Cloverfield Film Review - A Story of Survival

"Cloverfield" is a modern day tale where the monsters are real.

Disclaimer:

I went into this film with a fair amount of apprehension. For me, J.J. Abrams has a tendency to start off super strong, then ultimately disappoint me. I loved Alias until the wheels fell off mid season three. I checked out of Lost mid season one because I was annoyed with the show’s question to answer ratio. Maybe the responsibility for the disappointment falls on me because I expect too much; but I feel as though Abrams himself set the bar. Determined not to be lured by the hype, I limited my exposure to his latest effort, Cloverfield, to print ads, unavoidable radio spots and one radio interview with J. J. Abrams on my favorite radio station KROQ. Nevertheless, I went into this screening expecting my heart to be broken once again…

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Rob and Beth ( Michael Stahl-David & Odette Yustman) are a beautiful young couple living in New York, deep in the throes of love. Rob has seemingly documented their new, playful relationship well with his video camera.

That was in April. Fast Forward to May.

Rob’s brother, Jason ( Mike Vogel) is throwing a surprise going-away party for Rob, although it appears that Jason’s girlfriend, Lily ( Jessica Lucas) is actually doing all the organizing. She has commandeered the videocamera, giving Jason the responsibility of recording the farewell messages on the eve of Rob departure Japan and the great job that awaits him; a duty that Jason immediately passes off on mutual best friend Hud ( T. J. Miller). Hud grows comfortable in this duty since it gives him a reason to talk to the beautiful, brooding Marlena ( Lizzy Caplan). During the course of the evening, it’s revealed that, much to everyone’s surprise, Rob and Beth are not a happy couple anymore; she arrives and soon leaves with some Travis guy.

Brothers Jason (Mike Vogel) & Rob(Michael Stahl-David), plus one (J.T. Miller, center)

Then all hell breaks loose. There’s an earthquake, followed by the capsizing of an oil tanker in the harbor and from nowhere arises a reptilian monster as tall as any skyscraper in Manhattan. What’s most horrific, is the phone message from Beth to Rob in the midst of it all: she’s hurt, she’s trapped and she needs help. That is the moment Rob realizes that he loves Beth; suddenly nothing else is more important than saving her. That there is a 45-story tall creature of destruction lodged between him and Beth apartment in Midtown is an afterthought. He has to get to her, or die trying. Dutifully, his friends go with him.

The survivors fend off monsters great and small

Without revealing any spoilers, that’s the thrust of this film. This is not a “where-did-it-come-from, how-do-we-kill-it” movie. This is a 'stay alive long enough to save the girl' flick. It’s a plot that is brilliant because of its simplicity. I immediately think if The Terminator: A beloved Sci-Fi classic that endures because of its simplicity. Not since The Terminator have we been on this side of an overwhelming deadly force as experienced through the eyes of the civilians. It allows the audience to have an intimate connection with these characters amidst the lethal chaos surrounding them.

Now scope is a whole ‘nother story. Even though the film takes place almost exclusive at night, the filmmakers are not shy about showing you the creature that is decimating Lower Manhattan. Droves of people running in the initial chaos, frantic and claustrophobic, looting, hiding, crying. Our hapless group must dodge the falling debris of crumbling building and dodge friendly fire when our fine military bear down on the monster with all the might they can muster. And in bringing this adventure to us through the lens of a video camera; the filmmakers successfully put the audience smack dab in the middle of all of it. Together with performances that were seemingly spontaneous and completely unaffected, the film gives the audience a uniquely visceral and satisfying experience.

Once again Anna Behlmer and Andy Nelson deliver a fantastic sound mix that has the theater shaking with every impact, every concussion or bullet whiz-by. You not only see the action and destruction, you feel it as well. (When are these two going to get their Oscar?)  Will Files’ sound design is equally spectacular, filling the motion picture with a beautiful balance of organic ambience and the supernatural creature elements. I bet most people will not notice the absence of a music score.

This film is filled with iconic images: The streams of disheveled, disoriented refugees slowly making their way across the Brooklyn Bridge. The tsunami of smoke and debris, swallowing streets whole as it barrels toward the unsuspecting crowds of people, an exact replica of 9/11 footage. And of course, our lovely Lady of Liberty decapitated.

OK, the problems. The end credit music was just ridiculous. Perhaps the filmmakers were going for the metaphoric Fat Lady singing. But the opera at the end was wildly inappropriate. I’m guessing it is somehow a nod to the original Godzilla (which I have never seen). At any rate, the reference was lost on me. The constant play by play and banter of our mostly off-screen camera man Hud, grows a bit tiresome at times. Mostly this character acted as a much needed tension breaking device, but there were moments where joking was just inappropriate. This was not a big problem, but it did take me out a couple times.

Michael Stahl-David & Odette Yustman in "Cloverfield"

Lastly, there are logistics of the technology that are simply not addressed. Like how long a camera battery will last and how steady a hand Hud must have to capture the images that he does so well. But I forgave these logistics because I was engaged in the performances; you have to to enjoy the great ride.

I don’t like roller coasters, but I do plan to go on this one again. So maybe Mr. Abrams has redeemed himself in my book. Once again, it was a fresh perceptive for a film of this nature. The focus was on the naked human element, armed only with raw fight or flight instinct. Abrams has zeroed in on a universal threat that every viewer can connect with: in the face of imminent death, it is our loved ones that mean the most.

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