In a small town in 1979 Ohio, four friends decide to make a zombie film together using their parent’s Super 8 camera. The four boys, along with their new co-star Alice, go out to shoot an important scene one night when they witness a train accident and narrowly escape the wreckage.
Audiences are getting smarter, and Matt Reeves (Director) and J.J. Abrams (Producer) know it for a fact. Abrams has been able to pull in viewers for Lost without giving any answers away. His earlier series Alias contained one of the most elaborate show-spanning mythologies in “Rambaldi” since the X-Files. Cloverfield is the first film to show that the public is ready to take in Abram’s style of presenting a fragmented, unique, and confusing story, combined with one of film’s biggest draws – the monster movie.
What starts out as a simple going-away party amongst friends quickly devolves into a survival horror unlike anything that’s ever been shown in theaters before. Well, that’s not exactly true – the improvisational filmmakers behind The Blair Witch Project were smart enough to use their lack of budget to their advantage by using hand-held cameras they could afford, and making the concessions that A) the story is true, B) the people in it are real, and C) things get really scary when you lose control. All three are amplified in Cloverfield, with a modest Hollywood-sized budget wisely used to set it farther apart than anyone could have predicted.
While the opening segments introduce us to our cast, it also gets us used to the hand-held nature of the cinematography. This will certainly be one of the most overlooked elements of the film – that it’s a lot harder to make cinematography look amateur than one would think. Throughout the movie, our cameraman Hud drops focus, zooms wildly, makes violent pans, and hardly frames a single shot with any sort of precision – which is exactly what any one of us would do in the same situation. And that’s where this movie shines. For people that can’t take the shaky-cam, I can’t sympathize. It took me all of 2 minutes to get used to the fact that we are watching essentially home video. We’re used to it now. We’ve seen it on America’s Funniest Home Videos. We see it all the time on YouTube. Cloverfield could not have been made, nor accepted, until now. It’s the feeling of realism that makes this such an achievement.
These are a small group of people taking part of an epic disaster. We’re not seeing the direct shots of the disaster like we do so often in movies like The Day After Tomorrow or Deep Impact, but instead we stick together with Rob, Lily, Hud, and Milena to see everything from their point of view. There’s no third party here. No omnipresent detached camera. Rather than making the disaster the star, it bears a closer similarity to the portrayal by Tom Cruise and his family in War of the Worlds, in that it keeps the story focused and centered on someone that we really care about. Although since we aren’t familiar with Cloverfield‘s actors, the ability to suspend disbelief is heightened tenfold.
And then there’s the monster.
Everything said on the Internet prior to the release was right – it’s near impossible to describe it. It’s big. It’s upset. It’s got big teeth. And it’s got some lice – or something falling off of it, that happen to be quite nasty. The sequence in the tunnels – oh man… the set-up is pitch-perfect. The entire theater as one erupted in an “oh…. shit….” moment. The pacing is superb, with all-out action followed by quiet moments of disbelief and anguish as friends get picked off one by one. The use of the camera’s functions (night-vision, light) are all used as plot devices – which is really clever since the whole film is really about the camerawork.
It’s notable that there’s never a point where you think, “I’m watching 3D.” Explosions and debris feel as real as anything shown on television during 9/11, which some may have trouble separating from the visuals in this film. But as an escapist catastrophe movie, it’s portrayed as close to how it might actually go down as I’ve seen yet.
I love movies like this. I’m a sucker for disaster movies. Poseidon, Armageddon, I Am Legend – they’re all great popcorn fun. But this is an entirely different level of disaster film. I came out of the theater feeling pumped and energized, which always confirms how much I enjoy a movie. But on the car ride home, I thought to myself it felt like waking from a dream – or perhaps a nightmare. I mentioned to a friend that I hope someday that the technology will exist for a simualtion of an event like Cloverfield where you can really be immersed completely. Feel it. Smell the air and dust around you. Have the tension, fear, and adrenaline flowing while running scared for your life. Seeing it on the big screen is one thing, but I yearn for a time where we can take a movie like this, and make it a virtual reality ordeal to experience like none other. To whoever is creating that Holodeck – we’re all waiting…