In a movie like Cloverfield it doesn’t matter what’s attacking the city, though it certainly helps if its larger than life and terrifying. In the end it could be anything. What matters is whether or not you give a damn about the characters. On Christmas Day Aliens vs. Predator opened and I didn’t give a stitch about a single person in that film. It ruins the magic, destroys the imagination if we’re not dealing with believable characters. One never feels afraid.
Cloverfield spends some time smartly developing the characters up front and this time is wisely spent because we feel the ripples throughout the rest of the film allowing each situation they find themselves in to be much more involving. They aren’t the usual B-Grade characters you find in movies like this. They’re grounded in a reality most people can relate to.
These young adults are generally smart, have a sense of humor and are affected by decisions they have made or will make. Sex actually has real emotional consequences between two of the characters. And the actors are affable, lending each character a likability that helps later on when the tension is rising.
Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David, who gives a particularly good performance) is leaving for Japan for a new job and his brother’s girlfriend Lily Ford (Jessica Lucas) has gathered a large group of people together to send him on his way: Rob’s brother Jason Hawkins (Mike Vogel) and Rob’s best friend Hud Platt (T.J. Miller) who ends up carrying the camera most of the film giving it the cinema verite look that drew people to the awful Blair Witch Project. Thankfully Cloverfield is more than just a gimmick.
Also along for the ride is Marlena Diamond (Lizzy Caplan also giving a performance that sticks long after the movie is over) who doesn’t look like she even wants to be at the party and probably ends up wishing she hadn’t, since she along with several of the other characters go on a mission to save Beth McIntyre (Odette Yustman) a girl who has made Rob’s life very complicated in recent weeks and will continue to make it even more so. But the mission is noble and you want them to succeed.
The nicely developed characters with grounded relationships are rounded out by the use of the home video feel of the movie. In fact this is one of several movies I’ve seen over the past few months that are almost told exclusively from a first person perspective. Each film has used the technique to startling effect. There was The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and to some degree 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days - each of these films heightened the situations that the characters found themselves in by employing techniques which allowed their dilemmas to be more personally involving for the audience.
Also like 4 Months the use of a score is avoided in Cloverfield until the credits. Everything you feel, every moment of intensity is real, there are no strings or trumpets to heighten those emotions. That should tell you how well this movie is made.
Nope, Cloverfield puts you right there, on the streets of Manhattan running and climbing and dodging and falling and sweating. It’s the type of movie War if the Worlds wished it could have been.
When Hud becomes separated from the other characters you panic. You want to know what’s happening to them. You want to hear what they’re saying. Sometimes you just wish Hud would put the camera down and run. Who cares about the movie? At least you could go home imagining every one makes it off the Island. Instead things go from uncertainty to really bad.
What’s attacking is only caught in glimpses at first, but it leaves a trail of destruction far more realistic than other apocalyptic movie I’ve seen. The destruction is palpable. Dust and debris from a toppling building comes at the camera and you feel it coming at you. Get out of the way you think to yourself, but your too rapt with fear to say it out loud. The camera is set down on a sloped floor and slides forward until it runs into something. It’s in details like this that brings the reality of the movie to life.
The looks on peoples’ faces are enough to sell the reality of what’s happening. “I saw it eating people,” Marlena mutters while still in shock. And you suddenly realize that this thing isn’t just another PG-13 family friendly monster, but one that will do real damage. J.J. Abrams employs his Lost mentality by not giving the destroyer of the city a defined background, instead our imaginations are allowed to run free. It could come from deep within the ocean or from outer space a character postulates. It’s never answered and hopefully it never will be.
The director Matt Reeves keeps everything on the ground avoiding shots of the city skyline. The skyscrapers tower above the characters, the streets become claustrophobic mazes trapping them like scurrying rats. The characters end up leaving the surface streets where things go from bad to terrifying. The consequences of this journey under the city end in a fatal sequence of nightmarish quality. One that will stay in my head for a long time to come.
Every now and then the camera slows enough to capture a surreal image or two that is haunting and beautiful. The special effects never feel hokey or out of place.
And surprisingly the film ends up pulling at your emotions. Death affects people. When Hud, who we don’t even see for most of the film but whose voice becomes a comfort falls silent and lets the camera hang loose, you feel genuine sympathy for what’s happening to these young people who are courageously sticking together as friends. And regardless of the outcome they are friends you would want nearby in any event.