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Cloverfield

February 8, 2008

The only thing, you would think, that connects Roland Emmerich’s corpulent and overblown Godzilla with The Blair Witch Project was that they came out in the same year. Well, it seems that TV wunderkind JJ Abrams is happy to draw a straight line between the two and meet in the middle with the dozily-titled Cloverfield, essentially a monster-on-the-rampage movie shot on travelsicknesscam.

Concentrating on a group of twentysomething neo-yuppies, the movie opens with video camcorder footage of what we soon learn are events taken the previous month, where Rob is spending a romantic day in New York with gorgeous socialite Beth. Bzzzz. Edit jumpy-cut to a month later and preparations being made for Rob’s leaving party where the whole of the irritating NY yuppie scene (everyone loves Rob because he has the best teeth) are gathering to make sure he goes to Japan. Bzzzz. Back to last month. Bzzzz. Back to ‘now’. Bzzzz.

Obviously, the Japan reference is a cheeky nod towards Godzilla, but it’s the only reward for watching this first 15-20 minutes, which is essentially a mish-mash recording of someone else’s party, and as such – have you ever watched a non-relative’s wedding video? Have you ever watched a relative‘s wedding video, come to that? – it is either dull or irritating. The only things that arise from all the shouty party antics are that the camera is now in the possession of Rob’s mate Hud, who isn’t a film student like the guys in Blair Witch, yet still manages to frame and pan with news reportage verve and style; that gorgeous socialite Beth is now with gormless socialite Travis and storms off after a briefly glimpsed out-in-the-corridor chat with Rob; and that surely, if all the irritating people in Manhattan have now been gathered together in one place, it would be the perfect time to cue monster and wipe the shrieking preening bastards out.

Fortunately, just as Rob is bemoaning his luck in a private conversation (on camera, because you’d do that) the terror strikes and all hell breaks loose.

This is the best part of the movie by a very long way. For some considerable time, the only information we have to go on about what it is that may have caused havoc is a series of explosions, a few earth-shattering noises which may or may not be roars, and gabbled shouted clues (“it’s alive!”). The group descends to street level where the money shot, the head of the Statue of Liberty being tossed casually against a skyscraper and landing with genuine impact in front of the camera, rocks you back in your seat. It’s a wow moment, a movies-of-the-year round-up moment, a genuinely iconic eleven seconds of imagery. Chaos follows as the city panics en masse and Hud, untrained but suspiciously lucky [wink to audience], captures just enough stuff to allow you to piece together what’s happening.

It is as the predicament becomes clearer (‘clearer’ in the sense of knowing just enough to keep you informed, but not enough to start wondering why there are plot holes everywhere) that the movie starts to falter, and then to fall to pieces. Running towards the monster to reach Beth – who has called Rob and who is apparently badly hurt – the friends get into the thick of the action, never once forgetting to film or, as I would have done, even if I hadn’t dropped the bloody thing long before, just getting footage of feet and night-time blur. Inexplicably, although fansites will tell you they’re ‘parasites’, the monster has arrived with a host of tinier Alien-style critters that fall off it and attack in a melee of arms and snappy jaws. Now personally, I think that’s cheating, but here they are, dog-sized scuttling fuckers that are just the right size to get stuck in a closing door so that they can growl and scratch and bite at you as you lean against them.

Oh, I’m being cynical here, I know, but beneath all the speedy inside-the-action ultra-close stuff – and handheld does allow that brilliantly – there is essentially still a very simple and clichéd monster movie to tell, and it’s worth remembering that that’s all it is. When you FINALLY get a view of the creature it’s an ill-advised distinct close up and lends itself immediately to the So What? School of Film. For anyone who’s played Epic’s terrific Gears Of War (and director Matt Reeves clearly has) you just need to know that it looks like the really big underground Corpsers in that, and that the little parasitic things are like the Wretches. There, you’ve saved your seven quid. Ultimately, I have to say, it’s just a little disappointing. But not as disappointing as the numerous clichés and ‘yeah, right’ moments that pepper the action; when someone in total darkness says “I’m going to Night Vision”, we know what to expect; when someone has been reported as losing a lot of blood and has lain skewered by a reinforced concrete rod for hours, you do not imagine three minutes later that they will be tearing up the road like Marion Jones in search of an all night pharmacist; when you stumble on an army field hospital in the middle of an unprecedented attack, a soldier will not be able to advise you how best to reach the Time Warner building; when falling from a helicopter into solid ground, you will not walk away. There are laughs, too, none larger than the unlucky Marlene who is – just to add to what the scuttly creatures can do – infected via their bite and, in an hilarious silhouette shot, expands and bursts in a welter of blood.

Ultimately, our credulity is stretched and for me snapped with about ten minutes to go. Bzzzz. Multi-endings, you’d think, would be the preserve of three hour epics, like Return of the King, but we get them here, too. Stop surviving. Die, already. Bzzzz.

Bzzzz. Bzzzz. Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

You see? You see how easy it is to become a movie mogul? Godzilla to Blair Witch in one go. I’m currently trying to connect 1985’s big movies, My Beautiful Laundrette and Red Sonja: the tyrant Thatch-Or seeks total power in a world of barbarism and liberal gayness; with only Lefty Lesbo ‘Red’ Sonja, able to stand up to her. All shot in cinema verité by Ken Loach and Peter Jackson, natch. I’ll make a stinker, but I might just make a fortune, too.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 17, 2012 5:17 pm

    *I have fond memories of this film because my boyfriend and I went to see it on one of our first dates together. It wasn’t very good but a) we were falling in love so we were happy anyway and b) we were kept entertained by all the moments where it was unintentionally comical, like the bit you mention where she explodes.

    I do love monster movies, though, so it’s disappointing when they don’t work. I think you have it exactly right, pinpointing that promising moment when ‘all hell breaks loose’ that made Cloverfield great fun before it failed to deliver.

    The other frustrating thing about the film is more general for me – there’s something I want to love about this growing genre of camcorder films. I always imagine someone will shoot some intimate, creepy, lo-fi thing that will just blow me away with atmosphere and mystery, but I’ve yet to find it. If it exists I would love to see it. My knowledge of films is not large, so I retain hope!

    I have seen Blair Witch (creepy; inevitable overriding memory: drippy nose) and Paranormal Activity (good idea, but as you note in your Nov ’09 review of that film it doesn’t work and shares that unintentionally funny problem that Cloverfield has). I haven’t seen REC yet. Any recommendations much appreciated.

    (This is also a competition comment, complete with asterisk! I first visited your excellent blog when you tweeted about the competition on Twitter a wee while back – glad I found it.)

  2. May 17, 2012 9:09 pm

    Hi Eva. Thank you so much for your kind words. Of the “lost footage’ camcorder movies, my favourite is REC, by some distance. REC2 tries to explain too much, but that first movie is a cracker. Competition is over soon, Lordy, thanks for the reminder!

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