If the word Cloverfield holds no meaning for you than Paramount Pictures and JJ Abrams' Bad Robot Productions haven't done their job, you simply don't hang out online very much, or you've been somewhere without modern technology since the summer. Much has been written online about the marketing campaign for the movie which started in early July with an odd little teaser trailer attached to the rock 'em sock 'em robot movie, Transformers, and now months later on 01-18-08 (a date which has played into the marketing a fair bit) the public will finally be let in on the secrets of Project Designate: Cloverfield or simply, Cloverfield.
As someone who follows the movie beat, my interest was no doubt sparked by that early teaser, and I began to follow the online viral marketing campaign which made little sense to begin with and got more involving as it went along. It would be safe to say that over the months that followed with every little nugget the studio released, I became more and more curious as to what this film was about, and I did my best to discover just what it was, which was no easy task given that no one was talking and the trailers gave away little more than the basic premise. It became fun waiting to see what was going to happen and despite the fact that I was handed the 40-page production notes in preparation for an interview with star Jessica Lucas, even us in the media who agreed to talk to people involved in the film were kept in the dark until the absolute last minute. And you know what, I'm glad we were, because the less you know going in, the more fun you'll have on this ride.
Cloverfield opens up as a group of 20-somethings in New York are preparing for a going away party for their friend Rob (Micheal Stahl-David), who is Japan-bound after accepting a new, great job. Lily (Jessica Lucas), who is dating Rob's brother Jason (Mike Vogel), is spearheading the party planning, enlisting her beau to film a series of testimonials -- you know, like the kind people give at weddings. Jason isn't too pleased with being saddled with this task, so he passes it off to Hud (TJ Miller) saying he can use it as an excuse to talk to Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), who Hud is interested in. The party is going pretty well -- Hud is getting the job done while Rob pines over the fact Beth (Odette Yustman) isn't in attendance. She eventually arrives, but in the arms of another man. Then all of a sudden, as Rob and Jason are talking on the fire escape outside their Manhattan apartment, the sh*t hits the fan: the room is shaking and things are flying through the air, taking out major landmarks, and it becomes clear that New York is under attack, but by what or by whom?
So does the movie deliver on the hype? I believe so. As I mentioned in the opening, the film really works well if you don't know much about what's going to happen. Director Matt Reeves, producer JJ Abrams, and writer Drew Goddard have taken the traditional SciFi monster movie and remixed it into something for modern audiences. In doing so, they have reinvented a genre that has otherwise seen better days. That being said, the movie will polarize audiences with its visual style, which is probably best described as Blair Witch meets the Bourne films and taken to the extreme. If you've ever been remotely motion sick, it's probably best to take something and sit further back, because visually this is one shaky movie. From start to finish, the film takes on the look of a home video shot documenting this day in these people's lives. Shots are imperfect, the camera jerks all over, and there's not a steadicam operator in sight. It truly feels as though you are right smack dab in the middle of the action getting bashed, bruised, and chased.
The biggest asset to the film is that instead of just showing a disaster attacking the city like we've seen time and time again, the film focuses on the people. We never leave their sides and while it's assumed that some will perish, the movie has a much more personal feel instead of just faceless carnage. Another big asset for the film is that once the carnage starts, the film moves at a breakneck pace until the end. The film also doesn't wear out its welcome, lasting barely an hour and a half including an approximately 10 minute end credit sequence, which is good because if this was some 3-hour King Kong movie, with all that handheld, I would have actually been sick instead of just feeling a bit sick after the movie.
Although the film does have a screenplay credited to Drew Goddard, there's very little in the way of source material, explanations, or even character exposition. Audiences may be frustrated by what seems like an incomplete movie -- there's no grand master shots of the monster, in fact he's barely seen until near the end and even then it's just a brief glance -- but given the way the film is set up to be a recovered camcorder tape, this fits and serves the movie well. It cuts the extraneous stuff out and delivers the heart-pounding moments. No one has a stupid plan on how to save the city from the attack and no one is grandstanding. This is the story of some friends trying to survive in light of the circumstances, and the ever-knowing fear that there is something out there and that their safety is very much in jeopardy.
In addition to the visual style, a lot of what helps the film remain locked on a small scale is the fact the cast is kept extremely small. Sure there are scenes with 100s of people fleeing, but for the most part there are 6 people, and you fear for their lives whether you like them as people or not. It's also important that these people seem like everyday people, and by casting mostly unknowns, JJ Abrams and Matt Reeves have accomplished this. Although all the lead roles are played by young 20-somethings that have been seen on TV, none are extremely identifiable. Micheal Stahl-David, who plays Rob, is from The Black Donnelys, while Jessica Lucas been on countless TV series. Lizzy Caplan (Marlena) had a sitcom last fall, and TJ Miller (Hud) is currently on ABC in the very funny but little seen show Carpoolers.
The entire cast gives good performances that remain locked in reality: Lucas' Lily is bossy but cares a lot, Stahl-David's Rob is the guy who's breaking away from the group but has doubts following an encounter with Beth, and Miller's Hud is a major annoyance but as the viewers' eyes and ears you can't help but root for the guy, even if he tries to break the tension by engaging the group in some rather inane conversations. Sure, none of the cast is given much of an explained backstory, but the group does feel as though they would hang out in real life, and that works for the film. The last time I saw this approach to casting used in a disaster film was United 93, and by using people who are not super recognizable, it really helps maintain a level of realism.
The more I think back about Cloverfield, the more I enjoyed it. Sure, it's not a perfect film or even a movie for everyone. A lot of people I've spoken with have disliked the film for the very reasons I like it, including the minimal story and character development and of course the damn shaky handheld camera work. If I had one major criticism of the movie, it would be that although the visual style needs to be rough, they could have taken it down a few notches without ruining the effect on the audience. As it stands now, Cloverfield is a damn good reinvention of the monster movie on a more personal scale. You aren't given much information, but it works. It also touches on the fears of post 9-11 New York, with some iconic imagery, including a decapitated statue of liberty.
JJ Abrams, Matt Reeves, and Drew Goddard have assembled the first of what I hope to be many new style catastrophic movies with a more personal feel, and if Cloverfield succeeds at the box office, there's already talk of a sequel. How would you do a sequel? Well maybe, instead of a traditional sequel, you could present the events of the night from the perspective of another group of characters. At the end of the day, this is a film that will polarize audiences (some 20 people walked out from the promotional screening), but if you settle in for the ride, you'll have a good time. Just don't forget the anti-nausea meds.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.