New movies are usually released to theaters every Friday, but who’s got 10 bucks these days to drop on a movie that may well be a load of crap? Given those odds, each Friday I offer an alternative on DVD that you can rent at your local video store (or in some cases, avoid at all costs). Some will be new releases, others you may have to hunt for, but all of them are available to light up your small screen should it be a lazy Friday night.
Whenever you talk movies where a giant monster attacks a city, one name comes up – Godzilla. Thus, when I tell you that Cloverfield is a giant-monster-attacks-a-city movie, I’ll forgive you for having a “been there, done that” feeling. After all, we’ve all watched the guy in the big rubber dinosaur suit chase frantic Japanese people in any one of dozens of films, and many of us watched Matthew Broderick (every director’s first pick to star in their blockbuster action movie) flee the Americanized CG version in 1998. Cloverfield, however, is not those movies. Shot entirely from a handheld ‘home video’ perspective, Cloverfield takes the Godzilla scenario and places us not with the brilliant-yet-stunningly-attractive nuclear scientists, not with the trigger-happy military commanders whose idea of disaster response is “drop the bomb,” but with the people on the street running for their lives while having no idea what the heck is going on.
The movie centers around Robert Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), a hip, upstart 20-something New Yorker getting ready to take a nice job in Japan. As he prepares for the big move, his friends throw him a going away party, and the somewhat dim Hud (T.J. Miller) is handed a camcorder and asked to film well-wishing messages for Rob from the guests. It is through Hud’s camera that every second of the film is shot – we see what the camera sees, and no more. The party turns rocky when Rob’s girlfriend Beth shows up with another guy, putting quite a damper on the night and prompting Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and Jason’s girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) to try and raise their friend’s spirits. Hud splits his time between Rob’s plight and gravitating toward friend-of-a-friend Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), who he has a not-too-subtle crush on. At this point, all proverbial hell breaks loose. The apartment is shaken and the power flickers on and off, prompting everyone to head to the roof to look for what the news is reporting as a capsized tanker in New York Harbor. From the roof, they witness a giant explosion in the city and scramble to the streets, only to be greeted by a cascade of destruction. Hud catches a brief glimpse of the source, and he informs the group as he informs us, “It’s alive.” From here, we follow the group of terrified friends as they frantically attempt to leave Manhattan and reach safety.
Director Matt Reeves’ movie (created and produced by J.J. Abrams, the brain behind TV’s Lost and Alias) succeeds and thrills largely due to its originality. We watch the events as one who has found the camcorder, taken out the tape, popped it in the VCR (if we actually still own one), and pushed play. The only cuts are when Hud turns the camera off, and bits of film that Hud accidentally taped over give us new insight into the characters’ lives. The film believes the theory that what you don’t see (or barely see) is usually scarier than what you have a chance to view and study, and by the end of the experience, the audience believes it, too. This doesn’t mean that this isn’t a special effects movie (in fact, how they did what they did with a $30 million budget is astonishing to me), but we usually only see just enough of the creature to keep us curious and wanting more. The unknown actors aren’t going to be winning any Oscars, but their performances serve the film exceptionally in much the same way as the those of the actors from 2006’s United 93 – having faces we don’t recognize makes the film feel much more real, and thus much more engrossing on both a visceral and an emotional level. Perhaps many won’t think of the film as having much emotional depth, but as the final few lines of frantic dialog were being spoken I was gripped – and imagining what it would be like to go through something so terrifying with someone you care deeply about.
Some may be put off by the creature-feature pedigree or the film’s frantic camerawork (which induced a few cases of motion sickness in theatrical screenings), but give this one a shot and you’ll find a truly unique and entertaining thrill ride. - ***1/2 (out of 4)
Cloverfield is rated PG-13 for violence, terror, and disturbing images