folks caught up in a frightening situation, one beyond their understanding, and they’ve got no time to make sense of it all because they’re in constant, immediate danger. As they flee from one nightmare situation to the next, you keep asking, “How more screwed could they possibly get?” Then, the movie answers with, “This more screwed.” Not only is there a giant monster trashing everything in sight, but there are trigger-happy soldiers roaming the streets, fighter planes screeching overhead, and damaged skyscrapers that could topple over at any second. The best aspect of Cloverfield is the heart-stopping feeling of running for your life for an entire night while not knowing what, exactly, you’re running from.
Every monster movie has its doomed human characters, so let’s look at them first. On paper, Rob might seem like the typical stoic action hero, risking life and limb to save the girl. The truth is, though, that Rob is a jerk. We get hints early on that he has a tendency to be obnoxious and self-centered, and the conflict between him and Beth at the party shows this. When Rob decides to go back for Beth, it’s not just because he’s “the good guy,” but it’s because he’s also looking to redeem himself and his actions, to make up for his past mistakes.
The next major character in the film is Hud, the hapless cameraman. Yes, it’s a total cheat that he keeps the camcorder running during all this craziness. At first, he has a lot of lines about how he wants to document what’s happening, which is understandable, but it seems to me that most people would stop recording at about the time Rob and friends enter the subway. Perhaps the camera is Hud’s “security blanket,” and that by placing the camera lens between him and the horrors, he is able to detach himself somewhat from what’s happening. This allows him to make the occasional comic relief wisecrack when surrounded by city-leveling carnage.
Lily and Marlena’s reasons for sticking with Rob and Hud are more ambiguous. Early in the film, Marlena gets a good look at the monster. The audience doesn’t see what she sees (typical) but it leaves her in an out-of-her-mind state. Perhaps Marlena’s experience with the monster has her certain she won’t live through the night, so she’s just going along with whatever, resigned to her fate. As for Lily, I get the sense she’s a mother-hen type, and that she’s just trying to keep everyone together, safe, and sane. Poor Beth fills the role of the dramatic object — a living “McGuffin.” She gives the characters something to work toward and be proactive about, as opposed to spending the entire movie just being scared. This means her character is little more than the “idealized girl,” one the others put on a pedestal, and the audience doesn’t get to know much about her other than that.
Now that we’ve covered those pesky humans, it’s time to address the real star of the movie: the monster. As most everyone knows by now, we mostly only get fleeting glimpses of it — an elbow here, a tail swish there, etc. The filmmakers spend more time showing off the devastation caused by the creature than the creature itself. Don’t worry; it does get a close up. But, frustratingly, finally seeing it just isn’t enough. Sure, now you know what it looks like, but you still don’t know what it is.
I’m going to go ahead and say it: Not enough is revealed in Cloverfield. Because of this, many viewers will walk away frustrated. It’s a fine line to walk, I know. If you reveal too much of the mystery, it loses its power and intensity. But if you don’t reveal enough, you create an unfulfilling experience. To be fair, the filmmakers have stressed that their goal was to show a giant monster attack from a man-on-the-street perspective, without cutting away to the president meeting with generals, scientists with lab coats, etc. The filmmakers would argue that Cloverfield is more about the characters than the monster, and yet they constantly dangle the “bigger picture” of the movie in front of us, just out of reach. As a result, when we should be worrying about Rob and Beth, we’re instead too busy wondering what the monster is, and all this talk of “I’ve got to find Beth!” becomes a distraction.
Consider George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Here we see a nationwide crisis told through the perspective of a small group of people in a remote location, and it’s just as intense today as it was back in 1968. The movie begins with chaos, as characters end up trapped in a house with no idea what’s become of the lumbering, murderous people who’ve chased them there. Thanks to a couple of convenient news broadcasts, the characters — and by extension the audience — get a better understanding of what’s happening around them. Once we in the audience have a handle on the situation, then we can settle in and enjoy the plot and characters. The Cloverfield version of Night of the Living Dead wouldn’t have told us anything about what the living dead were, leaving us forever wondering just what was happening outside that house.
At this point, you might wonder about Jaws. Here’s a classic monster movie in which the monster is almost never seen, generating huge suspense for audiences in 1975. Throughout the movie, that giant shark could be anywhere under the water, just beyond where you can see. But unlike the Cloverfield monster, we know what’s down there: a shark. The first hour of Jaws is hardly a roller coaster ride, but the plot and dialogue consistently emphasize how deadly a threat the shark is. The Cloverfield version of Jaws would have the characters constantly wondering what was under the water while they hunted it, and it would have left audiences wondering whether or not it really was a shark.
Why is so much of what’s happening in Cloverfield kept a mystery, even after the credits roll? If the monster is from outer space, why not say it’s from outer space? If the monster is the result of evil corporate genetic engineering, then why not say it’s the result of evil corporate genetic engineering? If the monster is a prehistoric beastie that has been slumbering at the bottom of the oceans for eons until now, then why not say it’s a prehistoric beastie that has been slumbering at the bottom of the oceans for eons until now? One or two lines on a TV broadcast during the electronics store scene could have cleared this up, and then the filmmakers could have had their same man-on-the-street monster movie, but a more satisfying one.
Instead, Abrams and company have a reason for keeping us all in the dark. Cloverfield is, in fact, not a stand-alone film, but a part of a large multimedia experience. What started as a viral marketing campaign has taken on a life of its own. The more you pursue the back story of Cloverfield online, the more there is to discover. There’s all this stuff about a mysterious soda company, and then stuff about a satellite, and additional stuff about some eco-terrorists, and even more stuff about a kidnapping — the stuff just goes on and on. Further complicating matters is how the real world has intermeshed with the fiction, when comments made in interviews by Abrams (“It came from the ocean”) and Reaves (“It’s an angry infant”) become canon in the monstrous mythos. The interactivity of the Internet adds yet another element to the ongoing “story” of Cloverfield, as fan theories run rampant (“It’s a lion!”) and fan-made Web sites and blogs keep fueling the fire, with more and more popping up every day. This all might sound exciting, but ultimately, it’s a sprawling morass of pseudo-information that leads nowhere, providing a lot of wild guesses and speculation, but no genuine information about the story at hand. After spending hours online reading about evil soft drink corporations and trying to find clues on the fictional characters’ Myspace pages, it all just comes back to a monster attacking New York on the night of some guy’s going away party.
Getting back to the DVD, then, the picture and sound might not seem very good at first, but that is merely an illusion. All the grain, lens flares, out-of-focus shots, and muffled sounds have been deliberately added to capture the “found footage” style. The truth is that the visual quality is excellent. Some standouts are just after the “dust storm” scene, when the camera pans around a devastated city street bathed in a gloomy yet gorgeous orange light, and the “department store” scene, when the color palette suddenly changes from warm browns and reds to harsh blues and whites. The sound designers don’t hold back during the big action scenes, such as the insanity on the Brooklyn Bridge, and the “crossfire” sequence, in which our heroes wander right into the military attacking the monster.
The bonus features start off with a commentary by director Matt Reaves (Felicity). You’ll learn which scenes were filmed on what locations, what shots were green-screened, and when the actors improvised their lines, that sort of thing. This type of info continues in the three featurettes, one on the production and two on the special effects. From there, we get some humorous outtakes and deleted scenes — mostly stuff from the party, no additional monster action — and two alternate endings that are really the same ending with minor changes. The packaging advertises “Hidden Research into Case Designate Cloverfield” as an extra. I’m assuming this refers to the Easter eggs. I’ve only found two so far — the “X” one and the “rack ’em and pack ’em” one — but I hear there might be more.
Here’s what the bonus features don’t mention: What the monster is, where it came from, what those things on the sides of its head are, what the “parasites” are, what exactly happened to Marlena, anything having to do with Slusho, Jamie and Teddy (whoever the hell they are), or any large objects falling into the ocean in the distance.
Oh, and that “1-18-08” trailer that started all this craziness? It’s not on this disc.
* Since when does an ordinary consumer video camera come equipped with military-style night vision?
* There are no children in New York City? Or old people? Or ugly people? And no one in New York ever says the “F-word?”
* A helicopter escape route from Manhattan involves flying right over Central Park. Isn’t Central Park right in the center of Manhattan? Therefore, wouldn’t the chopper, which took off from near Grand Central Station, fly in the opposite direction of the park, and not right over it?
* Beth spends most of the night impaled on a metal rod, but after some makeshift first aid, she’s able to climb down more than 40 flights of stairs and then sprint for several blocks?
* Rob’s full name is Robert Hawkins, the same name of the totally badass superspy from TV’s Jericho. Now, if that Robert Hawkins had been in this movie, the monster wouldn’t have stood a chance.
Do all of my complaints mean I totally hate Cloverfield? No. There are a few scenes that really capture the intense, thrill-ride feel the creators aimed for. It’s just that a few fun scenes don’t add up to a satisfying movie overall. Cloverfield is an interesting experiment — a novelty item. It’s amusing to see once, but not something that holds up to multiple viewings.