RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 5: Matt Reeves’ “Cloverfield” (2008)


The Players…

Mike Vogel, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan, TJ Miller and Michael Stahl-David.

The Story…

A going-away party is interrupted when a mysterious monster of epic proportions launches an attack on New York City. With camcorder in hand, a small group of friends makes their way out into the chaotic streets, scrambling to stay alive.

The Rant…

This will be probably my most curt review ever. You have been warned.

Ever since the inception of “found footage” films dawned with The Blair Witch Project, directors have tried to improve upon a very simple device by adding a lot of bells and whistles. The Paranormal Activity franchise has capitalized on this four times, and maybe more will roll along in the future as long as the ticket prices scream as such. Blah blah blah insert pithy sh*t here Cloverfield is the first found footage film with a budget, which came from JJ Abrams’ pocket to boot.

Don’t get me wrong. Abrams is a whiz at spectacle. Fringe was one of the few TV series I watched with any regularity. I found the new Star Trek movies fun, and Super 8 should’ve gotten an award for…something. Those are a few of the reasons why Cloverfield ended up under The Standard. Abrams’ sh*t is often derided for the stories being written—wedged rather—into a corner. His Lost suffered from it (so I’ve heard; never seen it. Hell, at least I’m honest) and Fringe came perilously close to that many a time. Another carp with Abrams’ production is that he tries to be too clever. And he often is clever, deliberately so, with his winks and nods to the audience to make sure they are in on the joke, as if we were looking for the joke at the outset. Now with Cloverfield he had to wrangle with spectacle, corner writing, cleverness and the aesthetic of the raw, dirty found footage milieu.

It did not go well. To quote Lou Reed, “Like bacon and ice cream…”

A bunch of sort of attractive nobodies assemble for a going away party for the central character, which has more or less every action skewered onto camcorder for a long as the film allotted. It’s a lot of the awkward angles and migraine inducing action cuts that go along with typical amateur handicam work (come to think of it, all handicam work is amateur). It’s no matter, because we gotta celebrate Rob’s (Vogel) going away party tonight before he books it off to Japan tomorrow (hmm, Japan…monster movie. Could it be? Naaah). It’s going to be an evening of drinks, videography from all Rob’s well wishing friends, more drinks and a behemoth rising up from the mouth of the Hudson to lay waste to Manhattan. Bummer.

Wait. What?

Turns out that the video we’d been watching for the first twenty minutes or so was actually—you guessed it—found footage cataloging the monster’s rampage as well as the fallout inflicted upon our intrepid band of yuppies trying to get off the island. All we know about the beastie is that it’s big, bad, hates architecture and seemingly questing for something. The footage only gives the watcher drips and drabs as to what’s happening, and how our cast members try to deal with their unfortunate circumstances. And the footage plays so fast and loose there is no discernable editing, cinematography or a simple point to focus on, save maybe the camera operators’ point of view. In sum, video vertigo.

The “acting” in Cloverfield is secondary to the mayhem. This is a movie without a story, so there’s no real motivation. There’s definitely no three act structure. There’s a monster on the rampage; that’s all. Run, scream, survive, panic, lather rinse repeat. All it is is 84 minutes of blur, screeching, menace and collateral damage. It’s relentless, but not in a gut-wrenching way. It’s headache inducing, and the surround sound will make you need to pluck the shards of glass from one’s ears. Cloverfield is kind of in a way very loud training wheels for Super 8. The differences between the two is the latter has a plot with a creature where the former just has a creature.

Cloverfield is a hard movie to break down. It’s an odd duck. One on hand it’s a sci-fi monster movie/found footage hybrid. On the other it’s a big winking joke. I know it’s supposed to be an homage to Godzilla and its ilk, but it gets all wrapped up in the Abrams’ (and despite the fact Matt Reeves is credited to this film, it’s Abrams’ show all the way) cheesy cleverness. Nods to monster movies abound, right down to screeching people getting stomped. A lot of the limp story gets hedged to leave a lot of questions unanswered, which is how Abrams’ figures his audience likes to be hooked in. I wasn’t. It never engaged me. So much so that when a scratch in the DVD f*cked up its playing, I simply shut the movie off. Didn’t care about the ending. I had no emotional investment made in any of the characters (save Hud, the camera operator, who’s death in my opinion should’ve cued the end of the movie) or the stakes they were under. The pacing was frantic—intentional I know, but frenetic camera action does not equal suspense. This movie was all spectacle, which was the point, but thin spectacle all the same. Maybe this was part of the joke.

You see where I’m going with all this? Abrams’ jeopardy is being too clever to let the line be drawn between ribbing the audience and shock n’ awing them. You get the joke? No? That is the joke! Ha ha! Hey, where’re y’all going?

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Cue low battery alert.

Stray Observations…

  • The film had an 84 minute running time, the full recording length of your average DV tape. Get it? No, seriously. Where’re you all going?
  • You ever wonder how at the end of these “science run amok” movies (or whatever you want to call them) how the powers that be cover their asses so the rabble might respond in return? I do. When I’m awake.
  • “Maybe you shoulda left town a littler earlier?”
  • This film dropped in January, a black pit for most movies save latent Oscar candidates. Maybe releasing a pseudo sci-fi vehicle when no-one was expecting it was to enhance the “no-one was expecting it” theme of the movie. Or maybe it was just done to toss off the snowflakes. I dunno.
  • Some battery life on that camcorder too, huh?
  • “It’s a terrible thing.

Next Installment…

Do swingin’ Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau have what it takes to be Made men?


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