Review: Cloverfield

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.

cloverfield, film, abrams

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

What are the best found-footage horror movies?

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. rtm Reply

    I had no interest to see this before and your review just confirmed my dread. I generally get nauseous watching stuff shot with hand-held camera style (with a few exception, such as District 9) and if it isn’t done well it really gets annoying. Too much exposition is another annoyance I can’t tolerate, unless there’s a really big payoff I feel it’s really just a waste of my time.

  2. amy Reply

    I watched Cloverfield when everyone I knew was fawning over it, and some of them told me it was like The Host… which I liked for different reasons.

    I didn’t get into the Cloverfield marketing, mainly because I was out of the loop when it hit theaters… but I was aware it was there. So when I watched it, I was into it for a moment… but then it wore out.

    But then again, I’m not a very good Horror/Monster film judge. xD

  3. Castor Reply

    I liked Cloverfield. It’s nothing ground-breaking or all that spectacular but the atmosphere was excellent, it really felt like I was there and it was quite creepy imo. Solid movie although it probably needs to be seen in theater.

  4. Thomas Reply

    Indeed, a great effort in viral marketing, guerilla marketing, online marketing… all kinds of marketing, really, but not in film-making. The best thing about it is that it is very short, so there are not so many boring bits. (my take on it at the time: http://thomas4cinema.wordpress.com/2008/04/24/cloverfield-matt-reeves-2008/)

  5. Dan Reply

    @Thomas – It’s nice to know someone else thinks along the same lines as me with this movie. Generally, it seems to get very positive press but I thought it was cynically marketed and disconcerting when viewed alongside the 9/11 film made up of people’s private home video footage. Is it right for Hollywood to profit from a terrorist atrocity through a monster movie. Cloverfield didn’t even attempt to honour the dead like some of the other 9/11 movies.

    @Amy – Yeah, I don’t think it’s a movie anyone has to see twice. In fact, if I had my way, I’d tell everyone not to bother with it the first time! 🙂

    @rtm – Avoid it Ruth. There are much better movies out there. Cloverfield is only Godzilla filmed on someone’s video camera – if you’ve seen Matthew Broderick running around New York then you’ve seen Cloverfield.

    @Castor – I think the actually ‘being there’ feeling is an inherent feature of home video footage mise-en-scene. The orchestrated camera movement and perfect lighting was what threw me out of the film. It felt too staged and the actuality thing was lost on me.

  6. Paragraph Film Reviews Reply

    Harsh!

    I really enjoyed Cloverfield on DVD. The surround-sound is fantastic and really makes up for the nauseating shaky-cam by letting you know where everything is in relation to the viewpoint – monster, beasties, people, ambient noise etc.

    This could have been a lot, lot worse…

  7. mark Reply

    “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?”

    If we were to take this logic to the extreme, the same rationale could arguably be applied to something like Schindler’s List. Personally I don’t think the Spielberg film is exploitation, but neither do I think Cloverfield should be penalised for referring to a few images from 911 that were shot on amateur video.

    Let’s face it, New York is a disaster movie icon … Meteor, The Day After Tomorrow, Armageddon, Deep Impact, Godzilla, Independance Day, even Sid Lumet’s Failsafe – all of them involve the Big Apple/Gotham. Hell, wasn’t it the case that they were going to involve the World Trade Centre in the climatic scene of Men on Black II before the attacks? If Cloverfield wasn’t shot in NYC, chances are we’d all be sitting around and asking: Why didn’t they choose a better location?

    The second thing is the whole 911 sensitivity thing itself. Yeah, it was bad, but worse things have happenened without the balloons and bunting attached to it. Some 300,000 people died in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, but we didn’t have televised memorials on the major networks every six months after the event. And what about Iraq? How many civilians died because of an illegal invasion perpetrated by George W’s coalition of the willing? Yet when Katie Bigelow makes a movie about a bomb disposal expert based in Baghdad, they throw major Oscars(R)at it.

    Hollywood doesn’t seem to have an issue cashing in on other country’s grief, even when US foreign policy is behind it all. But when it is about 911, we get: “Oh, it’s all to close to the event; it’s all too senstive; we’re still grieving.” It’s nothing more than a double standard.

    On top of this gripe, another two prong question remains – where was the burnt out fuselage of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon and why was Rumsfeldt out there helping pick up the pieces?

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