Directed by: Matt Reeves
Written by: Drew Goddard
Produced by J.J. Abrams
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
On sale at Amazon for $17.99 from April 22nd!
On sale at Play from £11.99 from June 9th!
Review by Ray DeRousse
The giant monster film, a constant feature of cinema since the days of Willis O’Brien and The Lost World, gets a Blair Witch makeover at the shaky hands of master-marketer J.J. Abrams. Ahhh … sweet, sweet manipulation!
There’s not much story to recount. Photogenic twenty-something Rob has received a promotion to “vice president” of a company in Japan. His photogenic friends – including his estranged girlfriend Beth – decide to throw a going away party for him in their improbably swanky loft in Manhattan. Then a giant monster attacks.
Here’s what I said in my original review at the film’s theatrical premiere:
The first ten minutes of the film are mostly annoying set up during the party. But with the first percussive tremor of the arriving monster, the film propels forward breathlessly. Director Matt Reeves and his crew gracefully choreograph the action despite the handheld camera technique used throughout. This is the first film since The Blair Witch Project to successfully use this “found footage” gimmick, and several sequences place the audience in harm’s way most effectively.
While Abrams has often denied any direct allusion to 9/11, the film’s true intentions become clear at the very beginning: the kids all run into the streets, crazy with fear, when the monster rips into a building right in front of them. The building collapses, and a giant cloud of debris whooshes down the street and right at us. It’s not only a nearly perfect copy of that horrible day in 2001 when we saw ghostly people running in the streets covered in dust amid floating paper; it’s vibrant and bold moviemaking.
The characters and the actors who portray them are pointless; these are not characters as much as they are various incarnations of the human survival instinct. Many of the plot machinations, when considered, are fairly standard and fairly stupid. However, in the moment, irrationality gives way to visceral thrills. This film has plenty of that to spare.
After watching the film again, I can definitely emphasize that my initial suspicions were correct; this film does not stand up to repeated viewings. Like Blair Witch before it, the film stands too squarely on its central gimmick: the first-person, found footage video. When viewed with foreknowledge of plot – and without an audience of thrill-seekers – the film deflates completely.
This film exists only to provide a sensory experience, a moviegoing version of a rollercoaster. Once the ride has been taken, the accompanying thrills have been used up. Elements that bring movie lovers back to classics like Citizen Kane or Casablanca – seemingly-irrelevant elements like plot or character development – are sorely lacking from this film. Hell, even King Kong Versus Godzilla had more depth than this movie.
Some of this could be overlooked had Abrams and crew developed a better monster for this film. Let’s face it; a charismatic monster can carry a movie far. Gamera is about a goofy as monsters get, yet he is better than the ridiculous creature Abrams eventually foists on the audience in a series of poorly-chosen wide shots near the end. I realize that the monster was supposed to be alien and strange. But he rampages through New York without any sense of (am I really going to say this??) style or interest. Some of this problem results from the shaky, first-person cinematography, which denies us any cathartic money shots. Abrams has said repeatedly that he wanted to make an American version of the beloved and revered Godzilla. In this regard, the film is an unqualified disaster; Gino is closer to reaching that goal.
Post-Cloverfield, I feel that the film is yet another Abrams machination. The months of relentless hype built up and disguised a film of startling weightlessness. Abrams has proven himself to be a master of ideas and marketing strategies, but true cinema requires much more than that. Ultimately, Cloverfield is an expensive wad of cotton candy, airy and tasteful, yet not truly and lastingly satisfying in any way.
Overall, the DVD extras reveal the true and first love motivating this film: special effects. Everything covered and talked about by anyone involves the elaborate special effects. Nobody seems especially interested in characters, motivation, direction, or any other facet of filmmaking. A very telling detail, indeed.
Director’s Commentary- Matt Reeves spends most of the film explaining many of the seen and unseen effects of the film, from hidden video edits to extensive greenscreen shots. He seems like a clever and thoughtful director, someone whose skills I would like to see in smaller productions.
The Making of Cloverfield- A chronological look behind the scenes at the making of this film. It’s breathtaking how quickly this film went from script to screen, especially considering the amount of effects work required. It was also fascinating to see the “run and gun” approach used to capture the real-world elements, all the while sticking closely to the detailed animatics. There’s a terrific quote near the end of this documentary: “If I were a kid, and I saw this movie, I’d be empowered and excited to go make movies like this on my own.” I understand the sentiment, but we really don’t need more movies quite like this.
Cloverfield Visual Effects- Yep, more special effects breakdowns. Given the frantic camerawork, many of these effects shots were unbelievably difficult. Thank God for CGI, eh?? While many of the effects don’t work for me on repeated viewings, they work amazingly well under the circumstances. These aren’t static shots of Naboo; the effects artists had to realistically render a monster into hysterical home-movie footage. Not easy.
I Saw It! It’s Alive! It’s Huge!- This is a peculiar look at the film’s monster. It’s a bit jarring to hear everyone associated with the film refer to a 350 foot, supposedly-intimidating monster as “Clover.” As I said in my review, the monster is the second-weakest element in the film – the “characters” being the first. Seeing the maquettes of this laughable creature only made me wonder even more at the choice. Again, I appreciate the creativity behind it, but ultimately it doesn’t compete with the monster greats of the past. Not even close.
Clover Fun – Outtakes. Barely fun.
Deleted Scenes – The few included here do little to enhance the movie, since they mainly involve more running in the streets.
Alternate Ending – Pointless, since it’s basically the same ending with a slightly different, more-obvious coda.
If you haven’t seen the film before, it’s definitely worth the money to see. The production is first-rate, and the craftsmanship behind it cannot be disputed. I doubt that the film will hold the same visceral thrills that it had in a theater full of people when reduced to home theater size. The DVD provides fascinating glimpses into the special effects work for enthusiasts. For those who have already experienced the film, the decision to buy the DVD largely depends on how much you enjoyed the movie beyond power of the Abrams hype machine.