Some people may remember the heady days of 1999, when there was slow Internet hype of a low-budget first offering by two unknown filmmakers named Sanchez and Myrick. When it first hit theaters, The Blair Witch Project was a welcome change from the almost-antiseptic approach that directors were taking to movies; most scary action movies seemed almost too stagy, too unreal, too implausible. Blair Witch used a handheld camera and was marketed as lost, recovered footage of an experience in the woods gone awry.
Here in 2008, though, the anarchic, subversive idea of handheld, intentionally amateur cinematography is almost passe’, isn’t it? Since 1999, audiences have seen reality television shows and gritty, dirt-in-your-face movies that aim for an ultrareal effect; consequently, the novelty has worn off. We’re no longer amused by footage we could have shot ourselves, and we’re no longer automatically terrified when something scary is filmed with a camcorder.
In Cloverfield, a group of young people is throwing a going-away party in New York City for one of their own; Rob, who is assuming a high-paying job in Japan. Naturally, one of his best friends, Hud, videotapes the party, asking various guests to offer testimonials to Rob, sort of as one would do at a wedding reception. Then BOOM, there’s a loud explosion, and the guests flip on the TV – looks like a giant something or other is attacking the city.
Because everything is seen through the camcorder that Hud is lugging around, we’re supposed to feel a kinship with these pretty twentysomethings, although to be frank they look and act a little more like teenagers. Using Hud’s camera, director Matt Reeves introduces us to a few characters who may or may not make it through to the end of the film. We’re told very little about them, but it’s quickly evident that the people on whom the camera does linger will be characters we’ll follow after the tragedy strikes.
On the plus side, the monster is hardly seen at all, really just in shadows and the like, until near the very end of the movie, and no explanation is offered as to where it came from. The result of this, though, is that the focus is shifted to the game effort put forth by our survivors as they attempt an inexplicably dumb quest. The instant they decide that’s what they’re gonna do, you start guessing which of them will be killed off.
At any rate, such a focus means that it’s pretty important that the actors themselves turn in strong, evocative performances, and no one here does. The impression one gets is that the actors were hired mainly because they weren’t supertalented thespians, that producer J.J. Abrams was going for amateur-looking acting to go along with the amateur-looking camerawork. I get that, I really do, it’s just that watching a 90-minute home movie isn’t all that interesting when you can tell a lot of the special effects were done with CGI.
This movie represents some of the worst aspects of cinema verite. The haphazard, slapdash camerawork is, of course, how you or I might use a camcorder, so it’s realistic; on the other hand, most people don’t want to watch a homemade film to which they have no connection. If my friends had made this, I might have been into it a bit more, but the film never engages its audience. (The party is an obvious contrivance to attempt to engage us, but it just shows me a bunch of pretty young people acting like doofuses.) And because there are all of these zooms to the left and right and up and down and whoops here we go, falling and gasping, it’s tough to make sense of what’s going on. Sure, I know, that’s how the characters feel, too – what’s attacking us? Where should we go? What should we do? – but I am not the characters, and in this case, seeing things through their eyes just makes me dizzy and not care about them much at all.
And that, dear friends, is the crux of the problem. The movie wants you to be right down there in the trenches with the characters, but to do that it’s got to make you like the characters, root for them in some way, and it just plain fails to do so. Instead, we’re treated to nearly 90 minutes of people running here and there and getting attacked by who knows what, and so forth (there are a LOT of shots of feet, as Hud’s camera is pointed straight down a lot of the time). To put it simply, it’s like watching any other loud, dumb action movie, only instead of excellent camera angles and world-class cinematography that grabs you by the throat and never lets go, you get some brain-damaged diphthong toting a home video camera like it’s 1990 and he’s at his first no-adults party.
Need more? Here in 2008, it’s a scant six-and-a-half years or so since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001; one of the more unforgettable images of those attacks was that of people running down the street as a huge billow of smoke, dust, and debris chased after them, with the damaged towers in the background, ready to collapse. That image – as well as the image of one building leaning against another – is revisited in Cloverfield, and instead of being wowed and amazed, you’re somewhat chagrined and uneasy. I wasn’t even in New York on that day, and yet my reaction to those images here was just horror, not wonderment.
I initially thought that the long buildup to the monster attack itself was a bad idea in itself; we get endless shots of the party and the people in it, merely for exposition and empathy. “Bring on the monster!” I shouted, internally. And then the attack comes, and for the rest of the film you feel like you’re on a roller coaster ride after having eaten fourteen hot dogs.
Cloverfield isn’t worth the endless, smug, metahype it generated for itself leading up to its release. It means to be edgy and groundbreaking but winds up being tired and played out. The monster does look pretty cool, and some of the stunts are worth watching, and there are some genuine scares, but overall it misses its mark by quite a bit. The rolling head of the Statue of Liberty is clever, but that’s about it for wit.