Leading up to its release, ‘Cloverfield’ was one of the most hyped movies of the year after its teaser trailer premiered before “Transformers” last summer. The anticipation for the movie was built on secrecy, originally not even giving a title but merely a release date of Jan. 18, 2008.
The internet buzzed with speculation over producer J.J. Abrams’ new film. Abrams is no stranger to the kind of viral marketing and secrecy that was employed for ‘Cloverfield,’ having for three seasons now toyed with myster on his show “Lost.” Now that J.J. Abrams’ hype machine has calmed down after the opening weekend, audiences are starting to get answers to their questions.
The premise of the movie is that the Department of Defense discovered a camcorder tape containing footage of an incident in “area US-447, formerly known as ‘Central Park.’” The movie is the footage, shot in a handheld camera style reminiscent of “The Blair Witch Project.” But where “Blair With” used this as a gimmick, ‘Cloverfield’ utilizes it more intricately in the story.
The main portion of the movie takes place on the night of Rob’s (Michael Stahl-David) going away party in New York, filmed by his best friend Hud (T.J. Miller). Also mixed in, however, are scenes of Rob on a date with his college crush, Beth (Odette Yustman), at Coney Island one month earlier. Hud has actually accidentally recorded over the previous footage, leaving only little snippets of the other recording.
While Rob and Beth seem happy on their date, which is where the movie starts, by the time of Rob’s party, they are at odds. Bad blood comes out and Beth leaves the party. Soon after, the chaos begins with a small “earthquake.” Then, while on the roof, Hud wryly tells Rob, “Maybe you should’ve left town sooner.” Those words preface a non-stop intensity that is upheld until the end of the movie, beginning with a large explosion a couple of blocks away that starts a rain shower of debris.
The sound design in “Cloverfield” is quite impeccable. For one, the only musical score doesn’t start playing until close to two minutes into the end credits. Instead, Abrams and director Matt Reeves have to utilize certain sound effects to get the same emotion a traditional “leit motif” score would achieve. For instance, when something scary or big is about to happen, groans of buildings and stomps can be heard, or even something as small as the hum of fluorescent lights. The sound effects are used in a subtle fashion, but listening closely, it’s easy to see the filmmakers are manipulating them as a score. Aside from that aspect, “Cloverfield” has a stunning surround mix that is one of the best of the year.
Visually, the film has the same ultra-realistic feel that Steven Spielberg tried to push for in “War of the Worlds.” Similarly, there are times when “Cloverfield” is analogous to the Sept. 11 attackts. One early scene has characters running from a cloud of debris rushing toward them after a building collapse.
Many people will complain about the handheld camera in the film. It does get hard to watch at tiems because Hud is an amateur shooting in a stressful situation. The logistics of “Cloverfield’s” execution of this style are astounding. Reeves does an amazing job of making the shots seem authentic and candid while still managing to frame what the audience needs to see. Because making the entire movie in one long continuous take would be nearly impossible, the shots are broken up, usually by subtle jump cuts. What becomes interesting as the story progresses is how the camera manifests itself as a character at times. Unlike most movies, this camera is not visually limited by the director choosing what to show, but by a character. In this way, it plays a role in the movie, with the use of its night vision or the light on the front of it. The camera becomes an integral aspect of the film.
And then there is, of course, the monster. It was a subject of great speculation before the film was released. The monster, as Abrams said, is unlike anything you’ve seen before. It truly is unique. However, there is something disappointing about it. It is scary at times, but only when the characters and likewise, the audience are put extremely close to it. The few wide shots of the monster make it less forbidding. The best part of the alien, if that’s what it is, is that Reeves and Abrams never try to hide it from the audience. When you see it, it happens naturally. You aren’t left waiting until the last ten minutes.
Many might complain about “Cloverfield’s” weak plot, which is valid. The love story between Beth and Rob is merely a device to keep the camera inside the city to incite more action. In fact, the entire plot is to get Beth and get out. In a way, it’s nice, because there are no complicated machines or governmental agencies at work. Instead you get to see a building-size creature destroy a city and witness a few people trying to escape. Also, “Cloverfield” never tries to be more than it is. It seems completely aware that it is, at its heart, a monster movie.
The intensity in “Cloverfield” is unmatched by any movie I have seen recently. It keeps you, to us an old cliche, on the edge of your seat for the final 65 minutes. The movie feels large and spectacular and because of that, many people won’t get the same experience waiting for it on DVD as they would seeing it on the silver screen.
While the acting is melodramatic at times, an the plot is hanging by a thread, “Cloverfield” was a solid experience. And I say experience because rarely have I gone to a movie and been as entertained as I was. The visuals, the sound and the concept all combine to immerse the audience. It is an extremely intense movie and one that will find no middle ground with those who see it: you’ll either love it or you’ll hate it.