2008. Directed by Matt Reeves. Produced by J.J. Abrams and Bryan Bunk. Written by Drew Goddard. Starting Michael Stahl-David, T.J. Miller, Jessica Lucas, Odette Yustman, Lizzy Caplan and Mike Vogel. Paramount Pictures.


To say that Cloverfield is better known for its "shaky-cam" technique than for the fact that it represents the first big name backed American-Kaiju attempt since the squandered Godzilla of 1998 fame is something of an understatement. Maybe all the evidence I have for this is anecdotal, but maybe 90% of the people I have talked to about the movie have mentioned getting motion sickness from watching it and seem to treat the monster as secondary to the style. Or maybe tertiary to the style and the fact that J.J. Abrams was involved. This is a bit tragic, too. While Japan will likely hold the crown for giant, rampaging monsters for years to come, this movie, and South Korea's The Host both show that other countries have something definite to add to the genre and it's not-so-giant cousin and that the genre is worthy of respect, rather than being forced to occupy low budget Sci-Fi Channel originals and children's shows.

It is not without accident that The Host is brought up. Cloverfield's main storyline, the concept of going back into a military restricted zone to save someone from the main monster after a cell phone call, comes more or less directly from it. The person being saved is different, the handling of the safe zone is changed,but it seems unlikely that The Host did not come into play somewhere in the writing process. Both look at recent events (the dumping of chemicals into a South Korean river and September 11) for inspiration and both use the device of the hardheaded, idiotic character (Gang-du and Hud) as both comic relief and as an easily accessible emotional device. There are other diffences, as well. Where The Host is about finding a needle in a haystack while a monster that represents American involvement in overseas affairs ("The Host" probably referring in-title to Korea itself) rampages about and devours various people, Cloverfield is about handling acts of God without explanation and about the American fascination with YouTube and the addiction to sharing life's anecdotes with strangers.

Whether intentional or not, it is interesting to see how these two movies work together, how they expose certain themes in the society they come out of.

Another way that the focus on the "shaky-cam" detracts from the movie is that about 50% of the hand-held appearance was extraneous to the film. The movie starts with a quarter-hour of character build up, most of it shot in a very unconvincing style. Jason, the younger brother, films himself arguing with his girlfriend in one scene but then, in the next, Hud apparently cuts off some attractive girl he was hitting on in mid-sentence. Claiming Hud's ignorance with using the camera directly only makes for a partial excuse. Later, once crap hits the fan, Hud has a way of catching those single shots that are needed for the film's exposition but would probably not occur as particulary expository to a person in the thick of the monstery goodness. The camera records both sides of a cell-phone coversation, in at least one place. Even when having personal, somewhat private confessions or discussions with strangers (most of which who seem not to notice), the camera sees what Hud sees. For every scene like the opening scenes of destruction, in which the technique works extremely well, there is another scene in which it comes about like a cheap ploy to hide the monster or to add confusion. The technique does not detract from the movie, it just comes across as a gimmick of which they had to cheat to get around it's limitations.

Technique aside, monster movies have two important parts: the monsters that destroy and the characters that interact in the midst of the destruction. Ishiro Honda was a master at this formula, setting two different plots together. The one is about horrific destruction while the other is about the human angle, with the two intersecting in places.

The characters are a flip of the coin. Self-obsessed, twenty-somethings filled with poor decision making skills and a tendency to be overdramatic (though equiped with the resolve to not go catatonic during all the mess). Acted fair, considering the limited range the charactes possess, they get the job done but only endear themselves to the audience through a few pre-set emotional tugs: brothers and lovers out of reach sort of things. And two of the characters, Hud and Marlena, end up pulling the film down from time to time. Hud's commentary is so often delivered in the same tone of unconvincing voice it feels disembodied (a technique they may have been going for, to contrast the couple of scenes where Hud is on camera) and Marlena's attempt to being a complicated female muddles her to the point of unnecessity.

The monster is also a flip of the coin. In about half the scenes in which Clover shows up, the effects work dead on and effectively. In the other half, the CG looks removed from the real world behind it, a collection of random videogame polygons that got into someone's home movie recording. The parasites attached to Clover are more effective than the main beast, especially considering the 30 meters high critter's tendency to turn on a dime and suddenly run off in another direction. At least the parasites feel as though they are ruthless, a monster to be feared instead of merely a monster to luck up and stay out of the way of.

Despite the weakness of characters, the failure to stick to the conceit of style, and a monster that lacks some oomph, the movie is not all terrible. Not in the least. The overall pacakge is good entertainment, moreso if you are ok with tossing a few verbal jabs at the screen, taking a shot everytime Hud films a shot that no one in their right mind would have worried about, or chuckling at Hud's random bouts of earnestness. Even moreso if you look at what the movie says about the unpredictability of life and and America's obsession with Twitter and YouTube and blogs, but not too hard. Just enough to go "Ahh, ok". With little touches like single frames of older monsters movies spliced in and a tiny, almost invisible clue to what caused the whole thing in the last few seconds*, and providing fodder for minor discussions and questions about origins, this is a movie that is made for fans even if it could have used some serious cleaning up. The party at the beginning could have been excised, there could have been footage from other survivors spliced in intermittingly to add some flavor, and so on. Without the clean-up, it is still worth watching once.

I give it an Eh but upgrade it to Good if a proper mindset is maintained.

*: At the very end, when the footage from the "time before" is showing, the camera starts out looking over the ocean. Right as the camera is about to swing around and to look at the couple, you will see a small dot slam into the water. This dot will either be the monster, itself, or (based on clues outside of the movie) is possibly a Japanese satellite that fell into the ocean and woke up the beast.

Written by W Doug Bolden

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