“Cloverfield”, the new film from producer JJ Abrams (TV’s “Lost” and “Alias”, director of “Mission Impossible III”), is an interesting, very successful experiment in filmmaking.
Rob (Michael Stahl – David) has just received a promotion and a new job in Japan. Before he leaves, his brother, Jason (Mike Vogel) and his girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas), arrange a surprise party in Rob’s midtown Manhattan loft. Jason videotapes the day, borrowing Rob’s video camera and videotaping over a tape Rob made of a day he spent with Beth (Odette Yustman) a week or so earlier. When Rob arrives at the party, his best friend, Hud (T.J. Miller) is in charge of videotaping the events, so Rob will have a keepsake. Everyone is having a good time until Beth shows up with another guy. But Rob barely has time to think about this when the entire building shakes. Everyone rushes to the roof and they see an explosion and chaos near the Hudson River. They rush inside and the news is carrying a story about an oil tanker hitting the Statue of Liberty. They make their way to the street and an explosion a couple of blocks away causes panic. Soon, the head of the Statue of Liberty comes crashing through and pandemonium reigns. Rob, Jason, Hud and Lily try to get someplace safe and they soon realize New York City is being attacked by a large beast Soon, Rob receives a teary cell call from Beth, who left earlier. Rob is determined to make his way to her apartment and help her. As they proceed, they run into all manner of obstacles and no one is safe. At least Hud is smart enough to keep the camcorder rolling during their journey.
The problem with so many monster movies is the filmmakers show the monster way too soon. This is problematic for a variety of reasons. If the monster is, in the slightest, unconvincing, there is no hope of creating any suspense with the audience. Once they see an actor wearing a big rubber suit, or a CGI creation moving awkwardly, nothing else in the film will seem real enough and all hope is lost. If the monster is convincing, and we believe in it, showing it too soon also robs the film of suspense. Once we see the creature, we are no longer thinking about what the creature might be, what caused it to be created, what are the creature’s motivations. This opens the rest of the film up for scrutiny. Trust me, most filmmakers who are making a monster film, don’t want to invite this scrutiny.
Abrams and director Matt Reeves have conceived of an idea in which the entire film is presented as a Government file, top secret, and obtained from the videotape Hud and Jason shoot throughout the day. Because this is all handheld camera work, the camera turns to look for the source of noises or destruction. The monster destroys something, causing a noise or disturbance, and then Hud and the others turn to look. Naturally, the monster isn’t still standing in the same place. If they are lucky, they capture a bit of a leg or a tail on the video before running away. They use this technique in a smart way; because we are watching someone’s camcorder, it takes a long time for us to get a good look at the monster. Because of this, the film is able to ratchet up the suspense, putting the main characters in a number of situations keeping us on the edge of our seats.
The filmmakers have also smartly cast a group of complete unknowns to play the principals in the film. Because we don’t recognize any of the actors, we more readily accept they are young people living in New York, we more readily accept they are attending a surprise party for their friend Rob, we more readily accept we are watching a camcorder recording this party and all of the horrific events after it.
This film wouldn’t work as well if recognizable actors populated the world. “Move Jessica Alba, move, the monster is about to get you” is just harder to make work than “Rob, you really shouldn’t go down that dark subway tunnel”. Who’s Rob? He’s the guy whose going away party was interrupted by a monster attacking the Statue of Liberty. Wait, that’s not real? Oh.
Thankfully, with the advent of digital camcorders, the images in “Cloverfield” are quite good, pretty clear. This isn’t “The Blair Godzilla Project”, filled with grainy, dark images. This camcorder captures a lot of detail and gives us a pretty good view of the destruction, of the terror, of the aftermath of this monster’s visit.
As Rob and his friends make their way through New York, they meet various obstacles along the way, frightening, dangerous obstacles, adding to the suspense of the film. They work through these moments, trying to remain safe, trying to remain alive, trying to get to Beth.
As the film begins, we watch as Rob and Beth wake up in bed together and make some plans to visit Coney Island. Then Jason and Lily at the market, buying some things for the party that night, interrupt the images. They quickly fill us in on the details and it becomes clear Jason has borrowed Rob’s video camera. He is clearly videotaping over something else. Throughout the film, these moments with Rob and Beth come through, whenever Hud stops the camera, or there is a brief interruption. Watching these brief moments of Rob and Beth together help to explain why he is so intent on finding her, making his way through the hazardous streets of New York under attack. These moments also help to add one more moment to the film, making the fact we are watching a handheld camera recording all of these horrific events all the more credible.
The film also moves at a fast pace. After spending some time with everyone as they prepare for the party and then meeting everyone at Rob’s big night, the monster attacks. These early scenes are necessary to give e us the framework for the story. We have to have someone to care for and go on this journey with. But once the monster attacks, our group of partiers is always on the go, trying to stay alive and as far away from this creature as possible. At 90 minutes, the film is fast-paced and never lags, providing us with a bit of a roller coaster ride.
“Cloverfield” isn’t for everyone; I know a lot of people who can’t watch a few minutes of handheld camera work, let alone an entire film. But it is a very good, interesting filmmaking experiment managing to create more suspense and terror than most monster films.