An exercise in guerrilla-style genre filmmaking that reframes a classic monster movie conceit as a post-September 11 allegory of big city trepidation, new Internet sensation Cloverfield emerges from the cocoon of its pre-release hype as thrilling piece of terror tailor-made for our times. Skilfully evoking more dread than lasting cathartic release, the sensibly-budgeted film should make its mark as the first hit of 2008, connecting strongly with the 18-34-year-old demographic and other genre fans looking for comfortably familiar stories with exciting new trappings.
Like 1999's The Blair Witch Project, which took advantage of nascent Internet marketing to whip audience interest into a frenzy, Cloverfield is an exercise in 'found footage' subjectivity, unfolding completely in handheld style, with often canted or shaky camerawork. Crucial to whether Cloverfield commercially connects anything at all like that film, which rang up $140 million domestically and another $110 million internationally, is the question of whether mainstream audiences unfamiliar with its pre-release branding buy tickets.
At the very least Cloverfield should easily outpace Snakes on a Plane - the last big pre-release, viral marketing sensation, which ended up pulling in a disappointing $60 million worldwide. But while PG-13 films like 2005's White Noise ($90 million worldwide), Boogeyman ($67 million internationally) and Hide and Seek ($122 million worldwide) have proven there's a January market for supernatural-tinged thrillers, courting the portion of that core audience that may be resistant to outright monster flicks will determine its final box office tally.
To its advantage, Cloverfield arrives with a much bigger buzz, thanks to the participation of producer and Lost hit-maker J.J. Abrams, as well as its unique style and framing device. These elements, plus its superb execution, give the movie top-shelf ancillary value that will ensure both profitability and potential spin-offs for other platforms and outlets.
Like The Blair Witch Project, the film chronicles the plight of a group of young people fighting for their lives trapped in an unforgiving outdoors, in this case an urban jungle under siege by a gargantuan rampaging monster, and hundreds of hostile smaller, scurrying creatures which pose every bit as much of a threat.
The film opens chillingly, with a silent title card that stamps the subsequent video camera footage as a found audiovisual document, from the U.S. military. The first portion of the tape reveals the tender morning after a hook-up between long-time friends Rob (Michael David-Stahl) and Beth (Odette Yustman). The videotape, and thus the movie, then leaps forward a month, to the evening of a huge going-away party for Rob, who's preparing to move to Japan as part of a big promotion.
Tasked by his girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) with recording the event, Rob's brother, Jason (Mike Vogel), passes off the duty to friend Hud (T.J. Miller), who fruitlessly tries to engage Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) in flirtatious small talk. The party takes a turn for the awkward when Beth shows up with another guy. Rob's suppressed feelings of affection come bubbling to the surface, words are spoken in anger, and Beth leaves.
Suddenly, a massive jolt shakes the remaining revellers, and the power goes out. As the group heads outside to see what exactly has happened, fireballs explode on the horizon, and utter havoc is unleashed. After one route of evacuation is sealed, Rob receives a distraught cell phone message from Beth, and becomes determined to make his way to her apartment to try to find her. Friends in tow, the group sets out, but when the destruction and fighting on the streets between the creature and the National Guard gets too intense, they seek shelter underground, and try to traverse subterranean subway tracks.
Nicely balancing confusion and interpersonal anxiety with these grander, under-siege segments, Drew Goddard's screenplay is a thing a pared down grace and lean, muscular virtuosity. It starts by sketching out the underpinnings of character in fine fashion. After 18 brisk, well-plotted minutes of typically angsty young adult introduction, the movie yields to mayhem - basically an hour-long dash through urban hell.
As with other apocalyptic and sci-fi movies, Cloverfield squeezes some bedazzlement out of the destruction of familiar, iconic buildings and monuments. Here it's the Brooklyn Bridge, in a grim obliteration that serves as the film's first mass-scale, panicky set piece. There's also the beheaded Statue of Liberty, which arrives early in the movie, and additionally serves as the perfect visual metaphor for America's still-lingering apprehension over the state of world events and its own security.
Yet director Matt Reeves (a co-creator of TV's Felicity, whose other feature credit is 1996's The Pallbearer) also proves himself effective at simplistic evocative imagery, as with a coachman-less horse-drawn carriage wandering through Central Park.
Key to substantial gratification with Cloverfield are two bits of necessary surrender: succumbing to its overall framing device, and accepting the notion that such trauma unfolds against a PG-13 backdrop, which is only really a matter of language, coming after movies like Superbad and the Hostel films have made coarse exclamatory talk integral to their stamp of 'realism' within their respective genres. The action sequences here - including a bravura night-vision attack in the subway tunnel - are so tensely effective as to eradicate any legitimate quibbles with the rating for the rest of movie, a problem that plagued Live Free or Die Hard last summer.
Cineastes holding on steadfastly to the notion that less is more may balk at the degree to which the film reveals its monster. While it's true that this does, if not undercut, at least muddy the water with respect to the movie's metaphorical associations, it's interestingly handled within the framework of the film, and seems a commercial tip of the cap as much as anything. It's undeniable that Cloverfield is, at its core, a metaphor for the terror and uncertainty of the real world, from its aforementioned iconic poster image and wilfully vague tagline ('Some thing has found us'), which makes no mention of a CGI monster on which millions of dollars was spent, to specific dialogue of choking despondency ('I don't know why this is happening'). It's incidentally a monster thriller. Like much good cinema, it works on multiple levels.
It's high praise that cinematographer Michael Bonvillain's professional hand is scarcely evident in the handheld camerawork, and Cloverfield additionally makes smart, deft use of a few choice 'in-camera flashbacks' by showcasing small portions of material between Rob and Beth a month prior (the rest is taped over), when Hud stops the tape to view or show someone else something that's just been recorded.
Finally, while it's not a typical showcase, certainly, all of the young actors do an impressive job of maintaining the heightened emotional effect needed to pull off such material.
Bad Robot (US)
Paramount Pictures (US)
Director of photography