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
It’s taken almost a decade but someone in Hollywood has finally figured out how to apply the faux-vérité of “The Blair Witch Project” to a large scale studio production, and the result is quite a bit better than Hollywood usurpations usually are. “Cloverfield,” the new thriller from mastermind J.J. Abrams (“Lost”) uses its style to focus clearly on its characters and the terrifying reality of being trapped in a horrible situation, producing a superior thriller that, despite running about 10 minutes too long, is genuinely entertaining.
And that’s all you need to know. The rest of this review will have to reveal a bit more of exactly what “Cloverfield” is, so if you don’t want to know, just rest assured that it’s worth your time and go see it.
So… instead of the standard explosions and useless expository conjecturing that so many monster movies wallow in, “Cloverfield” tries as hard as possible to subvert the usual storytelling methods and put its audience in the shoes of its characters, literally, as the entire film is told through the point of view of a hand-held video camera documenting a going away party that goes horribly, horribly, horribly awry when a Lovecraftian fiend from the depths suddenly shows up in midtown Manhattan.
Director Matt Reeves and screenwriter Drew Goddard, a pair of Abrams’ long-time television co-conspirators, have wisely chosen to make their characters the center of their film, not the monster. They run about in terror and hazily conceived goals for most of the film with no clear idea of what exactly is going on, a decision that makes for a much more engaging and thrilling film. It’s never exactly explained what the monster is or what is going on, but it doesn’t need to be either, and the film is in fact stronger without that knowledge. Nothing is more terrifying than the unknown, and Abrams and company take full advantage of that fact, never even fully showing the creature until the very end (in a final sequence that the film could very well have done without).
Without an orgy of devastation to occupy the audience, the filmmakers are left entirely in their characters’ hands to carry the movie instead of the director’s visuals, a situation that normally seems to unnerve studio event directors and producers so it’s no wonder they try to avoid it like the plague. Nevertheless, Abrams and company dive in heads first, casting the film with largely unknown young television actors in order to increase the reality of the situation. Of course, it’s still a monster movie deep down, so much of the performances consist in running from and reacting in fear to barely seen devils, interspersed with occasional chance for everyone (audience included) to catch their breath.
The other thing “Cloverfield” is, and this is the only real downside to an otherwise well-conceived and executed monster film, is a gimmick film. It can only ever work at the height of its powers once and while there are some nuances that can be gained in repeat viewings, there aren’t many, and they can’t compete with loss of the gimmick. The other problem, also related to the gimmick, is that main characters we’re supposed to care the most about aren’t really the main characters, they’re not even on screen together very much (one of them’s only in about a third of the film). The most relatable character is actually Hud, the barely unseen voice behind the video camera through whose ‘eye’ we witness everything that happens, and while he has his own story it is certainly not the one driving the plot, but it can’t help but overshadow the other stories around it by nature of the films chosen story-telling device.
It also goes on too long, the last ten minutes are not needed, and while it would be a stretch to say they weaken the film, they certainly don’t strengthen it. All that said, it’s still a very good giant monster film, as good as we’ve had in America in quite a while (though not quite up to par with some of the better recent Asian efforts like “The Host”) and if a lot of its enjoyment rests on a gimmick, it’s still a very good gimmick and the filmmakers make the most of it.
Just don’t think too hard about how that video camera survived everything it went through.