Cloverfield (Review #1)

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Opening Friday, January 18th

Cast:

Michael Stahl-David as Rob Hawkins

Mike Vogel as Jason Hawkins

Jessica Lucas as Lily Ford

T.J. Miller as Hud Platt

Lizzy Caplan as Marlena Diamond

Odette Yustman as Beth McIntyre

Directed by Matt Reeves

Review:

Creature creator Ray Harryhausen has often been quoted lamenting the loss of films that broached “the fantastic” and delivered a sense of magic and awe. Saying this, I’m presuming he’s comparing the noisy/flashy blockbusters of today to those of yesteryear and I don’t necessarily agree with him in this statement. However, the sub-genre known as the “monster film,” I will admit, has had its marked ups and downs. “Jurassic Park” was a watermark for me. It was thrilling and unlike anything I had ever seen – and to this day, I still think it carries some of the best FX work since the advent of CGI. Even if he didn’t care for what Spielberg did in this prehistoric parable – or care for what anyone has contributed to the genre in the last twenty years, for that matter – then maybe Mr. Harryhausen will find his faith in monster movies renewed by Matt Reeves’ excellent “Cloverfield.” Because it definitely renewed mine.

Preceded by a hype machine not even this film’s beast could bring down, “Cloverfield” is a very good movie…but it doesn’t match the excitement generated around it. Big surprise, right? Still, besides the fact it approaches the material with “Blair Witch” flair and touts a premise we’ve seen before (giant monster + NYC = explosive smackdown), Reeves and screenwriter Drew Goddard generate a fair amount of wonderment and fear that makes you sit up in your seat several times. And you can tell they’ve been doing their research – recognizing the trappings of the genre, what works and what doesn’t work. So there’s equal helpings of “Godzilla,” “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” and “The Host” – shades of the latter echoing strongly through “Cloverfield’s emphasis on characterization and themes of love in the time of crisis.

Wait, you didn’t know this was a love story? Well, suck it up and face it – it sort’ve is. And it begins with Rob Hawkins’ palpable adoration for an NYC uptown girl named Beth. As the commercials have hinted, “Cloverfield” is told through the lens of Rob’s camera, so we find these two on an early April morning sharing some bedtime. The narrative suddenly leaps forward a month to Rob’s going away party (he’s taking work in Japan) and it’s here we meet his best bud Hud, brother Jason, Jason’s girlfriend Lily and Hud’s crush Marlena. Beth arrives, there’s some drama to be had there and she leaves as quickly as she arrived. The bash is abruptly halted with a massive explosion in downtown Manhattan and the arrival of the Statue of Liberty’s decapitated head.

Then the shit hits the fan. There’s panic in the streets. Looters smashing windows. Cops trying to keep order. And a giant monster knocking over everything in its path.

Without divulging who lives or who dies, the story that subsequently unfolds finds Rob making the resolute decision to man-up, brave whatever threats the beast poses and find his girl Beth – who he knows is trapped in her apartment. Friends in tow (I’ll give you this much, Hud’s on camera op duties), Rob begins his trek north through the city dodging artillery shells, making the most of his camera’s uncanny battery strength and evading parasitic creatures in the subway tunnels.

Throughout, the dynamic amongst our lead survivors is fairly believable. The decisions made are true (if flawed, but hey, they’re only human) and the dialogue early on has an airy bounce to it that is reminiscent of Reeves’ days on “Felicity.” Hud is classic J.J. Abrams material – a tad grating at times, but always spot-on when a dash of comic relief is needed. The rest of the gang, particularly Rob, is there to anchor the gravity of their situation. And while their efforts to evoke a sense of somberness and fear are appreciated, it feels they’re all holding back. No one has a balls-out freak-out moment, even when their safety is compromised during their underground travels.

Those are minor quibbles, though.

On the upside, I didn’t barf. That’s right – the dude who feels like he’s going to barf during a game of Halo didn’t get motion sick from the film’s first-person perspective. The camera work is every bit as jarring as “Blair Witch” but it works to the narrative’s advantage. We don’t see everything we would normally see in a film like this, or, we see some things we would normally see in a film like this…but from a whole new perspective. Reeves’ lays on delicious ambiguity on screen and within the plot itself, too – it’s never made clear where this monster came from (hurray!). It doesn’t stop Hud from voicing his theories, however.

As for the monster himself – sorry, no description here. He doesn’t look like “The Host,” but he might feel at home wandering around Frank Darabont’s “The Mist.” The action that surrounds this big boy is nothing short of breathtaking. Some of the first glimpses we get of him come via broadcast news reports; the effectiveness of this reveal is chilling. Up close and personal, he’s a rampaging bad-ass and seeing him through the lens of an amateur camera operator amplifies the realism tenfold. My only disappointment is Reeves’ judicious use of the creature. For a good stretch of the film’s lean 80-plus minutes, he’s off-screen, but his presence is there. Always. A boisterous sound mix reminds you constantly that the danger is lurking somewhere: Through the rumbling of his footsteps or the distant echo of gunfire from the military trying to hold the offensive (they suck at it, by the way). When he returns later, the fascination and the want to see more is at its peak.

In the end, I was looking for a monster fix and I got it. “Cloverfield” balances various messages without hammering you over the head with them. Visuals speak louder than words in this instance and the sight of New York City succumbing to annihilation, although nothing new in movies like this, speaks volumes. Scary, it is. Unique? You bet. Original? Not especially. Where “Cloverfield” works best in its gimmick. Putting a fresh face on a sub-genre, that has endured decades, and lending it a modicum of numbing authenticity is its greatest achievement.

On a final note: Do yourself a favor, stay through the end credits and listen to composer Michael Giacchino’s “Roar! (The Cloverfield Overture)” – the only music you’ll get in the film. What a stirring piece, and at the same time, a love letter to the films that have inspired this one.