J.J. Abrams

Week 12: Cloverfield (2008)

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Directed by Matt Reeves
Starring Michael Stahl-David, T.J. Miller, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan, Odette Yustman
Produced by J.J. Abrams & Bryan Burk
Written by Drew Goddard
Cinematography by Michael Bonvillian
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Running time 85 minutes

Before Viewing

As a kid, I remember a movie program on the local independent station called “The World Beyond’. This program carried all the B-Monster movies from the 50s and 60s like The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Creature From The Black Lagoon. However, if I was really lucky, they would show a Godzilla movie. I loved seeing the badly dubbed monster movies on ‘The World Beyond’ (unless they were really creepy, like Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster). I enjoyed seeing Godzilla wreak havoc on poor Tokyo, and then later seeing him act almost like a protector of the humans against other monsters. I even found a book at my local library that went into detail about Godzilla and his origins.

As an adult, I’ve become a fan of the show Lost. I enjoy the mystery, wonder and suspense the show provides, and a lot of that can be attributed to executive producer J.J. Abrams. When I heard that he was producing what was supposed to be a good ol’ fashioned monster movie (which was untitled at first, then known as o1-18-08, then revealed as Cloverfield), I was intrigued. I heard good things when it came out, but I waited to see it on DVD because I heard that the point-of-view nature of the filming of the movie could lead to motion sickness there in the theater. Rather than suffer through that, I decided to wait and see it in my own home theater.

My Thoughts After Viewing

It was really refreshing to see a movie take a chance and succeed. The point of view camera technique, which easily could have been a gimmick, actually turned out to be very effective. It works because at no point does the movie try to be anything more than a record of what occurs during one night in New York. If you can suspend your sense of disbelief that someone would keep a camera rolling while a monster is attacking the city, the film makes perfect sense. Fortunately, the filmmakers and actors are believable enough that you never get the sense that it’s nothing more than someone’s home movie- albeit a wonderous one at that.

The story is pretty simple- the movie starts with a zebra strip screen stating the what we will be seeing is part of a government file called ‘Cloverfield’. It then cuts to what appears to be a tender moment between a couple (Rob and Beth) talking about spending a day together. It then jumps to the cameraman talking to another girl about a party. At first, it appeared as if the cameraman was seeing two different girls, but then it becomes clear that the person filming is Rob’s brother Jason, and he’s using his brother’s camera. What has happened is that Rob never took the tape out, and so Jason is recording over old footage. However, the earlier footage on the tape that we see definitely plays a role in telling the story. Rob is going off to a new job in Japan, and so Jason and his girlfriend Lily are throwing him a surprise going-away party. While setting up for the party, Jason dishes the camera off to Hud, Rob’s best friend. Hud (no doubt a nod to the term H.U.D., which stands for Heads Up Display) becomes our narrator for the night’s events. When Beth shows up to the party with a date in tow, it becomes clear that Rob and Beth weren’t a couple but rather friends who spent the night together. They fight and Beth leaves a distraught Rob, who has feelings for Beth but doesn’t tell her. When Rob is on the fire escape getting consoled by Jason and Hud, something almost like an earthquake shocks the building, and everyone rushes up to the roof. Thus, the monster movie begins.

Before I go on, remember that all this back story was established using the first person point of view from the ‘camcorder’.  I was impressed how this segment of the movie was done very effectively. It could have been very easy for the filmmakers to jump right into the monster segment of the film, but by building up the human drama first, it allows us to care about the characters later. For example, Hud’s clumsy attempts to pick up Marlena, a partygoer who really doesn’t even want to be there, seem to exist for comic relief, but it also allows us to get a feel for both characters. Rob’s fight with Beth sets a number of plot points in motion, but it’s not that obvious to us at first.

With the characters and situations firmly established, it’s time to meet the monster. While on the rooftop investigating the quake, we  see a massive explosion off in the distance. The characters rush down to street level to avoid debris, and while down there, we see one of the film’s iconic shots- a large object crashes off a building in the distance and rolls to a stop in the street right in front of our camera. A closer look shows that it’s the head of the Statue of Liberty! Something has ripped it off and hurled it into the city. We see buildings then start to collapse, and a cloud of dust rolls in, very similar to what we saw during 9/11. Now, some reviewers were critical of the movie for using imagery that evoked memories of 9/11 (I remember the same thing happening to Spielberg’s War of the Worlds). The rolling cloud of dust, papers flying through the air- some reviewer felt it was cheap. However, I disagree. A lot of that footage that we saw was shot by news crews that were on the scene or by amateurs- none of it was certainly staged, and that’s the same feeling that comes from this film. It’s effective because it’s what we know. Like it or not, the images of 9/11 will always be a part of our collective psyche, and it goes a long way in telling this story.

The rest of the movie deals with Rob’s quest to rescue Beth. She went back to her apartment because of the fight, and Rob knows she’s there trapped. He feels guilty because he feels that it’s his fault. It’s in the part of the city where the monster is wreaking havoc, so naturally we’re subjected to a lot of close calls. However, we also get some great shots of the monster as it’s bumbling through the city and as the army is fighting back. We also get a glimpse at some terrifying parasites that live on the monster and have no qualms on feeding on humans. Characters that we get to know are lost along the way, and I liked how Cloverfield never devolves into an action movie- it really stays focused on being a movie about guilt, endurance, love, and survival. Characters that we like die. There’s no traditional monster movie climax. Granted, some people might feel cheated by that, but I thought that in this case, it stayed true to the ‘documentary’ nature of what we are supposed to be seeing. We’re not supposed to be watching a movie made for our entertainment. What we are supposed to be watching is a simple recording made of that night because, like Hud says, ‘… people are gonna want to know… how it all went down.’

As an aside, I just have to say that the effects are amazing. Watching the extras on the DVD really hit home on just how far green-screen technology has evolved. I thought a lot of the segments were shot on location and then effects added in, but many of the New York street scenes were done in studio. Green screen technology is all about layering and blending effectively, and this film was extremely successful in those regards. Seeing the monster destroying virtual New York looks nothing like the monster movies of my youth, where a puppet King Kong lept across the models of the World Trade Center in the 1976 remake. Don’t get me wrong- those films have a charm all of their own, but I’m just amazed by the level of realism we are now seeing from CGI. Sure, computers can be used to create things that don’t exist in the real world, like the monster and its parasites, but we can forgive them if they don’t look real, because they’re not. It’s when computers render and show things we see every day and do it in a way that we don’t question how real they look that you know the technology has finally arrived. The film doesn’t overwhelm us with visuals, but what it does it create a world real enough for us to buy the premise.

Final Verdict

If you, like me, grew up on these big monster movies, you’ll probably like this one. I would especially recommend it to study how to effectively integrate green-screen technology in a film. You won’t be disappointed.