‘Cloverfield’ Defies Expectations

Hype – specifically the viral, Internet marketing kind – has been under the gun recently, thanks in part to the failure in 2006 of Snakes on a Plane. Pimped and overplayed by fans who felt the title alone indicated a pure kitsch confection, the resulting benign b-movie was very good. But compared to the web-based blitzkrieg that came before, excitement and expectations were bound to clash and then be dashed. The failure forced studios to reexamine its information superhighway strategies. It didn’t stop Lost legend J.J. Abrams from embracing the concept for his latest production – the monster destroys Manhattan home movie Cloverfield. Now, after months of speculation and backwards ballyhoo, the novel genre effort has arrived – and it definitely lives up to the propaganda.

Young Rob Hawkins is leaving New York for a new job opportunity in Tokyo. On the night before his departure, younger brother Jason, best friend Hud, and various friends and family have gathered to celebrate. They include Jason’s fianc√© Lily and the object of Hud’s obsessive affection, Marlena. The only person missing is Beth, Rob’s long time gal pal and secret love interest. Confused by something that happened between them weeks before, the trip to Japan has both questioning their commitment. During the festivities, an earthquake – or something like it – hits the city. Suddenly, the power goes out. In the panic, the partygoers head for the building’s roof. There, they see something horrifying. A section of Manhattan explodes into a massive fireball. Then there is a scream. It’s something big. It’s something angry. It’s something ready to destroy New York, block by block.

Cloverfield is the first great film of 2008. It defies or exceeds the potential inherent in the premise and the approach. Those who believe they are in for another Burkittsville romp will be stunned by the surprising scope here. Somehow, within the POV ideal, TV director Matt Reeves has found a way to make events play out as epic and beyond our comprehension. There are sequences of silent terror. There are moments of big budget action set piecing. Buried in the middle is a believable story about post-modern kids, cameras and cellphones in hand, trying to make sense of some undeniably Earth shattering events. This is so much more than a mere Blair Witch Godzilla. This is a film about perspective, about how we view our world through the media’s mighty lens.

Like Cannibal Holocaust, which used torture and reprehensible atrocities to take on the glaring, unforgiving eye of the filmmaker, Reeves reinvents the giant creature category of horror to question our perverse POV fixation. During the initial chaos, when fireballs and skyscrapers are falling to the ground, one of the characters asks Hud why he’s still filming (he was assigned the job of getting taped testimonials during the party). His answer is matter of fact – “People are gonna want to see this. They’re gonna want to know how it went down.” That’s 2008 in a nutshell, a social conceit that doesn’t believe anything as reported unless there’s accompanying footage taken from an up close and personal perspective. There’s another telling moment when a band of looters pauses to watch a TV report on the attack. Though the events are happening right outside the shop, they are transfixed by how the small screen editorializes and distances them from the fray.

Much of Cloverfield functions this way. Through the lens of a handheld camcorder, the impressive beast (and the astonishing special effects used to create it) comes across as totally believable and unnerving. Even with the shaky, optically disorienting aesthetic used in both the composition and narrative construction helps sell the concept. Full on, what we see here might appear fake or forced. But captured in glimpses, viewed out of the corner of the frame or in the distance as part of another scene’s backdrop, the rampage is a revelation. Those who get queasy from such a Blair/Bourne ideal may want to pack a little Dramamine before they head to the Cineplex. But there is no cure for the impact and power the visual element brings to the standard scare tactics.

Certainly, there are references and homages everywhere. A jaunt down a dark, foreboding subway tunnel recalls Stephen King’s The Stand and moments from James Cameron’s Aliens. The battle between the military and the monster resemble any number of Kaiju experiences from the past, while the makeshift medical lab hints at other world-ending virus tales. What we don’t expect is the Brooklyn Bridge destroying melee, as well as the scramble across a pair of damaged apartment towers. Some of this material may seem sensationalized, presented for the pure art of action. And character motive is sketchy at best. But Reeves, along with Lost scribe Drew Goddard, are relying on our post-9/11 instinct of survival at any cost, and our need for familial connections, to explain the contradictions.

Indeed, the obvious references to the World Trade Center attack (massive debris clouds consuming the streets, victims covered in soot roaming aimlessly through the chaos) is a wonderful – and wise – choice. Because that was a media driven disaster, something 90% of us experienced via our television set and nothing else, it helps sell such a stylized design. Even better, the first person POV that made The Blair Witch Project such a noted novelty works much better here. Of course, this could be because Cloverfield has an actual plot. It’s not a Candid Camera “gotcha” like indie experiment. While comparisons are fair, they’re far from direct. Witch definitely wastes its haunted woods potential. This amazing movie makes the most of the caught as it happens dynamic.

It will be interesting to see how this film eventually plays on the small screen. Since it’s the kind of entertainment that requires the display of a theater to sell its scale, a move to DVD may diminish much or all of its power. But there is still enough awe-inspiring imagery and dread-building suspense here to keep fright fans happy, while those looking for something to salvage an already awful cinematic January should jump for joy. There will be split sentiments – typically along already established genre love/hate lines – over the effectiveness of this gloriously gimmicky exercise in storytelling. The best advice? Ignore the hype and experience Cloverfield for yourself. It’s the only way to gauge how valuable the pre-release You Tubing of the title actually was. Besides, you’ll get a chance to see one of the year’s biggest surprises in the process.