Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Michael Stahl-David, Odette Yustman
Runtime: 85 mins
Rating: * *
Cloverfield’s title is an interesting one, simply because it has apparently nothing to do with the film. The headless Statue of Liberty suggested that New York was about to suffer some manner of misfortune, though the cause of it still eluded me.
Set in present day Manhattan, the first act of the film centres around Rob (Michael Stahl-David) and his leaving party before his move to Japan. With everyone saying their farewells, it is interrupted by what seems to be an earthquake. It soon becomes apparent that all is not well, as an explosion soon follows. Outside, a huge demonic creature has mysteriously arrived to wreak havoc. Rob decides that he has to save his love interest Beth (Odette Yustman), and then escape Manhattan, before the creature kills him and his companions. The premise is nothing new.
But here’s the hook: it’s all filmed on a video camera, in the same vein as the Blair Witch Project. The hapless cameraman is Rob’s friend Hud (T.J. Miller), and he isn’t the greatest camera operator. The floor has never been so well documented, and the constant shaking often induces motion-sickness. Indeed, warnings have been given due to the number of people having to leave due to nausea. But Hud manages to get as many great shots as bad ones, despite the fact that he’s constantly on the run.
And that’s the great thing about this film. The audience tags along with a normal group of people, on the ground, running for their lives. The experience of panic and fear is universal; they aren’t invincible characters capable of single-handedly dispatching the creature, but normal people fighting for survival. Occasionally the film cuts to a scene set a month earlier, also recorded on Hud’s camera (Rob and Beth spending a blissful day together) but now being filmed over, love and fear set in direct contrast.
Cloverfield was conceived by J.J. Abrams – the man behind Lost and Alias – and directed by Matt Reeves. Between them they had an idea with potential, and in part it came off. They keep the monster hidden for as long as possible, maintaining the same sense of mystery and fear for the audience as for the characters. There is little indication about where this monster came from, but the fast pacing prevents you from ever questioning it too much. This isn’t about the monster, or New York; this is about people and a fight for survival.
This is where Cloverfield is massively let down. It was a gamble to use little-known performers, and it doesn’t quite work, the acting just doesn’t convey a sense of authenticity. They don’t seem wholly surprised by the anarchy. Their fear and panic is palpable, but as characters they aren’t very interesting or different. As spectators, you don’t feel attached to them; you just aren‘t willing them to survive. After the initial outburst of explosions and chaos, the characters don’t develop, and don’t fill the void when the CGI isn’t being employed. You are left believing more in the monster than the people.
Cloverfield is different. It’s an attempt at an American Godzilla, but on a human scale. The cinematography is amazing, the acting far from it. The problem is that for those irritated by the erratic camera motion, the film has little to offer.