There were few films in 2008 that gave me such a rush of excitement and exhilaration as creature feature Cloverfield. The brain child of J.J. Abrams, Cloverfield follows a group of young New Yorkers as they battle to survive the onslaught of an unidentified thirty story monster that tears through the city on a May evening. The production was shrouded in secrecy and a viral marketing campaign matched that of any film in producing a sense of confusion and anticipation for the forthcoming movie. The monster’s design especially was kept a closely guarded secret until the movie was released theatrically.
Coming back to the movie five years after I initially saw it and a couple since my last watch, I found that my excitement had dissipated quite a lot and my interest in the story is much lower than it previously was but I still thought the movie was a fantastic 80 minutes of animation and mayhem, topped off by some highly accomplished effects and fantastic creature design.
The film is presented in the found footage style made popular by the likes of The Blair Witch Project. More recently the style has been the go to type for low budget, low concept horror movies and it feels as though the idea is running out of steam. Cloverfield briefly peaked my interest in the idea however as I’d never seen a large scale monster movie presented in a small scale way like this is. Because the film limits itself to one camera, held by one character, the monster goes into frame for brief moments but is largely absent. This not only cuts down on cost but also makes the monster and its intentions much more mysterious. I’ve always said that monster movies are better when they hide the monster from you. It’s much scarier not to know what and where something is than to see it in lots of flashy wide angle or overhead shots.
When we do initially see the monster it looks twisted and tormented and even when more of it is seen it is like nothing else I’ve seen before. Its design is superb, both terrifying and fascinating. I wanted to know more about the monster, more about its origins and desires but unfortunately the film doesn’t deliver in that respect. Occasional talk of Cloverfield 2 over the years has had me wondering if we’d learn more about the creature but that film now looks increasingly unlikely. In addition to the main monster there are secondary beasts. These fall off the Clover creature and reminded me a lot of the Antlions in the game Half Life 2. They help to create some mayhem in scenes set inside the abandoned subway system but provide little else.
The film’s characters are established at a party and by using footage recorded on the video camera a month before the events of the fateful night. Sometimes when dropped, the camera will briefly revert back to the older footage, providing insight into a central relationship but a lot of the back story and development is shown at the party. The main characters aren’t all that interesting and I’ve never felt that they were a strong part of the movie. The party is for Rob (Michael Stahl-David) who is leaving New York for a new job in Japan. His best friend Hud (T.J. Miller) is roped into filming goodbye messages at the party which is where use of the camera originates. At the party are Rob’s Brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and his girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas). Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) is also present and becomes the object of Hud’s affections. The six friends make up the central characters in the film. Also at the party briefly is Beth (Odette Yustman) the girl who Rob is in love with but has recently had a falling out with. She leaves the party early and once the Clover monster is revealed, Rob makes it his mission to rescue Beth from her apartment which is over 60 blocks away.
The acting isn’t generally strong but isn’t bad either. The actors react well to the ever more threatening and destructive surroundings and perform amicably amid a backdrop made mostly of green screen. Lizzy Caplan (a poor man’s Zooey Deschanel) is probably the pick of the actors but my long standing crush may have some impact on that statement. Her character often takes centre stage because the man holding the camera is obsessed with her. As such, the audience (or just me?) focuses more on her than on the surrounding characters. Aside from the acting another weakness of Cloverfield is the emptiness of New York City. Although initially busy with frantic and scared people, the streets and subway stations are soon emptied and I feel this lacks reality. Although people would probably try to escape or stay in doors I don’t buy that the streets become deserted. It is especially unlikely in the subway stations which I think would be full of terrified people.
One of the best sequences takes place when the monster first attacks. We are slow to learn what the true cause of the fireballs and earth tremors are and then suddenly the head of the Statue of Liberty comes flying towards the camera, landing just feet away. It’s a great shot. Straight away people begin to take photos and video using their phone which is something that I think would probably happen. These days that would be the natural thing to do. The same goes for trying to tape the entire night which is what our group does. A few moments after the statue’s head lands on the street, a building not far away collapses sending plumes of dust and debris into the air. These shots are very reminiscent of the footage taken from the Manhattan streets on 9/11 and plays into the feeling of post 9/11 paranoia which the film works with several times. The New York street scenes are generally of a very high standard and despite blending the real streets of the Lower East Side with those of a Los Angeles studio; the effect is realistic and fluid. Sometimes it felt as though the characters jumped too far, too quickly (Columbus Circle to Grand Central in mere moments) but generally the film captured the idea that these people were really navigating the dangerous streets of New York City.
Overall I still really enjoyed Cloverfield despite not being as into it as I once was. The effects and creature still look great and the story still has its moments. The acting and characters sometimes let the film down but there are very few better creature features out there and even fewer to shine quite so brightly in the found footage genre.
- The film's final shot shows an unidentified object splashing into the Ocean.
- The scene of The Statue of Liberty's severed head was inspired by the poster of John Carpenter's Escape from New York.
- The music at the party was added in post production. The party was in fact silent apart from dialogue.
- The film's length without opening and closing credits is 80 minutes. This matches the length of a MiniDV tape that would have been used in the camera the characters used.