As a holiday gift, I feel like reviewing something, and really what’s more American than the disaster movie? It started to really pop up in the 1970’s with such hits as Airport, and saw a revival in the 90’s beginning with Independence Day. These days, it’s still plugging along and luckily for me, the invasion genre gets lumps together. This brings me to the film I will be reviewing today, Cloverfield.
Now, I should go on record as saying that I get incredibly motion sick and that without Dramamine, I could not make it through this movie. I don’t care for the found footage stylization in most cases, but every now and then it clicks and I enjoy it immensely. One of the requirements of this is that I know the movie is going to feature handicam going into the film so I can prepare. If I am surprised by a sudden switch to handicam or a quick jaunty on the shaky cam, then I am likely to enjoy the film less because I will quickly become ill and cease to be able to pay attention correctly. This means a lot of American action movies are terrible for me, because tight close ups are needed to cover either the stunt doubles doing the work, or the fact that the director doesn’t have any clue on how to frame a fight scene. That’s an entirely different discussion, and I will try and remain on point. The point is that Cloverfield’s entire premise was a found footage movie, from beginning to end. A lot of people actually forget this fact, but the film opens with a pretty slick opening wrap of US Department of Defense text and even spells out the movie as case designated Cloverfield and mentions that it was found near Central Park.
Did I mention that this film was written by Drew Goddard? Well, I just did. Drew Goddard is the same guy that wrote Cabin in the Woods with Joss Whedon. He’s spent a lot of time writing with both Abrams and Whedon on their television projects, so it’s not surprising that in a big screen format with big ideas, Goddard is kind of amazing. The movie is directed by Matt Reeves, who I don’t know that much about, save for the fact that the remake of Let the Right One In, entitled Let Me In, was pretty good. I wouldn’t classify this film as a genre deconstruction in the way that Cabin in the Woods is, but I would definitely say that Cloverfield is not your standard monster/disaster/horror film and it is the differences and execution that set it apart.
Even though I mentioned the found footage style, Cloverfield is more than a gimmicky film. I know that this statement alone is going to cause some rumblings, but I feel that this is entirely true. Cloverfield has so much more to offer than the gimmick, and many of the characters are even aware of the gimmick in the film itself. This doesn’t come off as lampshade hanging the way it could, or even break one out of the film, but comes from a place of grounded realism within the film itself, and it seems completely natural given the progression of events. Instead, the way the movie is filmed gives it a raw perspective and a heartfelt execution that these films really don’t have. Yes, heartfelt. Cloverfield often gets a lot of flack for its opening act, which is pretty lengthy. To me, I find this first act incredibly compelling because it does a lot of things that you don’t normally see within this genre, and frankly, it does things that other films supposedly all about interpersonal relationships don’t do as well as this first act did.
The film takes place in two times, April 27 and May 22. In the film, May 22 is the modern day, and April 27 is the day that Rob and Beth hooked up and spent a wonderful day together. The opening segment is an extended sequence that shows them together and happy, and cuts shortly after the two discuss Coney Island and Rob states he plans to take Beth there after they get some other things taken care of first (he means sex here folks!) Let me pause to state that I LOVE the time stamps in relations to this. Michael Bay is notorious for misuse of timestamps in a way that just doesn’t fucking matter even a little bit. I mean holy shit. Anyway, the time stamps here are just meant to mark time throughout April 27, as the time stamp only rarely appears in the modern day, and only when they serve a narrative purpose. While this is a little weird, I think this is a wise choice as a constant time stamp would be obnoxious. Soldiering on here, the events on May 22 are recorded OVER this existing SDD, so the entire movie is cut up with flashbacks of April 27. For the most part these are extremely fast, but you get a sense of progression throughout all of them. They are going through that stage of a relationship where they are learning about each other in new ways and the time stamps suggest that they spent most of the day in the apartment doing stuff like sitting around in their underwear and throwing grapes into each other’s mouths and shit like that. In these brief segments, Cloverfield tells a better and more realistic love experience than most shit by Nicholas Sparks. Those would be enough to elevate this film to a different experience, but Goddard doesn’t start their with his very real characterizations and interactions. The entire party sequence of May 22 is phenomenal, and it’s what makes Cloverfield so goddamn good.
The events of the party on May 22, even though the segment is considered overlong, hint: it’s not, are crucial to why I love this film so much. The movie does not waste time making these guys out to be douche bags. In fact, you get a sense that not only are these people good people, but they love and care about each other. Jason and Lily’s dynamic is believable, and Mike Vogel toes the line beautifully in portraying Jason as a guy who is a lovable douche bag. He obviously loves his girlfriend very much, and he likes his friend Hud, but he’s a guy that is cocky, sure of himself, and is a little immature. Really, who HASN’T had a conversation like he has with Hud and Rob out on the balcony in talking about Beth? Seriously, everyone has participated in that exact conversation as one of the parties or maybe as a different person in the conversation each time. Even when he talks about seizing the moment and he says “That’s all life is”, you roll your eyes but you grin. You’ve been that guy before and the conversation is so raw and earnest you can’t help but feel in on it, and that’s really what this handicam filming is doing in this film. It’s letting you in on it instead of keeping it away from you as a gimmick. This particular segment just does such a damned good job of character establishment that you almost forget the rest of the film does a stellar job of character development in a crisis as well. You know what Hud is like, and the lens through which you will be experiencing the events, what Lily is like, you meet Marlena and you can instantly identify her as a New Yorker you’d meet at a bar in Midtown, you know what I mean if you know what I mean right? Most importantly, you get a great bit of dialogue through the handicam set up with Rob and Beth, which serves to establish one of the plot arcs of the movie. Anycrap, this section is running long, but this scene really is one of the major reasons I love this movie. You meet the characters, you can both identify them and identify with them, and most importantly, they really are likable. It’s a phenomenal segment.
Shuffling anemically along, the second act of the film comes to a conclusion, the first act being the initial set up with Rob and Beth on April 27, it’s got a lot of acts, ok?, when the party goes up on the roof after an earthquake seemingly rocks the city and a brief power outage occurs. They also hear a news announcement about a capsized tanker in an area of the city very close to them. Some explosions follow in the bay, and debris starts flying in the apartment building, causing the party to take outside. Hud mentions that he will remain filming because “people will want to know how it all went down”. Now, this is put to the test several times through the remainder of the film, and one of the things I appreciate is that the camera often turns off at points where Hud just logically can’t keep the camera working for fear of his own safety or he needs to put it down to help with something. This translates into a wonderfully tense scene with Beth in her apartment later in the film, thanks to camera placement, I love the fact that the camera slides, paying service to the terrain you saw just before this scene. That’s getting slightly ahead of myself, though. As I was saying, the third act begins with the party now out in the street, with Hud filming debris from the Statue of Liberty, including the head which has some wicked bite, scratch and heat marks. The copper gradation is a great touch here. You also first see the glimpses of the creature here and witness the complete and total breakdown of Marlena as she states she witnessed people being eaten by something. In a continued nod to what real people would do, Hud suggests they rewind the tape and watch it, and then the movie jumps to slightly in the future, where people are heatedly discussing the events. It’s a slick bit of storytelling. Rob is trying to reach Beth this whole time, but to no luck. The group heads out across the Brooklyn Bridge to try and get out of the city.
I want to pause here to discuss one of the other great things about this film. It treats the civil servants of NYC with respect and dignity, and portrays the military in a pretty awesome light. The cops are trying to keep order as best they can, city services are working to escort people away from the crisis, and when the military rolls in they aren’t jerks, assholes or even bullies. They genuinely care about the civilians and want to achieve their task at hand. Even though the scenes themselves are few and far between, the scenes of street combat are incredibly impressive and the hospital scene is worth the price of admission here. Seriously, this movie does a lot of things right and this area is simply another one of them.
As happens in monster/disaster movies, the bridge pretty much means instant fucking death. We have our first death of the group, and a great moment of disorientation in a panicked and crowded situation, to say nothing of the destruction of the bridge itself. As a guy who sometimes experiences anxiety when driving over bridges, this scene rates up there pretty highly for freaking me out. It’s shear luck that the rest of the friends aren’t killed, as they are trying to find out why Rob is hanging back and Jason just gets separated and swept forward. This particular act ends with most everyone standing around in shock and Rob participating in looting in order to get a cell phone battery after he sees Beth sent him a message, and that she needs help and can’t leave on her own. The looting scene is pretty good too, but in the interest of time, let’s call it good and highlight the parasite scene on the TV set. The act ends with Rob announcing that he’s going to go into Midtown to get Beth.
Rob starts to move on, and the rest of the group goes with him, after a good scene that starts to highlight the brief character growth of Marlena. Maybe that’s the wrong word, but reveal serves just as well. You realize there is more to here than the brushing off of Hud’s clumsy advances at the party.It’s at this point the group runs into the National Guard and they are looking to take out the horrible monster that is slowly being revealed in the film. They are forced into a subway tunnel where they take refuge for quite sometime. This marks the end of this short act and sets up the tunnel as three distinct acts. That of the station, the tunnel itself and the supply room. The station segment is another one of those understated moments of genius. It begins with the phone call from Rob’s mom where he has to explain about his brother, and then shifts into a wonderful bit of camera work where you can plainly see Rob and Lily grieving together on a bench in the back, while Hud and Marlena work to keep their shit together. As you are aware of by this point in the film, Hud keeps talking constantly because he just can’t keep his shit together any other way. It’s a slow moment of both remorse and clever tension building in the movie.
The tunnel scene is no different, in providing one of the most “Oh Shit!” segments of the movie. One of the things I like about this movie is that Rob quite naturally allows for the movie to continue and to propel its narrative when it might otherwise seem forced. He turns on the camera light for Hud, since it’s Rob’s camera after all, allowing the tunnel walk to be lit and not boring visually. He then shows off the nightvision mode after they all notice rats fleeing things in droves. Pro-tip, when that happens? Just run with the rats guys. The nightvision switch shows the horrific zerg parasites that are on the ceiling behind everyone, resulting in a subway tunnel ambush that is terrifying and cool to watch. The group escapes, but not before several close calls and Marlena being bit quite nastily. The group finds their way into a supply closet and takes a breather. This supply closet scene provides a nice bookend to the subway sequence as a whole, and you get more character development from both Hud and Marlena during this segment. You get a lot of gallows humor as well, which is very welcome and fitting.
This is followed by my absolutely favorite piece of the movie. The bit where Marlena explodes. The group finds themselves in a Woolsworth and is escorted to a triage hospital set up by the National Guard. Marlena begins to feel worse and worse as Rob tries to reason with the National Guard to try and find Beth. Marlena finally goes sheet white and being oozing blood from here eyes, nose and mouth before a nurse screams that they have a bite victim and try and usher her off. The camera frantically follows her as the group tries and catch up only to see her explode just as they get her behind the curtain. This is an incredibly tense and tightly shot scene that I can’t do justice here, but watch it. It’s a great segment. The National Guard then gives them the information about Hammerdown protocol, which is to destroy Manhattan if it can kill this thing. This gives a time limit to the group in order to find Beth, as they are given leave to now do so.
The rescuing Beth segment features the aforementioned fantastic bit of camera work. Hud has to place the camera down to help Lily and Rob lift Beth off of a piece of rebar that has threaded her shoulder, the camera is positioned just so that you can see the lower half of the body and hear the conversation. Holy shit, what an amazing short little scene! Anyway, they escape, it’s cool and fun, but it’s very actiony here and I have little to say about it other than to state they get Beth and then it moves on to the final act of the film.
Lily is put on a chopper and seemingly escapes. Hooray Lily, you live! Hud, Beth and Rob are on the next chopper and they view the monster getting carpet bombed. They talk excitedly as the monster is down, but they speak too soon and crash land in the park after the monster smacks them out of the sky. Now, you know from the beginning of the film that they end up in Central Park, and here they are, in a park. They manage to get Rob out of the chopper, in a bit of the repeat of the rebar trick but with less impact. This isn’t a big deal, because the thing you are supposed to care about hasn’t happened yet. That’s Hud coming face to face with the monster and getting horribly, horribly murdered. Have you ever played Giants: Citizen Kabuto? It’s like that. Rob picks up the camera and runs with Beth to a bridge where they can hide thanks to the military continuing to bomb the shit out of the monster. They both give their final testimonals to the camera, with Beth completely unable to keep her shit together at all, and then the bridge collapses, the camera falls away and you hear Rob and Beth tell each other that they love one another. Sounds of explosions continue and the camera cuts out. The final scene of the movie is back in April, on a ferris wheel. Before panning to Beth’s face, Rob records something falling at high speed and crashing into the ocean. This is a very big something but appears to go unnoticed. It ends with them saying what a good day they had and looking very happy.
This last scene serves as something of a wrapper and is an interesting scene when dissected. What is the monster? Does it mean that it’s an alien? What’s going on here anyway? Funny enough, despite what people continue to say, it would seem that this ties in pretty closely with Super 8 and the ending of that film, particularly given the time line and dates given, but that’s really neither here nor there and is again a different discussion.
As you can tell from this very longwinded review, I love Cloverfield for many, many reasons. I rate it an astoundingly high four smileys on a scale of five frownies to five smileys. I expect some push back on that, but that’s quite alright. The disaster movie, as American as apple pie, fireworks, drinking beer and asking “Hey, ya’ll see that?”