'Cloverfield' has critic guessing right up to the end

Reeling it in

Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2008



1 hour, 24 minutes

In 1999, a filmmaking phenomenon was released. "The Blair Witch Project," a seriously low-budget horror movie, came out of left field and captivated the entire country for months. Why? Because it was completely unique shot entirely in hand-held, point-of-view style, and because it employed a killer marketing strategy using, of all things, the Internet.

Since then, no one has really tried it again. Oh sure, "Blair Witch" was satirized like crazy, but no one actually attempted to pull off the same feat until now. Producer J.J. Abrams, of "Lost" and "Alias" fame, and relative newcomer director Matt Reeves, are offering up a terrifying and fascinating vision. If "Blair Witch" reinvented the horror movie, "Cloverfield" does the same thing for the monster movie.

Before I get into the plot synopsis, let me address some of the hype and there is a lot of it surrounding this movie. In fact, hype is key, just like it was with Blair Witch. In the case of "Cloverfield," the filmmakers have been teasing us for nearly a year with enigmatic trailers, fake Web sites, and teasing little bits of info parceled out to the geek-fansites. The idea was to get people talking, and the best way to do that was to hint at a lot, but say very little. Even the title of the film was relatively unknown up until a month or so ago. Most trailers and posters simply gave the release date. It's audacious marketing, essentially daring the audience to try and stay away. And boy, did it work. "Cloverfield" just set a record for the highest January opening of all time. But, unlike "Blair Witch," this film needed to open big. This is not a tiny little low-budget student film project. "Cloverfield" is very big in its scope, and, I'm sure, in its budget as well. It was a gamble, but one that paid off, in my opinion.

The film, shot entirely in the style of a handheld personal video camera, begins with an ominous titlecard informing you that you are about to watch footage found at the government site codenamed "Cloverfield" formerly known as Central Park. The tape starts with a young man and woman on an idyllic spring day. They are going to celebrate his birthday at Coney Island, and the future seems bright and full of possibilities. Abruptly cut to preparations for a party some three weeks later. Cut back.

Soon you realize that what you are watching is someone who is doing a poor job of taping over previous footage. Eventually the party planning turns into a party; a going-away celebration for our protagonist. We are introduced to the characters one at a time as the camera-man, our hero's goofball buddy, goes around the party asking for testimonials. Suddenly there's a booming sound and all the lights go out. By the time the emergency generator comes up, the partygoers are headed up to the roof. What they see is unimaginable. A monstrous explosion is raining fire on the city. From there it's down to the street where crowds of people are running pell mell. Just then, what should fly out of the sky, careening to the street in front of them, but the head of the Statue of Liberty. Something is out there.

What makes this movie so fascinating for me is not the giant monster trashing the city. This one is pretty scary looking and the action is intense, but it is the perspective that I liked. Abrams and Reeves have figured out a way to completely reinvent a genre that really felt like it had no place to go. With "Cloverfield" there is no muddy scientific exposition, no desperate last ditch effort by the hero to destroy the monster, and no lame explanatory ending pawning it all off on military experimentation or alien invasion. All you have is the characters' perspective: everything is going to hell and all we have is each other.

As the tiny group of partygoers who have stuck together make their way through the city to try to save a trapped friend, you are treated to an intense character-driven drama, with a monster movie going on in the background. This unique storytelling style makes the movie almost impossible to predict. As a result, I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, a claim that thrillers often make, but rarely live up to.

There will be myriad complaints about "Cloverfield": "They never tell us what's going on." "You can hardly ever see the monster clearly." "The camera shakes the whole time." To me, these are all part of what makes the film unique, although that last complaint could be a serious one to someone prone to motion sickness.

The beauty of the film, to my mind, is that, like a novel, you are able to use your imagination to fill in the blanks, arriving at a far more intimate and personal monster movie than you've ever seen before.

Grade: A

"Cloverfield" is rated PG-13 for intense terror, action, and mild language.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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