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Manhattan monster munch
A cinema review of CLOVERFIELD by Camus
"I don't understand why this is happening!"
One of the few living New Yorkers left making her
testimonial echoing a similar comment made in late 2001


I must walk around the world completely oblivious of the T-shirt I'm wearing. While it looked like a plain old cotton T to me, it obviously says in big friendly letters "Hype Sucker!" so I can be thusly judged. I assume I am not in the minority – which is why hype works. Having said that, there has been a spectacular box office drop off at Cloverfield's second weekend. Hype can deliver the core demographic but not the majority of the unwashed. Word of mouth has to kill it or make it soar. In our 'end of year' articles, both Slarek and myself coincidentally bemoaned the state of mainstream Hollywood but while he remains above such grubby warm body mongering the studios indulge in, I swim in the stuff and, like quite a few people, I found the Statue of Liberty head trailer for Cloverfield compelling and there I was, in line on day one in the U.K. Pathetic, I know.

I had been warned and gave up my normal seat closer to the screen for a less vomit-inducing mid-range one. I knew the movie was one hand-held video shot after another. If a warning needs to be issued, let me add my tuppence worth. At times, this vértité style is urgent, 'believable' and almost unbearable (as in the "Oh, for Christ's sake, get a literal grip..." unbearable). At other times, it just feels what it is – very bad camerawork. Using this style results in a curious effect (possibly the best special effect of the movie) and it's all in the mind. Because you get snatched shots of the action, when you do see something, anything monstery or catastrophic, you get a little buzz, a reward for putting up with camerawork that almost makes you heave. As befits the hand held camera aesthetic, there's a great deal of the action that you miss and a great deal that you see from the oddest angles. These angles are from where ever the camera is set down when the atrocious operator is needed to help his friends rather than record their travails. At least then, it's steady even if it is a 24 second shot of the material lining of a downed helicopter.


The story doesn't tax the mind. It's the creature that attacks the storeys. Ouch. In the middle of a surprise party, a group of young, well-heeled New Yorkers experiences what seems like an earth tremor. From the roof they witness a huge explosion and on arriving on the street, the afore mentioned head of Lady Liberty comes to rest in front of them with huge gouge marks in her face. Earlier, at the party, we find out that the leading man is in love with a very pretty girl and this doesn't seem to be making him happy but as the wave of humanity sweeps across Brooklyn bridge, he feels the need to rescue said damsel who's in some distress in an apartment building that drunkenly leans on another for support. So against all reason (he's not having a good night having just lost his brother as the creature – still unseen – attacks the bridge), he heads back into Manhattan with his brother's girlfriend, the world's most awful cameraman and a girl the cameraman has his other eye on. They encounter the military, little parasitic creatures whose bites don't have a happy ending and a creature the size of an office block laying waste to Manhattan. Er, as they say, that's it.

The movie is presented (with timecode etc. at the start) as if it's an uncut reel of tape taken from the hero's camera found in Central Park. The witless cameraman has recorded over a fun day out at Coney Island as experienced by the hero and needing-to-be-rescued heroine. This creates a number of small but nice juxtapositions as 9-11 hell is served up interrupted by two young lovers having a grand day out. Let it never be said that Abrams doesn't do irony. But then Cloverfield has been sold to us on the back of his name. Not only is J.J. enj-joying rewriting and reshaping the cultural waters (he's Lost's show runner and creator and he's written and is directing the new Star Trek prequel opening on Boxing Day this year) but he's also become a sort of pop art masthead and the suits must really trust him. But he's producing this one and although the directing reins are wielded very capably by Matt Reeves, that's not a name that'll get you into the cinemas.

Let's be frank up front (in paragraph 5). It takes an enormous amount of work to make the hand held camerawork seem extemporaneous. The digital tinkering must have taken up a sizeable chunk of the low-ish $25 million budget. Single uninterrupted shots must have been taken apart frame by frame and worked on by a whole fleet of digital artists. There is not a single scene in the film that looks fake and New York is convincingly trashed. The 'downgraded' digital video format helps to maintain the believability and allow some lack of detail to pass by unchallenged. The word 'monster' is never used, neither is 'Godzilla,' which you feel someone would have mentioned (maybe Sony wouldn't let them). So what about the critter that no one on the web (that Google can find) has managed to 'spoil' by showing us early. I take that back. There's a phone movie grab of the clearest shot of the creature but there is no detail, just a silhouetted shape.

Cloverfield's monster (I smiled to see it referred to as 'Clovie' on the message boards) is a giant aquatic beast that is, of course, a computer generated character. We don't learn too much about the fellah (Abrams gave away he was a sea based creature and that the smaller snapper-mouthed beings were parasitic creatures that feasted on 'the baby''s flesh). But it's not its appearance that's crucial (it's a monster but still no one has come close to equaling, never mind topping, Giger's alien). All we're concerned about are its actions and he's a pissed off puppy rampaging merely in the act of walking. It's a convincing beast that we do get to see fully a few times. In fact we get a real 'money' shot just before a character pegs out. It reminded me of the creature Luke faces in Jabba's pit in Return of the Jedi, the Rancor. But it does what it needs to and is suitably convincing.

As for the metaphorical side of Cloverfield (Lady Liberty decapitated, is there another way of taking that scene? Isn't that every so called 'terrorists''s dream, to cut America's head off?) it's open for interpretation and there's no point in peeling away too many layers because this is not a layered movie. This is a monster movie with all that that entails. The hero and heroine, having survived some pretty horrendous situations, give testimony in the final minutes and when the end came, I'm afraid I sat there with the easiest read facial expression any human being can wear. My T-Shirt may say "Hype Sucker" but as I stared at the director's credit, I had only one thought – "Is that it?"

I could have done with one more 'event' scene but was denied. For what it is – a monster movie – it works well but it's hard to care for the kids (characterization is not the point of Cloverfield, quelle surprise!) and the shaky-cam aesthetic would not work if the movie was a second over its pretty short running time (yes, I'm aware I'm contradicting myself saying I wanted more but not in the running time). I'm convinced it's a terrific 'date movie' but I have to admit, with a heavy heart, that I didn't find one frame in the least bit scary. A shame. I honestly thought I'd found a mainstream Hollywood movie that would frighten me. Is the work of J.J. Abrams simply not compatible with my generation? At least that's a scary thought as he's about to rewrite Star Trek's history... Hmmm. Resistance is futile.


USA 2008
85 mins
Matt Reeves
J.J. Abrams
Bryan Burk
Drew Goddard
Michael Bonvillain
Kevin Stitt
production design
Martin Whist
Lizzy Caplan
Jessica Lucas
T.J. Miller
Michael Stahl-David
Mike Vogel
review posted
2 February 2008

See all of Camus's reviews