Movie Review: Cloverfield

January 21st, 2008

This weekend I went to see the new movie from JJ Abrams, Cloverfield.

I went in with fairly low expectations – I enjoy monster movies, but don’t really enjoy Abrams’ work very much.

I’m happy to say that I was completely blown away. This is a superb film, which anyone who can stomach it should see.

(When I say ‘stomach it’ I mean two things – firstly, it’s a tough film, and reportedly very tough for people who were in New York on September 11. Secondly, there have been a lot of reports of motion sickness from the handheld camera work).

I’ll put the rest of this review on the post page, so I can include some spoilers from this point on. First up, the comparison of this film to The Blair Witch Project is obvious, mainly because of the camera work. I had a whole line of jokes about The Blair Godzilla Project ready to go. But other than some resonance with the ending, ad the framing of the footage as ‘found’, there really is little in common. Blair Witch is a film about a slow build up to a very rapid, horrific sequence at the end. Cloverfield builds through a much more balanced sequence, which is far less likely to make you wish the movie would just get on with it.

(Also, Cloverfield cost $30m to make, Blair Witch $60,000).

This is a pretty scary film, but not in a ‘horror film’ type of way. Rather, it’s scary because of the bits that could apply to most people any time now – the fleeing populace, the lack of information, the sudden vivid attack.

I read that this film was intended to be for the US and 9/11 what Gojira (‘Godzilla’ to some) was for Japan and Hiroshima. It succeeds, if anything too well – the mimicing of imagery of that day in New York is clever and well done, but likely to cause some people a lot of discomfort. ‘Too Soon’? Well, not for me. But I wasn’t there, so don’t get to say. But I enjoy the artistry of connecting the monster movie genre to its roots in this way. I think this is the only way a story like this about 9/11 could really be told – anything closer to reality would simply be too much for people.

The balance between uncertainty and revelation in this film is perfectly balanced. I’ve already seen some people on the Internet wigging out about the ending – what happened, did the monster die, etc. All of which misses the point – this is not a movie about the monster, it’s about the people. And that story is completely resolved, barring a very minor sequel hook (i.e. Marlena).

While the film is strong, there were a couple of complaints. Although, to be fair, both of these are about deliberate artistic decisions in the film. While I found them annoying, it’s hard to tell how much of the overall success of the film hinged on them.

There’s a pretty interminable ‘party’ sequence at the top of the film, with the twenty something vapid annoyances who populate the film demonstrating their absorption in themselves. It went on too long, I think. By the time the monster arrives I was practically ready to shout in relief, because at least the party scene was over.

The narrator (‘Hud’) is an incredibly annoying person. He won’t shut up, never has anything interesting to say. I was wondering for a fairly long while if he was intended to be mildly mentally handicapped. But he redeems himself, not so much through words or actions as simply the things that he’s been through. And then he gets killed, and you feel guilty for having hated him. Clever writing, but I suspect on the second viewing I’ll be more grateful for the monster eating him.

But overall this is probably the best ‘monster movie’ I’ve ever seen, and probably the only one to transcend the genre to the point that I’d be happy recommending it to people who don’t like the genre.

So long as they don’t get motion sick, that is.