I am genuinely surprised by how much I love Cloverfield, the JJ Abrams-produced monster movie which, despite being heavily promoted through viral marketing schemes, has largely managed to remain shrouded in mystery up until today's release. The viral stuff was starting to get exhausting — and ridiculous — and I worried that all this hubbub would be for naught, and all of us Abrams fans would be fiercely disappointed. I was wrong. It's not going to win tons of awards, but in the genre of monster movies, this is one of the best I've ever seen.
Filmed in the shaky-cam style of Blair Witch Project, it's a little nauseating at first, but easy to get used to. Enough time has passed since the Blair Witch Project that this seems like a legitimate cinematic technique again. In fact, it works better this time around since technology in everyday life has become more common, every public event nabbed immediately on dozens of cameras and cameraphones. It's not so unusual that a crazy monster attack on New York would be caught on a 20-something's video camera. And this is exactly what happens. To find out what else goes on,
The bulk of the action begins with a surprise bon voyage party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David) being thrown by his brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and Jason's girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas). While prepping for the party, Jason gives his friend Hud (T.J. Miller) the camera, instructing him to take testimonials from the guests. Yet Hud never really puts the camera down, even when the party learns that the city is under attack — by a monster. From here the party spins into panic mode and everyone scatters while the monster slips around buildings, glimpses of it caught in the light of helicopters. A group of partygoers try to stay together and set out to find their friend Beth (Odette Yustman).
The best part about the story is also the best part about the storytelling technique. The movie truly begins with the original footage on the videotape: Rob filming his longtime crush Beth in bed, groggily waking up from their night together. Throughout the entirety of the film, this taped-over footage is slipped between super intense monster scenes, providing a jolting — and much-needed — shift from tension to relief, from a horrible present to a happier past.
In general, I think Abrams does well with this balancing act, though it's unclear how much of the end product of Cloverfield is him and how much is director Matt Reeves. This balance is probably the best thing about the movie: this perfect combination of tension and relief, anticipation and action, "real-life" drama and humor. They did well to have the cameraperson, our narrator of sorts, be Hud, a bumbling guy whose baffled quips from behind the camera often provide comedic relief. The movie never gets too precious and never takes itself too-too seriously. And still, when that monster is on screen it’s really, really scary.
As a sidenote, there are some absurdities that will simply have to be swallowed, like when the group — some of them in heels — walks from Spring Street in Manhattan to 59th Street in very little time and with no physical consequence. There aren't too many of these outrageous things, though, and by the end of the film, all is forgiven.
The movie so easily sets up the possibility of sequels (there could be any number of these "recovered videos" from the monster attack, and could even find one from every major city), so definitely expect to see Cloverfields 2-10 or so. There is, in fact, something hoarsely whispered at the very end, after the credit roll (yes, I geekily stayed in the theater through the entire credit roll, made rather enjoyable by the choral piece "Roar!" which was specially composed for Cloverfield), but I couldn't make out the words. If you're a nerd like me and stay through the credits, let me know what you think is said.
To see the trailer and more clips from Cloverfield check out movies.ivillage.com.
Photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures