In the wake of director Roland Emmerich’s reviled 1998 Godzilla remake, the giant monster movie kept a very low profile for many years. The holiday season of 2005 saw the release of director Peter Jackson’s divisive King Kong remake—a three-hour epic that either thrilled fans of classic monster movies or sent them into a deep slumber. It would be another three years before anyone even remotely thought about another giant monster movie. That all changed in early 2008 with Cloverfield, a ferociously intense “found footage” thriller that preyed upon our post-9/11 paranoia. Directed by Matt Reeves and produced by J.J. Abrams, Cloverfield re-ignited a bit of interest in creature features—specifically Toho Co.’s “Kaiju” films from the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s—and dared to give the subgenre a bit of its bite back. While certainly not perfect, Reeves and Abrams are able to orchestrate quite a bit of urban destruction on a tiny budget of only $25 million. The special effects are absolutely fantastic, and when briefly glimpsed in the glow of gun and cannon fire, the giant extraterrestrial wrecking havoc in the Big Apple will undoubtedly nab a shiver or two. However, the downfall of Cloverfield are the unlikeable characters we are forced to brave this warzone with, and a painfully slow opening sequence made all the more unbearable through some shaky attempts by the actors to seem natural.
Cloverfield begins with a surprise going-away party for Rob (played by Michael Stahl-David), who is preparing to move to Japan to start a new job. The party—which has been organized by Rob’s brother, Jason (played by Mike Vogel), Jason’s girlfriend, Lily (played by Jessica Lucas), and Rob’s best friend, Hud (played by T.J. Miller), who is tasked with filming testimonials from party guests—gets off to a pleasant start, but things take a turn when Rob’s friend Beth (played by Odette Yustman), who he recently slept with, brings another date to the party. The drama between Rob and Beth is interrupted when a large tremor shakes New York City and plunges the city into a blackout. The party guests dash to the roof, where they witness a large explosion that sends debris raining down upon their heads. The party spills out onto the streets, where the terrified citizens quickly learn that an unidentified creature is terrorizing the city. The military quickly begins trying to evacuate the confused citizens, but Rob refuses to leave without Beth, who is trapped in her apartment building in Time Warner Center. Desperate to reach the one he loves, Rob, Hud, Lily, and Hud’s crush, Marlena (played by Lizzy Caplan), attempt a rescue mission, but their journey grows even more dangerous as they encounter parasitic creatures shed by the massive monster, and they learn of the military’s shocking plot to destroy the creature.
Despite a brief runtime of only eighty-five minutes, Cloverfield gets off to a relatively slow start. Reeves, Abrams, and screenwriter Drew Goddard force the audience to spend the first twenty minutes of the film with a handful of characters that we never truly grow to like. They are one-dimensional and, frankly, kind of annoying as they bob around their hip soirée and force themselves to act natural. Lucky for us, just when we’ve about had our fill of their high school squabbling, the filmmakers shake the earth, blow up some buildings, and kick the action into high gear. It begins with shaky shots of New York citizens congregating in the street as buildings collapse in the distance and the Statue of Liberty’s head goes crashing down the street. From there, Reeves and Abrams lay waste to familiar sights all around the Big Apple, each one more terrifying than the next. Woven between the scenes of destruction are evocative little moments that call to mind the horrors of September 11th, 2001—a catastrophic event that was still fresh in the mind of many audience members and documented in a similar manner. We get scenes of characters diving into small little shops as rolling clouds of dust creep by the storefront windows, dusty and dazed citizens emerge from twisted piles of wreckage, and people dash away from collapsing skyscrapers, all of which are captured on a tiny little handheld camera.
While the destruction retains a disquieting tone, Reeves and Abrams don’t entirely forget they are making a monster movie. With the “found footage” technique, the filmmakers are able to mask the tight budget, and more importantly, conceal the creature flailing around between the crumbling buildings. For a good portion of the film, the monster is only briefly glimpsed in blurred shots as our protagonists sprint between advancing military men. These moments are wildly intimidating, as deafening gunfire rages from one side and the snapping jaws of the towering beast snarling on the other. Credit should go to the sound department, who crank the noise up so loud that you would swear you left your seat and joined the combat on screen. The creature action gets even creepier when our protagonists flee the war-torn streets and retreat to the abandoned subways underneath the city. It’s here that Reeves and Abrams allow us an up-close glimpse of the parasitic beasts that the main monster has shedding. Through a night-vision filter, the spider-like critters spring around the darkness and chomp at our blind heroes until they are a bloody mess. It’s probably the scariest moment of the entire film, and it sets up a gruesome plot twist that smartly lacks much exposition. Reeves and Abram understand the power behind the less you know and the more you see, but they botch it in the end by providing audiences a clear glimpse of the monster that wipes away any fear you had previously. It’s a grave mistake that leaves Cloverfield falling flat on its face.
Perhaps the worst aspect of Cloverfield is the acting, which is painfully forced and amateurish. Stahl-David is flat-out horrid as Rob, a big baby who is constantly complaining or whining about trying to find Beth. Miller’s oafish cameraman Hud makes clumsy swipes at dimwitted humor and consistently acts like a brain-dead idiot. It’s downright impossible to believe that Rob would consider him a best friend. Yustman’s Beth just whimpers and clings to Rob, while Lucas’s Lily essentially begs Rob to reconsider his hysteric rescue mission. The only actress who really registers is Caplan, who frowns her way through Marlena, a snobby hipster who rolls her eyes as Hud tries desperately to flirt with her. Together, none of them really have any chemistry, and all you can do is roll your eyes as they try to sell the audience tired drunken dramatics. Overall, the characters may get on your last nerve and the finale may spoil a monster that was better left in the shadows, but Cloverfield turns out to be a surprisingly tolerable “found footage” thriller with more than a few flashes of creature-feature brilliance. Much like the classic monster movies that acted as the inspiration, it reflects upon current paranoia, and it does it while respectfully tipping its hat.