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Friday, January 25, 2008

REVIEW - "Cloverfield" (2008)

I'm a huge fan of the giant monster genre. It’s a concept I had wish more filmmakers would embrace. Only recently has there been a slight rise in interest for the genre. “The Host” brought to the table one of the most dramatic monster films in awhile. “The Mist” followed suit by delivering a great deal of suspense and an apocalyptic atmosphere. And J.J. Abrams' “Cloverfield”? For some, I assume, the shaky camera work will be the ultimate turnoff. But if the audience can look beyond the jolting frame they’ll find a very sublime film. I think “Cloverfield” may be the most unique and important giant monster movie since the original, 1954 “Godzilla.”

The entire film is told from the point of view of a hand-held video camera. Hud Platt is given the camera to document a farewell party for his best friend and main character, Robert Hawkins. The collection of happy goodbyes turns in to a historical account of a great disaster: Something has attacked the city. Amidst the confusion, Hud continues filming as Robert and others attempt to rescue Rob’s ex-girlfriend.

I guess I’m not spoiling anything with this next sentence: A giant monster attacks the New York. Surprise. From the moment the attack begins the intensity of the film hardly lets up. I felt like I was right with the characters running amongst falling debris, military firepower and giant claws. As soon as the monster’s attack began I started feeling the confusion and terror the characters were engulfed with. It is probably the closest a movie has come to making me feel exactly what the heroes feel—And it was terrifying.

Considering the entire movie is told from the perspective of a handy-cam I didn’t expect much story or character development. Oh ye of little faith. The first fifteen minutes introduces us to the characters and setting like clockwork. I loved how the camera's glitching evoked Robert’s feelings for his ex-girlfriend. During some very convenient scenes the handy-cam pauses long enough for the audience to see what was originally on the tape. Glimpses of Rob and Beth's prior relationship pop up like flashbacks. It’s very effective and a creative way to flesh out the lead.

The enjoyment of the characters was not crucial, but it enhanced the experience greatly. I cared about them and, because I felt like I was right beside them the entire time, I even grew attached to them. Their journey is a source of confusion and mayhem that could easily mimic emotions that were felt on 9/11. In comparison to its greatest inspiration, “Cloverfield” is to September 11th, what “Godzilla” was to Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It plays on current fears and our confusions. Similar to those who experienced 9/11 firsthand, "Cloverfield's" protagonists experience a disorientation from the terror of a sudden attack. Then there’s the big question: Who attacked us? There’s even a nod to the post-9/11 conspiracy theories as Hud begins wondering if the government had something to do with the monster.

These 9/11 emotions play a huge part of the film, but so does another aspect. Unlike the original “Godzilla,” there is no pseudo-scientific explanation for the monster's existence. We never find out what it is or where it came from. It simply is and that’s all that needs to be known. I enjoy this take on the creature because the unknown evokes true terror. It’s not the special effects and jump-out-at-you shots that make the movie truly terrifying, but the fact that it plays on so many real fears that dwell within us. It remains ambiguous to achieve the appropriate level of intensity. The experience is more important than the origin.

Eventually, I can see “Cloverfield” going down as one of the top great giant monster films. Granted, it’s not flawless. I don’t know how many people in the world would have kept filming all of that mayhem. I would have probably dropped the camera and run for my life. And I’m pretty sure the military would have confiscated it immediately. And why does the government claim they got the footage from the camera’s memory card when the characters constantly refer to the tape? Did I miss something? Then again, does it matter? Nah. There’s a much bigger picture that the movie paints at the expense of these flaws.

I’ve had a long time to think about it and I’ve decided to give “Cloverfield” four stars due to its ability to rise above and beyond a niche genre and breathe new life in to it. It’s a very effective movie with fun characters and a powerful awareness for today’s fears. Even with the camera’s shakiness there is a sense of creative cinematography. (Which is far more than I can say for the bland “Blair Witch Project.”) It is one of the most unique and overwhelming experiences I have ever had at the theater. A+ for the giant monster genre.

**** out of ****

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