Directed by: Matt Reeves
Written by: Drew Goddard
Starring: Michael Stahl-David, Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Mike Vogel
Released: 2008 / Genre: Sci-fi/Horror / Country: USA / IMDB
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I was like many intrigued by Cloverfield’s marketing campaign: the unnamed movie with a poster that depicted a decapitated Statue of Liberty. The trailer, which first appeared alongside the release of Transformers during the summer of 2007, showed the home video footage of a seemingly serene New York city party being interrupted by first the indication of an earthquake, then an explosion in a nearby building. Producer J.J. Abrams, who gave the world the television series Lost amongst many other production and writing credits, provided the mere hint of disaster with Cloverfield’s initial promotion. But the adventure story masked within wasn’t given traditional genre convention, there was no clarity to the good or evil, it was simply that old curse of the video tape: just as we are about to get to the best bit the machine chews the cassette.
Unfortunately, Abrams ability to market the movie and create media hype is a genius that ends there. As I suspected, Cloverfield is the accumulation of several other better films, and the lack of footage in the trailer not only hides the true nature of the story but also poor plotting, bad acting, and a complete lack of originality. The film is clearly the big-budget regurgitation of the YouTube online video revolution where shaky cameras have become a part of our media diet. In that same instance, Cloverfield plays into reality television’s penchant for actuality, while playing off what made The Blair Witch Project so successful. But it ends up feeling like the b-roll footage from 1998’s Godzilla. As if we’re shown these catastrophic events – not in brilliant 35mm widescreen with grandiose helicopter shots and dazzling special-effects – but by Joe Street, running terrified around New York city with his hi-def video camera.
But that’s the point isn’t it. Take an everyman and his expensive Christmas gift, and follow his plight as he tries to escape a city under siege. Yet while Cloverfield might seem like a unique piece of entertainment it’s rather insulting. After all, the events depicted in the movie are nothing more than a fantastical retelling of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York. Isn’t it rather insensitive that, ultimately, the film is nothing more than a perfectly executed exercise in commercial productivity?
It is difficult not to compare Cloverfield with The Blair Witch Project. On a purely stylistic level, both films purport to be authentic video evidence of an event filmed by those directly involved. Both films were specially marketed to play on this element of realism – Cloverfield had the enigmatic, nameless poster and New York city party footage; The Blair Witch Project had a making-of transmitted prior to the film being released claiming the events depicted were real. But, aside from the fact, Blair Witch directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez did it all ten years before, they also did it far better.
Although Myrick and Sanchez’s film had a script, they encouraged their actors to ad-lib. Taking the entire crew into the woods to shoot the film, claustrophobia set in for real and that could be seen in the performances. The actors shot the film as their actions dictated without great influence from the directors. Cloverfield feels too scripted to be authentic. The shaky camera is always well-positioned for the next required shot, and every instance of dialogue is carefully constructed and portrayed on-screen. The zoom is used conveniently and there’s an all-too staged occurrence of our intrepid cameraman fumbling for the night-vision button and not liking what he sees when he finally switches it on. In essence, The Blair Witch Project was as real as you could make a fiction film, whereas Cloverfield only gives the impression of reality cloaked behind the very recognisable aesthetics of home video filming techniques.
Cloverfield also makes the mistake of offering too much exposition. Nothing happens for the first twenty minutes as director Reeves introduces us to the main protagonists. For a film with such a powerful premise promised by its trailer, it needed to get into the action sooner rather than later. The three-act structure of the narrative is another example of the film’s failings in that the story feels staged and preconceived. Is Cloverfield the recovered video footage of an eye-witness to a catastrophic disaster in New York, or a traditional adventure story where the hero battles the monster to save the girl? Aesthetically, it is the former, but under the high-gloss of its pristine high-definition image it’s just another retelling of a weathered old plotline.
But you could argue what is wrong with updating the old adventure story with reality television aesthetics. Indeed, there isn’t anything wrong with it – after all, we all like to escape into such fantastic tales. But Cloverfield is like a McDonald’s hamburger – it tastes fine and looks the part but isn’t the real thing. Aside from Blair Witch, the film’s stylistic motivation is hardly something new. Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler’s The Last Broadcast (1998), and Dean Alioto’s Alien Abduction (1998) pre-dated even Blair Witch, while, more recently, Spanish film [REC] in 2007 used similar filming techniques. None of these movies mocked the brave souls who found themselves at ground zero during the real life attacks on the city.
Frequently, it’s difficult to tell the difference between this repackaged depiction of 9/11 and the actual footage shot that day by eye-witnesses. To neatly put together a piece of Hollywood entertainment around an event which requires more than slick marketing and popcorn escapism, severely dents any accomplishments Cloverfield might have had.
Instead of rehashing storylines and remaking old movies, Hollywood should be concentrating on original, escapist entertainment. There’s nothing untoward about repackaging current events but as we’ve seen with a spate of poor movies about 9/11, such cinematic endeavours should be done with more care, attention, and consideration. Cloverfield is a failure; serving as another example of Hollywood’s big-budget, blockbuster machine running out of ideas.
Review by Daniel Stephens