Cloverfield (2008)

Cloverfield Title

Produced by J. J. Abrams

Tagline: “Some Thing Has Found Us”

A guest review by stalwart contributor Sean Ledden


Most of the movies ridiculed, I mean critiqued, at the Monster Shack are prehistoric artifacts from a murky past. Born from the swampy fringes of a by-gone Hollywood, they lumbered across the land seeking to thrill and terrify a kinder, gentler, and sillier time. But what about the big budget spawn of today’s enlightened Hollywood ? Is it fair to ignore them just because they don’t have cardboard sets, rubber monsters or an overweening fear of communism? My answer is no. And so here, with the kind permission of Web Meister Dennis], comes a review as current and up-to-date as anything you’ll see on the E! Channel! (And a good deal more caustic and bitter to boot!)

In describing his inspiration for creating “Cloverfield,” producer J.J. Abrams tells of visiting a toy store in Japan and being impressed with Godzilla’s long-running popularity. He’s quoted as saying “we need our own (American) monster, and not like King Kong….King Kong is adorable.” I like Abrams for this, and it’s interesting how his statement confirms the utter failure of the 1998 American “Godzilla.” Abram’s creation is certainly better than the Emmerich/Devlin horror, and after seeing the very clever poster before it’s release I had high hopes. Unfortunately, it’s ultimately a failure as a monster movie.

A central problem is that Cloverfield isn’t really a monster movie, but a very generic love story between two “ordinary people” that’s interrupted by a giant monster attack. “Ordinary people” in this context means a pair of beautiful 20-something Manhattan Yuppies who like to video tape themselves constantly. This leads to the 2nd major problem, at least for this viewer – the entire film is a shaky, hand-held “home movie.” Much as I love giant monster movies I waited until this picture came out on DVD to see it. I made a wise choice. Seeing it on the big screen without the ability to hit “pause” would have given me a terrible migraine.

Regarding the monster itself – neat! And several scenes of havoc when it is nearby are well-staged. However, it’s rarely clearly visible. And since you learn nothing about it, watching the movie becomes a curiously hollow experience. I’ll say more about that after a quick sprint through the plot – such as it is.

The Plot

As the movie opens, official looking writing tells us we’re about to see video recovered from a camera found in Central Park. The first portion of this video shows our hero, I’ll call him “Boy,” and his girlfriend, I’ll call her “Girl,” burbling romantic nothings to each other in the bedroom of her killer apartment overlooking Central Park. (FAST FORWARD BUTTON)

Now we’re getting ready for a party at Boy’s apartment with some other beautiful 20-something Manhattan Yuppies. It’s here we meet, sort of, the spastic doofus who’ll serve as our “voice-off” narrator and cameraman. He’s very good at jerking the camera around, failing to focus on what’s in the frame, and asking stupid questions. And so, despite being oh so up-to-date, Cloverfield shows it’s traditional colors by introducing the “Odious Comic Relief.” Wait, that’s not quite fair. Cloverfield does come up with a radical 21st Century innovation – THE ODIOUS COMIC-RELIEF SHOOTS THE ENTIRE MOVIE! (FAST FORWARD BUTTON.)

Then we’re at the party itself, where more beautiful 20-something Manhattan Yuppies say cute things to the camera. (FAST FORWARD BUTTON.)

Boy joins the party (FAST FORWARD BUTTON.)

Girl joins the party, with a date. (FAST FORWARD BUTTON.)

Feelings are hurt (FAST FORWARD BUTTON.)

Girl leaves (FAST FORWARD BUTTON.)

FINALLY, the lights go off and something interesting starts to happen. No, not an orgy, but a giant monster attack! After seeing a huge explosion from the rooftop, panic – and movie excitement – break out as people flee down to the streets just in time to see nearby buildings collapse, giant shapes move about in the shadows, and the head of the Statue of Liberty crash down out of the sky. Great stuff. – when you can see it. And after a brief stint hiding out in a deli, Boy, Camera Doofus, and a number of party-refugees emerge into a changed world. It’s an urban nightmare taken from the images of 9/11. Everything is coated in dust, debris covers the streets, and countless sheets of paper twirl about in the murky air.

Panic breaks out on the streets as the monster attacks.

Escape seems the order of the day, and our intrepid band, along with a goodly number of extras, make for the Brooklyn Bridge, and the safety of, well…Brooklyn. Along the way there’s lots of authentically hysterical yabbering by all involved. (FAST FORWARD BUTTON.)

Panic breaks out on the bridge as the monster attacks.

Once on the bridge we get a shaky and too-brief glimpse of a burning oil tanker rammed up onto the shore, as well as a brief glimpse of the headless Statue of Liberty. (This movie too often provides teasers instead of spectacle.) Then Boy gets a cell phone call from Girl. Apparently she’s trapped in her killer apartment, (Oh the irony!) but this important conversation is interrupted by a monster attack on the bridge, and so the movie becomes exciting again. Briefly. (Speaking more about teasers, we still don’t see what the monster looks like – just a tentacle like limb. This “dance of the 7 veils” will continue for the entire movie as each time our crew crosses paths with the creature we see a little bit more of it. Only in the final minutes of the film do we see the beast entire. And while each encounter is itself exciting, there isn’t enough pay-off at the end to really bring the whole thing off.)

The Army fights back!

A direct hit!

Having fled the bridge along with the remaining party survivors, Boy tells everyone he has to rescue Girl. And so, after more hysterical yabbering and shaky camera work, everyone heads up towards Girl’s apartment – and the monster (FAST FORWARD BUTTON.)

The rest of the movie is more of the same. Lot’s of walking, lots of puffing up and down stairs, lots of skulking, and lots of shouted “We’ve got to get out of here!” All interrupted by exciting, if brief, near encounters with the monster. Honorable mention goes to the creepy dog-sized parasites that, having been shaken loose from the monster’s skin, scuttle about and attack people. A not so honorable mention goes to the various episodes where the camera is dropped, raising our hopes that Camera Doofus, and perhaps more of the rescue party, are dead. Alas, like cartoon characters, most of them bounce back from traumas and injuries that would kill most “ordinary people.” To give just one example, Girl is found in her trashed apartment with a big spike driven into her shoulder. Our rescue party pulls it out – off camera, thank God – and moments later she’s running, in heels, to catch a military helicopter. Now that’s realism!

The monster rages through mid-town.

Having suffered in the company of these “ordinary people” for what seems an eternity, even with the Fast Forward Button, our pay-off is a 5-second shot, taken from the helicopter window, of the monster being bombed by the Air Force. It’s a terrific shot. A terrific 5-second shot. Then the helicopter crashes and the camera is dropped. (FAST FORWARD BUTTON.)

Dammit. Boy, Girl and Camera Doofus have all survived the helicopter crash. (See what I mean?) But at least we get a close-up of the monster towering over Camera Doofus in the early morning light of a trashed Central Park. Again, cool monster design. And yes! He eats Camera Doofus! Sort of. To the thrilling sounds of CRUNCH, MUNCH, MUNCH, CRUNCH the camera spins around wildly before (again) dropping to the ground. Then a surprisingly uneaten Camera Doofus drops to the ground too. Being dead he can no longer shout “There’s some serious shit going on outside!” “Are you seeing this Shit?” or “Go! Go! Go!”

The monster looms over a terrified Camera Doofus.

The monster leaves and, oh God, Boy and Girl are still alive. They’re picking up the camera. (FAST FORWARD BUTTON.)

The End

Sean Ledden (May 2008)

Afterthoughts

I’ll start with the positives. The effects work, when the camera stays in focus, is impressive, especially considering the movie was made for less than half of the usual block-buster budget. And, as I’ve mentioned before, Neville Page’s monster design, when visible, is one well-done freaky nightmare. What is the monster you ask? Abrams & Co. have very skillfully dropped hints & tid bits about its back-story in their publicity, but none of that comes through in the movie. So for now it doesn’t count. Maybe, if they make a sequel, we’ll actually get that back-story, and a real movie.
Oops, I meant to be upbeat, so let me compliment the main characters. Freshly delivered from the same factory that supplies such makers of quality entertainment “product” as the WB network, they all look really, really pretty. And that’s great, because it saved the movie-makers the trouble of making them interesting. And the “home movie” conceit saved them the trouble of writing a script. What we get instead is 20 minutes of soap opera chatter followed by 70 minutes of grating hysteria – OK, if you or I were caught in a giant monster attack we’d probably scream and yammer the same way – but that’s the entire movie. We get no relief, or sense of adventure, by pursuing the mystery of the 300-foot tall giant from the deep. Instead we get Boy fretting over his cell phone or raging at his companions as they bleat, “We’ve got to get out of here!” They never do, of course.
Speaking of cell phones – another recent giant monster movie also featured a call for help from a trapped young woman. And that’s Bong Joon-ho’s terrific “The Host.” But unlike Cloverfield, it explains how its monster came to be, and it doesn’t rely on a lazy striptease routine. You see its creature early on, full view and in broad daylight in one of the most horrifically exciting rampages ever put on film. What’s more, doing the heavy lifting that Cloverfield couldn’t be bothered with, The Host mixes political comment, 3-dimensional characters and a well thought out story arch to create a genuine dramatic experience that’s smart, angry and darkly funny. It’s a real shame, but compared to this, Cloverfield is an empty 90-minute gimmick.

SPECIAL MONSTER SHACK SURPRISE PHOTO:

Separated at birth?

Cloverfield Monster

Cloverfield monster

Giant Claw

The Giant Claw

YOU make the call!

Read more about Cloverfield at

IMDB

18 comments to Cloverfield (2008)

  • oneeye

    I was okay with not seeing the full monster at any point thru the movie. I was okay with the shaky cam, although, I also chose to avoid motion sickness and watched it for the first time at home. What drove me absolutely insane were the characters, Camera Doofus in particular had me yelling at my tv for him to hurry up and die. He didn’t.

  • Sean Ledden

    Thanks for the comment – and as Bill Clinton would have said, “I feel your pain.”

  • guts3d

    I remember seeing this and wondering why the Army guys couldn’t kill those parasite monsters, but the non military people fleeing them were able to kill a bunch using pipes and boards. I disliked this movie, I didn’t like the jerking camera at all. I liked the idea that we find out what was happening as the characters did, though.

  • The camera jerking bothered me too…big time headache. I thought the scene in the subway tunnel was cool, but I wish we could have seen more of the monster. All in all though, I”ll always give kudos to people for at least attempting a sci-fi flick instead of the ubiquitous romantic-comedies / feel-good hits…ack!

  • Sean

    In the May 25 issue of The New Yorker David Denby has a great essay on Victor Fleming, the director of “Gone With The Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz.” Here’s a quote about Fleming’s direction of “Oz” that’s relevant to my complaints about “Cloverfield;”

    “Fleming framed his vaudevillians and musical-comedy performers as he had framed (Gary) Cooper and (Spencer) Tracy – he brought out their individual genius as performers. He might have moved the camera more, or done some point-of-view shooting, but his square, stable, front-and-center view is essentially the right directorial strategy for this performance-dominated fantasy. Many talented people worked on “Oz,” but as Sragow says, without Fleming’s enthusiasm and discipline “the movie would have collapsed into campy chaos.” Fleming combined the elements into an emotionally overwhelming fable”

    You can read the entire essay on The New Yorker Web site at:
    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2009/05/25/090525crat_atlarge_denby

  • Another thing that drives me nuts with “modern” camera work is on dancing/singing TV shows (Idol, ad nauseum), they jump from camera to camera to camera when all I want to see is the person singing / dancing. Why the hell do we need to cut so some crazy camera sliding along the top of the audiences head to zoom in on the singers face…when we were just watching the singer’s freakin’ face in the last shot?! Is this a result of America’s shrinking attention span?

  • Sean

    That’s a great example. And if you let me jump back up on my soapbox a moment, I’d like to add that I think a root cause of all the noise is the basic incompetence of the directors and the editors. They’ve inherited some super cool techno-toys, and a hundred year’s worth of inventive film techniques. That’s great. Only they seem to feel that the more you use these tools the better your “product” will be. Almost no thought goes into HOW you use them. So when I chance to see a recent Hollywood “hit” or a TV music number like you describe, the image that pops into my head is of a couple of monkeys pounding away on a keyboard. (And they use their feet too!)

  • It reminds me of the absolutely horrendous editing in “Devil Fish”, when MST3K Mike got fed up and said, “Just because you CAN edit doesn’t mean you SHOULD!”

  • Event_Horizon

    Admittedly I saw a pirated copy of this. So it was a shakycam filming a shakycam-on-purpose movie.

    I too was waiting for babbling pervy camera doofus to bite the dust. Couldn’t Keifer Sutherland’s “phone booth” psycho do a walk on and fix this?

    Felt like a dumba$$ for getting into the marketing hype before hand (similar to Blair Witch)… but these guys didn’t get any of my money.

  • Sean

    My heartfelt sympathy on the shakycam-on-shakycam experience. I’m getting a vicarious headache just thinking about it!

  • Don’t know how I missed this review. I thought the monster was this thing that Godzilla whooped in 2000: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Godzilla2000finalbattle.jpg

  • Sean

    Excellent point! And is this a case of “design piracy?” Someone should alert the U.N.!

  • Ev

    Your description was the last piece I needed to grasp something that has puzzled me about Cloverfield.

    The Cloverfield film was brilliantly hyped in such a way that almost everyone I knew RL or online wanted to see it. To this day, the Cloverfield film is still discussed in serious film & pop culture studies as an exemplar of viral advertising. However, the Cloverfield monster and storyline quickly became little more than a footnote in kaiju and horror fandom and an irrelevancy in the popular mindset. We geeks have often loved something, hated something, actively brainbleached our memories of something very poorly done (such as most “Syfy Channel” TV movies), or loved something for being so-bad-it’s-good, but the bland indifference to the Cloverfield film is something unusual.

    The movie inspired no further American monster movies of note. No one really thinks about it as a creature (as opposed to a cinema memory), whereas Godzilla, Gamera, King Kong, and Cthulhu live on as active parts of the American psyche. In big monster fandom, I’ve found more references to Zilla (or GINO or Deanzilla or whatever you want to call the embarrassment) than I have to the Cloverfield monster. Something that briefly reigned as the latest “must see” film has been quickly cast aside by geekdom, a subculture of people who still harbor sentimental affection for the old Lost in Space TV series and Godzilla versus the Smog Monster.

    I see three factors that hurt it to the point it has become less memorable than Q and King Kong vs Mecha-Kong.

    First is the crucial fact that the monster turns out to be boring. Take a look at the screen captures of the thing — it resembles most a cross between a bald bird and one of those dust motes you might find with dessicated insect legs sticking out here and there. It lacks the outright power of a Godzilla or King Kong or Jaws. It lacks the strange elegance of a Ghidora or Mothra. It doesn’t even have the archetypal echoes of a Gamera or Yog or a Xenomorph from Aliens. It doesn’t have the lifelike feel that even a Gorgo or Gargantua or CGI dragon can manage. And it doesn’t have an amusing silliness or awkwardness like Q. It’s just something dully odd.

    Second is the SPFXy feel of some of the deaths. In Gojira and Godzilla both, people are dying of realistic radiation poisoning or being crushed by falling buildings in a way that happens in real life during earthquakes, hurricances, and carpet bombings. Even the atomic flame breath has real world parallels. In most kaijua and giant monster movies, the other cause of death is being eaten, and although few people die in the jaws of giant worm monsters or giant foxbats whose screeches become sonic rays, the chomp down has clear parallels to real world deaths in the jaws of sharks, killer whales, crocodiles, lions, feral dog packs, and even the yearly deaths by hippopotamus.

    The Cloverfield film has someone blow up from a bug bite. I can think of no real world parallels to dying from blowing up at a bug bite.

    Even the chestburster scene in Alien had some logic underlying it, as happy entomology nerds have pointed out endlessly. But not the Cloverfield bug bite. It wasn’t part of a cycle. It wasn’t because of some weird explosive biochemical venom in the things. It seemed to occur for no other reason than it made good use of some special effects someone had thought up.

    Third is that the film mocks its protagonists without any later redemption. Most of the first half-hour of the film seems dedicated to presenting our “heroes” as shallow, clueless, emotionally and spiritually immature young adults who wander aimlessly through life and have already lost the ability to recognize their own shallowness and listlessness. That would be fine if at least some of the heroes grow and mature through the Cloverfield experience, as they do in a believeable fashion in Gojira and the first Tremors and the original Poseidon Adventure and as they do in unbelieveable fashion in Godzilla’s Revenge and Destroy All Planets (but at least there was some recognition of growth!). But in the Cloverfield film, the heroes never go past their initial shallowness. Even seeking out the trapped girlfriend seems less heroic and more like oblivious adultchildren trying to imitate what they assume heroism must be like. When the cameraman is finally eaten, he seems to freeze not because he is in genuine shock but because his shallow mind can’t manage the survival instincts necessary to get out of the way.

    Anyone who has survived young adulthood in modern America knows that this kind of shallowness is a common stage, one egged on by modern commercialism and a defensively cynical zeitgeist in the 2000s, but it’s not something unique to our protagonists, and it’s not something particularly evil or sinful, just annoying. However, the film mocks them but never challenges them to grow up — it only punishes them for being in a stage most people go through.

    Really, in the end, the Cloverfield is an unsympathetic film gruesomely punishing a bunch of shallow young adults for taking a bit too long at outgrowing an annoying stage of late adolescence. Only there is no Final Girl for us to cheer on in the end.

    It seems to me that the three factors listed above can be trusted as good indicators of whether a film will be remembered fondly as a success (or amusing failure) or remembered only because someone brought up its name. The classic monster films and horror films have interesting monsters, deaths with parallels to real life threats, and characters who grow and whose deaths do not seem to arise out of filmmaker mockery (sometimes irony, yes, as in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, but not simple mockery). Cloverfield lacks these three factors.

  • Sean

    Thanks for the in-depth comments! I didn’t know, but wasn’t surprised to learn, that the Cloverfield thing has not gained a kaiju following. In addition to design problems, the creature never becomes a character in the movie. It’s hardly in the movie! I like your comments on the movie’s lazy mockery of the lead characters, which leads me to realize a big problem with American movies is that they make fun of stuff, but rarely propose something to admire. This is probably from a fear that the movie would then become a target of ridicule and/or anger. At any rate, the characters in this movie are annoying company from start to finish. So different from say, the airmen and scientists in Howard Hawks’ “The Thing From Another World,” or the lively cast of “Ghidorah The Three Headed Monster.”

  • Night-Gaunt

    Over all I liked “Cloverfield” but I was disappointed that most of the interesting bits were lost or never talked about in the picture. I feel another version needs to be made but told from those who study the creature and followed it before and the fact that another attack happens to a major city in China the very next year. It is only one of many. The changing oceans chemistry and heating up would make a believable cause. At least in context of the movie anyway. I wanted all that secret information from government sources that we got hints off. It was like it was half a movie. I am not enamored of films totally in the “found film” sub genre. Reminds me of the found notes in the days of Lovecraft that started off such stories as “Call of Cthulhu.” I could go for a film that uses found footage to advance the story then we go back to regular film making.

    They really tried to make them more completely human than just “shallow.” It seems to have not worked. I surmised that the reason why people exploded after being bitten by the parasitic arthropods is a tremendous form of swelling from a hyper defense mechanism of the body. But instead of saving you it kills you.

    I was surprised no one brought up the Religious aspects of gigantic primal monsters rising from the depths to move on the land as harbingers of the coming end of days. The movie could have ended with a quote from Lovecraft from his short story “Dagon” where a weary seaman after surviving for weeks in the ocean on a life boat and an accidental excursion on a bit of sea floor wretched to the surface. He finds a gigantic stone, carved with many familiar and unfamiliar things. Then a gigantic creature comes out of the dark waters and rushes to it and hugs it with scaly arms where he faints after rushing back to the dingi. He spends his last days on land and is afraid of what is after him, he fears the worst not only for him but humanity. He says this….

    “…I dream of a day when they may rise above the billows to drag down
    in their reeking talons the remnants of puny, war-exhausted Mankind–
    of a day when the land will sink, and the dark ocean floor shall ascend
    amidst universal pandemonium.”

  • Sean

    Thanks for the great post. As a fellow Lovecraft fan I agree with all of your neat suggestions and observations. That the movie never delved into any of the elements you write about is the major thing about it that drove me nuts. It’s no surprise people missed the references and implications, as the focus was always on that crowd of innocent bystanders looking for their friend.

  • Maria Kelly

    I have to say that while Sean has some very valid points about Cloverfield, I really liked it. The “saving your true love” plot is kind of stupid, I thought the monster effects were great. My favorite scene is when the Statue of Liberty’s head comes rolling down the street like the world’s biggest bowling ball.

  • Sean Ledden

    Glad you liked it, though as you can tell, the movie set my teeth on edge. But yes, the monster effects were great, and the Statue of Liberty head sequence was terrific.

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