Hunter Stephenson’s Movie Review: Cloverfield

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Before I begin, let me say that I am not one who hyperbolizes my thoughts on movies that I like and dislike. I prefer to lurk and watch other people do that. For months, I have purposely avoided the viral marketing for Cloverfield because I didn’t want the campaign to interfere with the actual movie experience. Obviously, after I linked up with /Film this month I tuned in a little bit more, but until last week I had kept my exposure limited to the Transformers trailer.

Way back in July, I admired the trailer’s anonymity and decided to abide by the filmmakers’ rather effective less-you-know mantra…until today.

In short: Cloverfield is a modern classic. There is no doubt!

The rest of this review contains spoilers, continue after the jump.

As a 20something, I believe this film…scratch that, this friggin’ monster movie from J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves has defined the first decade of the Oughts in a way that no war movie or film like Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center will surpass. Our current times have been declared by much of the American press to be the Age of Anxiety, and Cloverfield nails that label to the wall. The subconscious fears we all have deep down are served up here with relentless, dizzying verve. Imagine if Jaws pulled you down not once, but countless times and your friends too. Anticipating the worst has never been so exhaustively captivating and Cloverfield depicts the worst nightmares of an entire generation perfectly.

This is a film for the people who went to college after years of hearing about how great it would be, filled with dreams of a peaceful pass-Go future, only to watch 9/11 occur soon after their arrival via dozens of televisions in a university center, surrounded by other stunned, young adults just like themselves. The sheer proportion of the attacks that day, the surreal way it interrupted another day of classes on live television, and the destruction of the impossible, was too much to comprehend, perhaps even now. It was like something inexplicably larger than us was saying not to get too comfortable, and it wasn’t religion. Cloverfield matches the vague source of uber-doom we witnessed that day with an equally massive physical manifestation, and not only does it work, it works like an exorcism.

Cloverfield‘s first 20 minutes revel in setting up its five main human characters. And to counter a few criticisms arising online, I don’t think we’re supposed to identify with them before the monster rampages, so much as observe them with a little annoyance, a little jealously, and a dash of commonality. This is the cream of the crop as far as privileged, extremely attractive New York yuppie hipsters go. Matt Reeves has said in interviews that he purposely chose to focus on this demographic, and it’s easy to see why. Besides a little heart ache, what do these characters have to worry about? Only by shaking them, literally, from the loft party where they dance to Coconut Records, flirt and mope will they discover how volatile and messed up life can be. There’s no blame here, and the movie’s not a diatribe against such people in real life, but the filmmakers definitely have fun exploiting it from the start.

I’m sure a few of you have already read movie critics ripping the film’s handicam eye as a one-note novelty and other critics who have labeled the result a “mess.” But unlike its distant cousin The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield uses this creative decision to say something about how we absorb information today via our senses and new media, and the anxiety that this hodgepodge of 30-second clips, fuzzy footage and bad lighting is starting to bring out. The old horror genre staple of the unknown is present here, but what makes the film so intense is watching these little captivating slivers of monster and destruction data fill in like a downloading torrent file. Once you’re reassured that Cloverfield doesn’t skimp on the monster and destruction, the film’s deft fragmentation of sight and sound is a legitimately scary thing to experience.

Sure the film is quite meta-, but the filmmakers know exactly how to wind us up in this untraditional vision like a cocoon. Reeves and Abrams, these guys are like the ideal audience members. Maybe you knew that, but I wasn’t so sure heading in. One of my favorite scenes takes place inside a store that’s being looted. Our camera operator and affable navigator, Hud, focuses his video camera and attention on two television screens broadcasting news footage of the monster attacking. But he breaks away to look outside the store where the same thing is happening. We’re overloaded with experiencing this monster’s terror and the film makes us ask ourselves: would we rather watch panic-personified clearly, or experience it as reality? Why did we come to this movie, to study the monster or to have it make us feel impossibly small? When your brain already has one foot in the grave, you’re happy when Hud decides for you.

And Hud’s instincts allow us to view what’s happening from the ground level, bird’s eye and countless other innovative angles that terrify in a way that Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds did not. We’re constantly comparing the mayhem we see done to Manhattan to what’s happened before it in reality, and the latter shockingly doesn’t compare. Moreover, not only does it feel like we’re in the pack with these people running around New York City, but the handicam effect creates a sense of loneliness and existential dread that cities are notorious for. This isn’t filmed like it’s the work of a makeshift TV news crew or like a low budget documentary. Cloverfield is filtered through the weird detachment that only a personal video cam can pick up. And my editor, Peter, mentioned the Oscar-worthy sound in his Cloverfield review; you haven’t been rocked this hard since a T. Rex roared in the summer of’93. Two girls sitting two rows in front of me got up to leave and as one blurted out, “This is too much.” I swear I think the sound alone caused them to exit, but maybe the helicopter scene finally did them in. To me, that only reaffirmed how cool and alarming this film is.

What about the arguments that go “where’s the humanity”? I love how the main characters go about dealing with their friends’ deaths, because at first these violent demises don’t sink in. That’s unusually realistic for an event movie like this. It bothered me at first, though, because I considered how I’d react if my brother or friend was killed after a monster pwnd the Brooklyn Bridge. Would I just give in and sob? Would I go crazy? But then, Rob is shown taking the call with his mom, and the emotions and loss all hit home, for the audience and the characters. These characters aren’t screaming B-movie proto dumbasses, their emotions creep up on them at odd times, and this that might or might not reflect a generation that’s a little desensitized to their surroundings and reality; that is, until the filmmakers decide to emotionally shatter all of the characters and thereby launch Cloverfield into the stratosphere as the best disaster movie of all time.

The oddest complaint I’ve seen about the film thus far takes issue with the characters’ logic when they go back for Beth. That’s strange, I don’t recall anyone arguing about this decision when it was made by Llewelyn Moss in No Country for Old Men. I’m not comparing the two films or the circumstances, even though both of the films’ antagonists are timely manifestations of the same unstoppable hell.

And besides, to me at least, Cloverfield should be seen as a sort of psychological Manhattan dream labyrinth with terror exploding around every corner. Those nightmares we all dream with the lavish dream budgets in which everything goes wrong? You know, the nightmares that have plagued minds during the last seven years especially, as our world sort of went wrong? Look no further for a movie to capture them and present them to you. If ever there was a movie to see in the theater and not on a smaller screen, it’s Cloverfield. And beware the critics who say this a mindless fluke that “signifies nothing”; that’s not what they’ll tell their psycho analysts.

Godzilla, you got punked.

10/10 – I’m both shocked and thrilled. What else could this movie do right?

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