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Ulises [Celluloid 01.21.08] movie review apocalyptic

Year: 2008
Director: Matt Reeves
Writer: Drew Goddard
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Ulises Silva (via VeryTragicalMirth)
Rating: 9 out of 10

Having waited for months to see Cloverfield, I was both excited over its release this past Friday, and terrified. Excited because I'd seen the trailers and heard the hype and figured it was my kind of film, terrified because I'd seen the trailers and heard the hype and figured it was going to actually suck. So, after popping a couple of Dramamines and crossing my fingers, I went to see the film on Saturday. I'm happy to say that, for once, the film not only lived up to the hype, but exceeded it by several orders of magnitude.

By now, you've heard the inevitable comparisons: that Cloverfield is The Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla. Like The Blair Witch Project, we're seeing the events of the film unfold through the eyes of a single camcorder. And like Godzilla, a giant monster attacks NYC. The similarities, thankfully, end there. Cloverfield is a new breed of monster movie, a film that understands the unique dynamics of the YouTube generation, while incorporating the horrors of our post 9-11 consciousness in brutally chilling fashion.

Many of the negative (and even positive) critical reviews of Cloverfield have focused on the film's main characters, a mesh of indistinguishable 20-somethings who have all the characterization and depth of wet tissue paper. The extended opening party sequence filled with chatter, flirting, and gossiping tries to make us care about our young protagonists, but we simply don't. By the time the monster thankfully appears, we know some names—Rob, Beth, Jason, Lily—but hardly who they belong to. But it doesn't matter. Once the action starts, their anonymity actually heightens the sense that you're watching the events from ground zero as told by members of the nameless rabble of running, screaming victims.

The young characters running through the film aren't just indistinguishable: they're completely at a loss as to what's going on. At first, their fleeting glimpses at the cause of all the sudden destruction offer only partially coherent explanations. “It's alive,” one guy keeps yelling, and that's as clear an insight as anyone in the film is going to have. Even the news channels and military are clueless. “Whatever it is, it's winning,” one soldier tells them at a mall-turned-medical-center, while official news cameras themselves can only offer obstructed views of the creature destroying Manhattan.

The protagonists' vantage point never really improves either. In one memorable scene, as they're trying to cross the Brooklyn Bridge to escape Manhattan Island, we see people on the lower deck running out of the bridge in panic, even as the people on the upper deck are moving along calmly. Our protagonists aren't graced with the omniscient viewpoint to understand everything, and they're left to wonder, like we are, just what the panicked crowds below are running in terror from. By the time they figure it out, it's too late. There's a similar moment later, as the party of four are walking through an empty street, and a battle breaks out. The suddenness of the battle, as armed troops and M1 Abrams tanks come pouring out of the darkness firing round after ineffective round at the massive creature, catches everyone, even us, by surprise. The characters can do nothing but huddle in a subway entrance and scream in terror, engulfed in the mayhem and explosions of the military's desperate fight.

Our protagonists' lack of understanding is at the heart of this film's effectiveness. We're forced into a perspective that is neither informed nor advantageous, following characters who don't enjoy the god-mode immunity of other monster-movie heroes. As a result, we're forced into an experience that's raw and unedited, taking in the sights—emergency sidewalk surgeries, collapsing landmarks, an empty horse-drawn carriage—with the same confusion and despair as they are. Like them, we're forced to stumble across a desolate Manhattan, nervously peering around each corner, wondering what the creepy sounds in the subway tunnel are (the subway scene alone is worth the price of admission). And like them, we're never given a full, clear shot of the monster; we're left to imagine just what the heck it is and why our mighty military is frantically scrambling to get “one last shot at it.”

I think this is the one aspect of the film that's either going to make or break it among audiences. Since our perspective is never better than the camera's, we never see the payoff monster shot from some birds-eye vantage point away from the battle. The creature is always hidden behind buildings, rubble, explosions, or the characters' frantic, amateurish camera-work. If you're waiting for the big revealing shot, you won't get it. For that, you'll have to settle for Godzilla.

But that's just it. I've long since thought that our imagination far exceeds our ability to replicate it onscreen. Consequently, many of the payoff shots in monster movies (and any kind of movie involving a being we don't see until the end) prove lacking, uninspired, or outright disappointing. Special effects can sometimes fall short of the horrors our minds create for themselves over the course of a film. Cloverfield circumvents this problem by never giving us that clear shot of the creature. Like any good H.P. Lovecraft story, we're forced into using our imagination, offered only short, teasing glimpses at something that's both terrifying and awesome. We crane our necks every time the camera catches it, and we want our screaming, clumsy protagonist to sit still and just film the dang thing. But he never does (at least not until later), and we're better off because of it.

This is a film with no heroes, no last-minute heroic rescues, and no uplifting or dramatic score in the background to heighten our sense of tension. This is raw, visceral footage as seen through the eyes of people no different than us. And it imagines new terrors, while offering terrors we're already familiar with, namely the 9-11 imagery following the creature's initial appearance. (A lot has been made about the collapsing buildings and the dust clouds that engulf the streets, but I don't think the film is exploiting the events of 9-11 so much as accepting that they've become a part of our national consciousness. None of us, unfortunately, have to imagine what a collapsing building looks like anymore.)

Cloverfield won't be for everyone, but I don't think it's going to be the kind of “love it/hate it” film that The Blair Witch Project proved to be. Even those disappointed with the absence of the payoff monster shot will be thrilled with the raw terror of this ground zero narrative, and more than a few of you will have that “what the HELL!” reaction that some of the film's creepier moments bring. And for those of you who accept this movie for what it is, get ready, because you're in for one hell of a ride.

One final note: if you get motion sick (like I do), and you had trouble with The Blair Witch Project, take precautions. I was able to make it through the film by taking two Dramamine and sitting at the very back of the theater…and still just barely made it! Still, it was worth it!

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Agent Orange (14 years ago) Reply

I completely agree with your take on the film. Great review. Smart move taking the dramamine btw.


Mark Southam (13 years ago) Reply

Another real real real bad movie! No story just plain stupid, thank goodness it cost me only $2.00 to rent it! but I still watched one of the stupidest movies this year, I hop they start making better movies! other bad movies are; I am omega, Day watch! Bad movies 101............ :(

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