January 19, 2008

Movie Review: Cloverfield

For some kinds of movies, you go for the story, for the script and the dialogue. For others, you go for the actors. A monster movie, you go to so that you can be be scared by the monster. If you like that sort of thing, you should immediately go see Cloverfield to see that kind of story told a way that you've not seen before.

Okay, you may have seen a story told this way before. You may have seen The Blair Witch Project, for instance. But Blair Witch was not satisfying on one level -- you never got to see the witch or even to learn if there was a witch at all or if it was some psychopath or if the characters freaked themselves out to death or if maybe one of the characters was doing it or what. Cloverfield gives you what you want to see -- it's a monster movie, after all -- but in the verisimilitude-heavy first-person-camera faux-found-film manner that was the hallmark of Blair Witch.

The story begins with a farewell party for a young New Yorker, which is interrupted by the monster's attack. A character is filming the party as a memento for the honoree, and because of that, he starts to record the attack. We follow him and his party of friends as they try to survive. All we ever get to see or learn is what they see and learn. They don't get any background on the mythology or origin of the monster. They don't get to learn why they are being attacked or why the monster came to New York. They don't get elaborate explanations of what's going on from the other characters they encounter. We get a victims-eye view of the attack, from start to finish. In the end, we don't even get to find out... Oh, well, but that would be spoiling it.

The producers made a very good choice to film using a cast of virtually unknown actors. Because you've likely never seen any of these actors before (unless you pay really, really close attention to the few TV series that they've been in), it's easy to set aside the idea that these are actors in a movie and that everything you see has been elaborately staged and choreographed. Instead, you can suspend your disbelief enough to think that this is really what people in New York would be going through if Godzilla attacked or something like that. The jerky, random camera work heightens the idea that this is an amateur using a handheld camcorder rather than a professional setting up a shot for with artfully crafted angles and blocking to assist with the narrative. (It actually is, but the director and the cinematographer do a great job of making it look like it's really the randomly-taken shots of one of the characters.)

Unfortunately, this technique has a significant downside -- there are rarely any shots at all that are stable for more than five seconds or so. If you aren't prepared for this kind of camera work -- and some of it is quite violent and sustained for lengthy periods of time -- the movie will give you a terrible headache and can be very difficult to follow. Once you get used to it, the story becomes a little bit easier to follow, but for a while it's really distracting. Also in order to simulate the cameras-eye-view aspect of the film, a lot of lighting quality had to be sacrificed, which means that some things are not seen very well. Because of this quality of the movie, I'm afraid The Wife did not enjoy the film at all. (I liked it plenty.)

Aside from the deliberately terrible camera work, there are some moments, particularly in the film's third act, that require too great an effort to sustain willing disbelief. This is unfortunate, because the film does a very good job otherwise of drawing you into the world of New York City under attack. The actors are convincing in their roles, especially considering that it's likely they were doing a lot of work against blue screens and some of their foils were likely created by CGI. Sadly, there isn't a lot of character development and as a result, you never really feel a lot of sympathy for or identification with the characters.

The movie is short at 87 minutes, but once you get past the relatively uninteresting first act, it's quite intense. The suspense -- when will the monster attack next, how will the party survive -- dovetails nicely into the lack of explanation for what's going on (beyond the obvious fact that a monster is attacking the city). Oh, and about that monster: it's plenty scary. There will be the inevitable comparisons with Godzilla, but I don't think they're even in the same league. Comparing Cloverfield's monster with Godzilla is like comparing a modern cell phone to a car phone from 1969. They're not even in the same league.


Becky said...

I hated it. It gave me a headache. It was generally boring except for the "monster" scenes, those were ok. I couldn't care less what happened to the characters, just die already so I can take an aspirin!

I had very low expectations for this movie as I had no interest in seeing it. However, since the hubby really, really, REALLY wanted to check it out, so we went. Well, at least I wasn't disappointed. It was as awful as I anticipated.

Pamela said...

"The jerky, random camera work," might just keep me from seeing it. At least in the theater anyway. I don't know if my brain can handle that and thoughts about school at the same time!