Thursday, January 31, 2008

Movie Review: Cloverfield

Bring Dramamine.

Cloverfield, directed by Matt Reeves. Screenplay by Drew Goddard. Starring Lizzy Caplan, Lily Ford, and T. J. Miller. Produced by J. J. Abrams and Bryan Burk. Bad Robot, 2008. Runtime 84 minutes. Rated PG-13. USCCB Rating is AIII--Adults.

Read other reviews here.

Cloverfield is a smart retread of an old idea--a monster comes out of nowhere and stomps a city while people run around screamng and the military creates further mayhem by ineffectively trying to blow the monster up. In the midst of the chaos, Cloverfield offers a small human drama: a man (Michael Stahl-David) goes back into the thick of danger in order to rescue the woman he loves (Odette Yustman), a small group of friends follow him, and they take along an indestructible video camera. The blockheaded "cameraman," Hud (T. J. Miller), offers a humorously deadpan commentary throughout and deals with his own unrequited affection for a woman (Lizzy Caplan).

Cloverfield's various elements, taken individually, are pedestrian. The monster is nameless and generic, the characters are unoriginal and flat, the plot is by-the-numbers monster movie fare, and the script contains not a single memorable line. However, when these elements are put together, captured on what looks like a camcorder, combined with the convincing acting of a mostly unknown cast, and competently directed by Matt Reeves, they take on a surprising immediacy. I cannot remember the last time I saw an sf or fantasy film that so completely suspended my disbelief.

The acting has none of the cheesiness typical of monster films. Each of the actors genuinely appears to be an average joe caught in a horrible circumstance. The special effects are perfect and never distract. None of the CGI creatures or explosions appear fake. Even the questionable cinematography works to the movie's benefit: though intentionally badly framed, the cameras always capture exactly what we need to see so that the tilted shots and blurred images have a curious power. Even the script, though leaden, has an ending symmetrical with its beginning, satisfyingly concluding a story that would seem to be impossible to conclude satisfyingly.

If we think about it too hard, it's obvious this could never be a real home video. This camera takes abuse no real camera could survive. Somehow, Hud keeps filming even when dragging a wounded comrade by both hands or when engaged in hand-to-hand combat with giant killer crab/spider thingies.

Probably the movie's greatest drawback is its slow opening. The movie begins with a going-away party where Hud is stalking around with a camera, interviewing twenty-something characters and gossiping about other people's love lives. This lasts a good eighteen minutes and will fail to interest anyone who isn't a fan of MTV's The Real World. Though over-long, this sequence has its clever moments, and fortunately for all of us, it ends with a big explosion and the now-famous image of the Statue of Liberty's head lying in the street. From then on, the movie is good.

The shaky camera work may disturb some viewers; though I enjoyed it, I won't be quick to see it again, and I think we need a moratorium on this style of fake-umentary. Though it's inevitable, I have no wish to see Cloverfield II: I'm not sure the Blair Witch-meets-Godzilla concept can work twice.

Perhaps the film's greatest asset--and the basis for its plot--is a depiction of heroism inspired by love. The central characters, though shallow and thick-headed, manage to be heroes when they find the people they love most are in danger. Ultimately, in spite of the widespread destruction, that makes this a positive movie about self-sacrifice and redemption. Listen closely to the dialogue at the end if you don't believe me.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Cloverfield::

Myth Level: Medium-High (classic plot and characters, heroics)

Quality: High (an almost seamless production with a cool gimmick and a good cast)

Ethics/Religion: Medium (some vulgarity under stress, an implied premarital sexual encounter, positive depiction of bravery and generally good themes, some gore and scary moments)
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