A found footage monster movie that had a big budget when some of the more notable found footage flicks are filmed on a low budget, Cloverfield is a 2008 film that takes the familiar premise of a monster attacking a city (a la Godzilla) and tells it from the point of view of a group of twentysomething friends who have gathered in a downtown Manhattan loft to celebrate a going away party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who is leaving to for a VP position for a Japanese corporation. Over the course of the 90 minutes of the film, the party group is reduced to four main characters: Rob, Hud (TJ Miller), Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), and Lily (Jessica Lucas).
The conceit of the “found footage”, since this was 2008 and cell phone cameras were not as high-quality nor ubiquitous as they are today (thus making Cloverfield as a found footage flick of compiled cell footage a pretty plausible film), is that Lily wanted Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel) to walk around the party with a video camera and tape “testimonials” from the guests as a going-away present. Annoyed with the whole premise, he passes it off to Hud, who is the one behind the camera for pretty much the whole movie. Cutting in and out of this tape is footage of a day that Rob spent with Beth (Odette Annabele), where after spending the night together, they head to Coney Island. There are timestamps between the two pieces of footage and at some point between that day at Coney Island and the day of the party, they broke up (and it’s implied that Rob’s taking this job in Japan is a way for him to escape). This is important because Beth shows up at the party with another guy in tow, and then leaves before anything goes down. At one point, she calls Rob from her midtown apartment, freaking out, and this makes Rob determined to come to her rescue, even though going into midtown will take him right to the monster.
I remember when this movie was teased and the viral marketing campaign surrounding it. J.J. Abrams, who executive produced the film, was in between the third and fourth seasons of Lost, and had done some very successful web-based marketing and activities with that show (I seem to remember a Dharma Initiative website that was fun and frustrating at the same time because you had to unlock all of the secrets and it was hard to do). Over the course of several months, Bad Robot released enigmatic trailers and a whole slew of web content, including a video series where a girl messages her boyfriend who is working in Japan (the character is not a main character in the film but is in the party scene, passed out on the couch). Rob’s new job ties into this because the company he is working for has some connection to the monster–based on just watching the movie and some brief skimming of Wikipedia, either the company created the monster or inadvertently brought it to our world.
It’s a good concept and conceit and the idea of a found-footage movie dealing with something on this scope is worth the watch. I had never seen it up to this point because in 2008, when it debuted, I spent all my time raising an infant, so if it wasn’t on television, I didn’t see it. I could have watched it at some point in the intervening years, but then again that’s why I have this blog.
Anyway, there’s a lot of good in this movie. The shots of the monster that we see through most of the first two thirds are just enough to keep the tension going and keep the audience engaged. The CGI that is used when you do get better looks at the monster is not the best but it’s not enough to take you out of the movie (it’s not the giant spider from the end of the 1990 It miniseries, for instance). Some of the destruction scenes are downright scary–there’s a scene where the monster’s tail destroys the Brooklyn Bridge while a mass of people are standing on it, for instance–and they use the camera’s flashlight and night vision effectively for a run through a subway tunnel while fleeing parasitic insect-like creatures the monster is dropping from its body. In fact, while those creatures–whose bite causes a person to become very sick and then make their torso explode–are a callback to the facehugger/chestburster of the Alien franchise, they make for one of the better horror scenes in the film, one that the director chooses to show from behind a curtain, keeping to the adage that the unseen is often scarier than the seen.
It is a flawed movie, though. While the action is engaging, the main characters themselves are underdeveloped and not always likable. I understand why Rob wants so much to go rescue Beth–he’s not thinking rationally, for one–but there’s a point when the movie nears its third act where that quest becomes completely ridiculous to the point of stupid. T.J. Miller’s Hud is kind of the derpy sidekick type of guy who has a thing for Marlena but I didn’t exactly find myself rooting for him. In fact, she’s the only character I thought was likable, mainly because she was someone who was invited to the party as a friend of a friend and winds up mixed up with these people, kind of like we are, although not as well-written to the strengths of an actress like Lizzy Caplan as she could have been. Lily’s also likable, although how she can make it from downtown to midtown running in heels is a superpower of sorts.
Had the characterization been better and had we been given a better motivation for their actions in the third act (seriously, Rob’s like, “We have to keep going,” the military lets him go, and all his friends are like, “We don’t like this idea but okay”), I think this would be a much better film. Right now, it’s a quality B-level flick (with two other movies I’m curious about).
Buy, Rent, or Skip?