Cloverfield, a provocatively shot Godzilla-meets-The Blair Witch Project hybrid, is an unconventional sci-fi/horror film depicting how it might feel to scurry through New York City as it’s being leveled by a scaly, 20-story-high malcontent. Not just how it would look, mind you, but how it would feel. The chaos. The sketchy information. The speculation.
Audiences know nothing more than what’s captured on a young man’s hand-held video camera. No omniscient insights, scientific explanations or dramatic music to warn of danger. Just widespread panic as our military launches a frantic strike on a gangly, lizard-like behemoth tromping through Manhattan, leveling landmarks and dripping smaller, spidery creatures from its hide as if they were beads of perspiration.
The camcorder delivering all of those images is held by Hud, a loyal lug who begins the evening gathering video farewells at a surprise party thrown by friends Lily and Jason for Jason’s Japan-bound brother, Rob. In the coming hours, the subject of Hud’s documentary will change dramatically, though the first exploding bombshell has nothing to do with the monster.
Rob’s ex, Beth, shows up with a new guy on her arm. Cue the angst. But little do these twentysomethings realize that the romantic upheaval of the moment will soon pale in comparison to the life-and-death battle about to rage in the streets below. Or as screenwriter Drew Goddard put it, “Once the head comes off the Statue of Liberty, you’re not really going to get much of a chance to stop and check in with the characters.”
Immediately before the first tremor, Jason chides his brother for being insensitive to Beth and unworthy of her affection, telling Rob, “Forget the world and hold onto the people you care about the most.” Rob takes his words to heart when he gets a distress call from Beth, who is trapped and needs help. Going against the flow of Manhattan’s mass exodus, Rob and several others set aside their fears and set out to rescue her.
Indeed, friends stick together and defend each other throughout, often at great personal risk. In a quieter moment, people share regrets over harsh words spoken to loved ones in anger or frustration.
After spending the night together, Rob (video camera in hand) wakes Beth, who is shown lying on her stomach, topless. He turns the camera to reveal that he is shirtless, too. Later, Hud and others are surprised to learn that the couple had slept together—a juicy piece of gossip shared liberally at the party. Rob wishes Beth’s date “good luck,” a snide remark with sexual overtones. Women at the party wear low-cut tops.
The monster rips through Midtown, tearing apart everything in its path and even leveling a skyscraper in a scene reminiscent of 9/11 (the building sinks into oblivion as ash and debris billow through the city’s corridors). After the massive creature has passed by, a girl remarks, “It’s eating everyone.” A man gets picked up in the beast’s jaws, chewed up and spat out.
It destroys the Brooklyn Bridge as thousands of people attempt to escape across it, and later knocks a helicopter out of the sky. Soldiers open fire with tanks, bazookas and other heavy artillery. A woman impaled on rebar is lifted off of it (mostly off-camera) by rescuers in a cringe-inducing scene, proving that sometimes what we don’t see can be as unsettling as what the director shows us.
The smaller invaders may only be about the size of a dog, but they’re even more lethal and harder to evade than the big one. They crawl stealthily along dark subway walls or scramble through the streets before swarming their prey, jaws snapping violently. Several leap at soldiers. Rob and his friends beat others with clubs, though one inflicts deep wounds on a victim who, soon afterward, bleeds from the eyes and nose before exploding (a bloody moment partially obscured by a plastic curtain). Panning a makeshift triage unit, the camera picks up images of many wounded, including a man with a gaping hole in his chest. [Spoiler Warning] As a last resort, the military strafes the city with explosives, a firestorm that wipes out anyone who hasn’t reached safety.
Intense circumstances yield many exclamatory profanities, such as “g–d–n,” more than 30 uses of “my god,” 20-plus s-words and a half-dozen misuses of Jesus’ name. A few milder swear words pop up, too, and Jason calls Rob a “douche bag.”
Rob’s send-off boasts a fully equipped bar that’s abuzz with activity. Guests consume beer, liquor and mixed drinks. One young woman can’t recall having met the guest of honor before, admitting she was probably drunk at the time.
Looters steal televisions from an electronics store, where Rob helps himself to a package of batteries.
The movie opens with an unexpected test pattern realistic enough that members of the audience were shouting for someone to fix the film. Had director Matt Reeves been in the crowd, I can imagine him rubbing his hands together with glee, grinning like a fisherman ready to set the hook and start reeling: “They’ve bought it.”
Seconds later, nondescript white type labels this video a discovery by the Department of Defense that turned up in what used to be Central Park. Brave choice. At this point, the filmmakers don the creative equivalent of handcuffs and a straightjacket, and invite us to watch them wriggle free. After all, it’s one thing to make a full-length feature (even one that clocks in at a scant 80 minutes) seem like an authentic, YouTube-ready amateur video. It’s quite another to develop sympathetic characters and even flashbacks without violating the restrictive bounds of that unconventional technique.
All things considered, Cloverfield pulls it off with surprising emotional resonance.
“The idea was that if you started a movie that appeared to be all about character, the audience wouldn’t know it was going to be about anything other than that,” says Reeves. “Then, all of a sudden, after you’ve established this complex network of friends, how they’re related and what’s important to them, we suddenly intrude on this situation with a crazy monster movie, which completely ups the stakes. … [I loved] the idea of taking something that has such a huge scale, but filming it on an intimate level. The mood emerges from being with these characters.”
Produced by the mind-bending, genre-redefining team behind television’s Lost, Cloverfield is a timely, well-executed twist on a generations-old sci-fi form. Unfortunately, characters’ “real world” reactions to this tornado of insanity, violence and confusion involve frequent cries of the s-word and Jesus’ name. A few grotesque moments, an open bar and sexual immorality only add to the problems.
That’s disappointing, because I wanted to embrace this unorthodox cinematic experiment, and I truly admired the heroes’ no-friend-left-behind ethos. Reeves is a clever fisherman, but for all of his furious stylistic reeling, instead of landing the big one he ends up with a tale of one that got away.