Review: Cloverfield

February 17, 2012 in General Topics

One of these days, I’m going to be the last person on Earth who hasn’t read any of the Harry Potter books. I’ve an odd tendency to embrace something already widely dissiminated years after the fact (see also: Twitter). And so it was that this past weekend I stumbled though the found-camera flick Cloverfield.

Cloverfield poster
Poor Cloverfield. It’s unfair, really, what I’m doing to this film, watching it after a deluge of similar flicks that have more recently accosted its primary gimmick. Or is it? Cloverfield doesn’t really get to lay claim to this genre. It just has the largest footprint.

I cut my teeth on the grandfather of this subgenre in horror\thrillers: The Blair Witch Project, which still stands out as my favorite in the entire set. I actually crack open that deftly-made, terrifically-acted romp through the woods every year, around Halloween.

Having watched Trollhunter earlier in the year, and having seen a host of other films recycle this same filming style, I’ve come to a conclusion I’ll share with you shortly.

Cloverfield opens almost immediately with a going-away party for some office drone bound for Japan. I care so little about that angle of the plot that you’re lucky getting that much description. I never really felt great attachment to any of these characters, and only had passing concern — at best — for a few of them throughout the course of the movie. Marlena was a little more interesting than the others, but mainly because she seemed an homage in name and appearance to a character in Fight Club.

So the GQ and Cosmo parade of Hollywood size 0 starlets (and young cologne models) ends midway through romantic drama with the abrupt arrival of BIG BOOM MOMENT. Cue lights flickering. Panic. Rush down the stairwell. It actually worked pretty well.

The viewer is immediately thrust into the meat of the flick, with the ballistic arrival of the same Statue of Liberty head we’d all seen many times because of trailers for the film. I always wonder how these poor filmmakers feel about their best moments being turned into preview fodder. That kind of thing completely kills the effect.

Our intrepid confederation makes their way through the streets at first to flee the city, and then to attempt a rescue of our protagonist’s main unrequited squeeze. Apparently, a 39-story monster can wreck Manhattan without damaging the cellular infrastructure. In any case, who cares? These are the film’s most effective moments.

There’s an absolutely brilliant sequence where a looting takes place and our brave hero walks into the chaos to find a single cell phone battery. Even the looters, arms loaded, stop to watch the monster’s rampage, now on media cameras. It’s a nice building of suspense, and the arrival of other critters was a genuine surprise.

Witness the military’s assault on the creature, rendered in stark, bass-thumping glory. Partake in speculation of the creature’s origins. Follow our four friends as they evade beasties in the dead tunnels of the subway system. The only weak moment is an obligatory “night vision” spook, and then we’re right into a mobile base of operations and a major character’s unfortunate demise, which is never completely explained — and thank goodness it was left that way.

Great stuff, to be honest.

Finally our hero tracks down his girl, in one of the movie’s best scenes, and before we know it, our friends seem on their way to rescue, despite Mrs. Love Object’s should-be-fatal blood loss and recent impalement. Of course, it’s actually not that simple. But where would the fun be if it was?

Horror cinema has always been a very interconnected, collaborative mesh, where B-movies borrow heavily from blockbusters, and direct-to-video releases mimic virtually everything about their kin, almost parasitically (hello, Boa vs. Python — meet Anaconda). When this merging of ideas works well, we’re sometimes treated with lower-budget gems in the rough that teach effects efficiency to larger productions (Dog Soldiers, Moon), or effective big-budget rehashes of well-worn ideas from films with much smaller budgets (Dawn of the Dead, 2004).

But too often, taking an approach that works in small-budget format and attempting to inject Hollywood bucks into it actually dulls the effectiveness of the film. It’s a bit like continually slapping more and more propellant into a model rocket. What works slimmed-down might misfire if lavished with too much attention. Enter found-camera films and CGI, and the point I wanted to make.

This is ultimately where Cloverfield lost some points, where Trollhunter stumbled in some sequences: these films lose a lot of punch when CGI and the found-camera, well, find each other. If you’re truly chasing a believable shaky-cam, gritty format and an absolutist sense of realism, then I don’t think you find it done quite as effectively when CGI effects show up in this sub-genre.

Is it fun to watch Cloverfield‘s monster get bombed by a stealth bomber? Sure. Is it half as effective as the derelict, deep-woods building in Blair Witch? The same film’s simple, flanel-wrapped teeth? Not at all.

I think it’s time for the found-camera directors to take a break and reflect, and maybe ask if the genre needs a rest for a while. Perhaps the cameras should simply remain lost until everyone regroups with a new angle, or at least agree to stop loading so much propellant in their cinematic rockets, because the explosions they want are more like burnouts.

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Stay tuned.