Barry's Score: 7/10
Know that this will be the most spoiler-free, movie-goer friendly review of “Cloverfield” I can muster. Its only January, but one of the most buzzed about films of 2008 is already out and, frankly, I wasn't all that excited to see it. I don't know if it was the defeaning pre-release buzz, the endless assesements of the teaser trailer or that the film was produced by J.J. Abrams (the only big name in the promotional materials) but was directed by Matt Reeves, whose last film was the David Schwimmer/Gwyneth Paltrow bomb, “The Pallbearer”. Even with lowered expectations and an overall reaction that may come across as faint praise, the overall film is a scary, if empty ride that truly works, even when it fails to totally convince.
Presented as a video shot entirely by a handheld camera, we see a New York party, flush with metrosexual 20-somethings (few of whom come across as New Yorkers, by the way- more like West Coasters), that centers on the going away party of “Rob” (Michael Stahl-David, who is established early on as the film's lead) and captures alot of melodrama, not unlike the kind you'd find on an episode of “The Hills” or “The O.C.”. In the middle of a “Dude, you need to tell her how you FEEL!” speech, an earthquake occurs and the partygoers realize their city is in the middle of a large scale attack (by what, I'll allude to later). We follow a cluster of friends who run through the city, seek shelter and, later on, perform a rescue attempt, while something enormous, seen only in tantalizing glimpses, tears the city apart.
Is the film exploitative, setting a large scale disaster in New York and evoking imagery awfully similiar to the 9/11 attack footage? You betcha! While it makes sense to have the setting The Big Apple, since its flush with famous locations to pulverize that most filmgoers are familiar with (Hey look! There goes the Empire State Building!), but, honestly, accusing the film of bad taste isn't completely out of line (a decapitated Statue of Liberty gag is sort of striking but kind of tacky). Also, the acting isn't great- the performances fluctuate in quality, as the actors sometimes convey the shell-shocked state the script requires of them, but sometimes appear to be straining to hit emotional peaks during the most especially grueling moments.
The shaky-cam approach that the film sticks with
from beginning to end is mildly annoying at first, but once the real action starts, you adjust to all the running around and skewed angles, as they make you feel a part of the action. The creation of a mangled New York is mostly effective, though nowhere near as good as it was in “I Am Legend” and the city looks underpopulated during the big crowd scenes.
Originality is not one of the film's strong points. The obvious comparisons to “The Blair Witch Project” are unavoidable and completely valid, as this film owes alot to it (there's even an “I'm So Scared” moment late in the film), but
(HERE'S WHERE THE MINOR SPOILERS BEGIN)………………………………………..
“Cloverfield” is also alot like “The Mist”, both in terms of story (rescuing someone stuck in a tight spot becomes the drive of the film) and the monsters, while impressive, are ALOT like the ones in the little-seen Frank Darabont movie that opened and closed in November. I'm not suggesting plagerism, I'm just saying that, having seen “The Mist”, I felt like I'd already seen this sort of thing before (and that also goes for the subway attack sequence). The visual effects in “Cloverfield” are remarkable, but, seriously, “The Mist” did it first and (yes!) better…………………
(HERE'S WHERE THE SPOILERS END)………………………………..
A nice touch is how, as in “The Birds”, there is no music, only sound effects (though the score that plays over the end credits is superb). The film is incredibly trendy, complete with product placements, which is both a criticism (Wouldn't You Like a Mountain Dew While New York Falls Apart?!) and an asset (the look and lingo of the characters, as well as the techno toys they own, makes the movie feel as though it takes place RIGHT NOW). The film isn't “fun” and is harrowing throughout, but, on the other hand, kind of pointless, as it doesn't have anything to say about what we're seeing. Is this an allegory? A statement against American consumerism? More likely, it is EXACTLY what it is: a cinematic stunt, one of the most elaborate You Tube videos ever made and a movie for those who thought the “Godzilla” remake from ten years ago wasn't dark or scary enough (and you know what? It wasn't!).
Its not quite the breakthrough masterpiece some would have you believe, yet, its entertaining and certainly effective as a visceral, unique experiance at the movies (of which there are too few in movies today). I wanted more heart (though the film does try) and possibly more substance, but seriously, this is one ride I'll take again.