Matt Reeves has the daunting task of directing Cloverfield, the 2008 science-fiction thriller that has been the brainchild of Lost co-creator J.J. Abrams. By now, most people are aware of Cloverfield and the ideas behind the film. Various news outlets are reporting nausea and motion sickness in theatres as a result of the presentation of the film, which documents the attack of a giant creature on New York City with a hand-held video camera. Similar to The Blair Witch Project, there is a lot of shaking and unsteady camera work in the film that has obviously had an effect on the viewing public. At 84 minutes, the shaky camera work is mercifully short.
Probably the most interesting component of Cloverfield is the marketing of it and its overall presentation. When the teaser trailer for the film was released, no title was attached. The studio worked hard to keep details of the film secret from the online community, which was all abuzz about the possibilities for the film. Media speculation ran wild about the possibilities for the film and everything from an updated version of Godzilla to a film spin-off for Lost was discussed. Viral marketing began to take place, as various websites were speculated to be a part of a tie-in for the film but were quickly refuted by J.J. Abrams, who stated that the only official site for the film was 1-18.08.com. Fans that registered on the website would receive email updates that would show sonar images demonstrating something coming to New York City underwater.
With all of the secrecy around Cloverfield and all of the work done in the viral campaigns, there was a lot riding on the film. In terms of a budget, Cloverfield was immensely affordable and ran only $25 million to make, which is quite low for a monster movie. Of course, the film is no ordinary monster movie and relies more on what it does not show as opposed to what it does. The idea first came to J.J. Abrams when he was in Japan promoting his directorial debut for the film Mission Impossible III. Abrams and his son were in a toy store looking at Godzilla toys and decided that America needed its own legendary monster that wasn’t King Kong. In February of 2007, Paramount secretly greenlit Cloverfield and the game was on.
Cloverfield stars an ensemble of twentysomethings, most of which are not recognizable actors. The film opens on May 22, 2009, as Jason (Mike Vogel) and his girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) are throwing a surprise party for Jason’s brother Rob (Michael Stahl-David) after Rob accepts a job offer in Japan. Hud (T.J. Miller) is filming the party and the subsequent events. He has a crush on Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) and he follows her around with the video camera frequently. All of the usual party trappings among upper class twentysomethings occur, as someone’s had sex with someone and somebody’s fighting with someone. Cloverfield starts off as an episode of MTV’s The Hills. The footage intermittently skips around, giving the impression that Hud is taping over something. That something is revealed to be a visit to Coney Island in which Rob and Beth (Odette Yustman) are having some fun.
Eventually, someone turns on the news and there are reports of an earthquake. Within seconds, all hell breaks loose and the partygoers head to the roof of the building to see destruction in Manhattan. There are explosions and people fleeing in the streets, with plenty of shots to remind people of the terror of September 11, 2001. The crew get to moving, with Hud still working the camera to document the experience. As the group moves from one place to another in an effort to escape the city, it becomes slowly revealed that a monster is attacking the city. Military arrives in droves and New York City resembles a battlefield. Each moment of running, jumping, hiding, and scrambling about is captured by Hud’s immensely shaky hand on the digital video camera.
Cloverfield works for a number of reasons. The first is the presentation of the monster. The visual effects were incorporated after filming, so the cast was reacting to something that wasn’t there of course. With the casting done without sending scripts to the cast members, there was a lot of secrecy around the monster. Cast members were made aware of conceptual renderings of the beast eventually to give a general idea of the film and expected reactions, but there was no concrete element for them to work with. This gives Cloverfield an interesting feel overall and gives the monster a certain element of mystique. Artist Neville Page actually created the monster and a full range of biological rationale for the attack, although none of those elements made it to the screen version of the film. The monster was a creature suffering from what has been called “separation anxiety” and essentially resembles a spooked animal of any type. The monster’s look is seen briefly, with one shot near the end of the film revealing more of its look. Without the use of wide shots to demonstrate the scope of the thing, the shots of the monster had to be used sparingly.
There are all sorts of creature ideas in the film, but the main rationale is from Abrams himself. He has stated that the monster lived below the ocean and it isn’t an alien. It was dormant underwater until a satellite from a fictional Japanese drilling company Tagruato fell from space and woke it up. This is the sort of mythology that is great for our times. With all sorts of hidden puzzles, reasons, rationale, and other aspects of Cloverfield floating around online on the good ol’ internet, it’s great to see somebody like J.J. Abrams working hard to capture the imagination of the demographic he knows he’s working for. As people continue to interpret and misinterpret bits of Cloverfield through the countless websites around, it becomes apparent that half the fun of the project – if not more than half the fun of the project – is in figuring it out.
Of course, that may be its downfall in part, too. While parts of the film are impressive and its presentation was neat, overall I found Cloverfield to be lacking a certain something. The characters were, intentionally, flimsy and at times annoying. Some of the aspects of the film’s logic were odd, leaving many questions behind. A lot of the film is based around the “did you see that?” hypothesis which may not make it that good for a larger audience of filmgoers. It’s not subtle in any way, but rather relies on the audience’s ability to capture and be satisfied with glimpses of the monster. That’s most assuredly not a flaw, mind you, but it can be a conceivable problem overall. Personally, I found myself more wrapped up in the viral marketing and the aftershocks of the film than the film itself. There were moments that wowed me, more certainly, but overall those moments were too scattered to make much of an impact.
Cloverfield is an impressive piece of filmmaking that doesn’t tilt its hand. It is effective, efficient, and works with the special effects well enough. The monster may disappoint some people. Overall, however, the direction and production of Cloverfield effectively renders the film and makes it keep its illusion that all is happening as we are experiencing it on this abandoned and somehow recovered digital video camera.