Director: Matt Reeves
If I know my regular reading audience like I think I do, then I'm pretty sure you guys may have heard of an ultra-lame, ultra-forgettable movie known as The Blair Witch Project. I'm surprised I'm even bringing it up, considering how obscure it is. Okay, seriously, all kidding aside, The Blair Witch Project was a huge blockbuster when it was released back in the summer of 1999. It had the kind of outrageous mainstream success that most horror movies can only dream of achieving. And with the popularity of the movie came hundreds of parodies that surfaced on video store shelves and across the Internet. And I'm sure the presence of Internet parodies would have been more widespread, had it not taken six more years for YouTube to pop up.
But it would be nearly a decade before any serious attempts to replicate the movie's style were made. However, as the world neared ever closer to the tenth anniversary of the little low-budget horror flick that could, the world saw the release of very similar movies. Among them were George Romero's Diary of the Dead, the Spanish zombie movie [·REC] and its American remake, Quarantine, and perhaps the most significant example of this new crop of Blair Witch-like cinema vérité horror movies, Cloverfield. Conceived by Lost creator J.J. Abrams, Cloverfield didn't quite match the runaway financial success that The Blair Witch Project had, though it still proved quite popular and got people talking. So let's talk about it, shall we?
Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) is in for the night of his life. On the eve of his departure for Japan in order to accept a swanky new job with a soft drink company, his brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and Jason's girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) have thrown him a surprise farewell party. Jason and Lily have also entrusted Rob's best friend Hudson (T.J. Miller) with a camcorder so that he can record everyone's final goodbyes for their leaving friend, but ends up spending the better part of the evening chatting up pretty partygoer Marlena (Lizzy Caplan). But just as the party gets into full swing, things get a little bit awkward when Rob's longtime friend Beth (Odette Yustman) arrives with a date. See, Rob and Beth had a romantic liaison a month earlier, but things have been uncomfortable between them ever since. An argument ensues, and Beth storms out.
But an argument between friends and would-be lovers will be the least of anyone's worries on this evening. What initially feels like an earthquake rattles Manhattan, and an ensuing explosion leads some of the partygoers to wonder if it could be another terrorist attack. But the true cause is much more frightening than anything al-Qaeda could have possibly dreamed up. It's not an earthquake, or terrorists, or even Superman on a bender. Instead, a really big, really ugly monster is roaming the streets of Manhattan, and he's sporting a bad attitude. As the beast rampages through the city and battles the military, Rob receives a frantic cell phone message from an injured and terrified Beth. Determined to rescue her, Rob leads his friends through Manhattan, which has now become a dangerous war zone.
Thanks to the proliferation of the Internet, you can find out news about movies months before they even enter production. But what made Cloverfield unique was how it took everyone by surprise. There'd been absolutely no news about it at all prior to the first teaser's appearance in front of Michael Bay's Transformers in the summer of 2007. The teaser only featured a release date and some vague footage that culminated in the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty crash landing in the middle of a Manhattan neighborhood. The truly insane thing about it was that this teaser didn't even give the movie a name! But it got people talking, most definitely. People had all kinds of theories regarding what the monster was. Some thought it might have been Cthulhu, the terrifying beast created by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Others thought that Toho had forgiven Hollywood for that disastrous Godzilla movie from 1998 and had allowed America to make another movie starring the king of the monsters. There was also a rumor that it could have been a live-action Voltron movie. And some people even thought that due to the teaser's failure to give the movie a name the monster might have been the logo for J.J. Abrams's company, Bad Robot Productions. But no, it's an original monster starring in a movie that just couldn't live up to what was expected of it. Through all the rumors and all the speculation and all the nonsensical viral marketing that popped up online, Cloverfield ended up being an utterly mediocre movie that nearly collapses under the weight of its own hype.
Though Abrams has taken pretty much all the credit for the movie, he didn't write it or direct it. So let's begin the actual critiquing by discussing those who were working under Abrams's shadow. Cloverfield was directed by Matt Reeves, a longtime associate of Abrams who co-created the TV show Felicity. He's not the most experienced director when it comes to feature films, as his only real credit is one movie twelve years prior to Cloverfield. However, I must give him credit for actually holding the movie together. I assume that making a movie like this is very hard if you're not just giving the actors a camera and letting them run wild with it. But Reeves manages to keep things trucking along at a relatively steady pace, doing his best to make sure the audience stays interested. He does throw in a lot of intriguing visuals, some of which work better because of the "man on the street" handheld camera style. It especially works in the scene where the crew has a night-vision encounter in a subway tunnel with a gang of little monsters the primary one has spawned, is pretty darn scary. And because Cloverfield exists in a post-9/11 world, Reeves also gives us a scene with a lingering dust cloud that invokes memories of one of 9/11's most sadly unforgettable images. This scene might rub some people the wrong way, and it does feels a little cheap, but it's a powerful moment. Unfortunately, the movie feels artificial to a degree. You never get the sense that this could be actual found footage, because everything seems too polished. Maybe this is just me, but I always felt like this wasn't a movie about a guy with a consumer-grade camcorder roaming a monster-devastated city, but a guy with a professional camera being followed by a sound crew while walking around Paramount's studio backlot. The Blair Witch Project worked because the actors were handed a camera and left to their own devices. But with Cloverfield, the big budget and the studio backing just leads to a movie that feels fake.
Any positive things I may have had to say about the direction are pretty much negated by the less-than-stellar screenplay. The movie was written by Drew Goddard, another past Abrams collaborator who'd written episodes of Alias and Lost. He's also worked with Joss Whedon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Cloverfield is his first feature film, and I felt that he could have done a lot better. One of the big problems I have with the script is that the characters are either incredibly stupid of just plain unlikable. They're all a bunch of way-too-cool hipsters that are written in such a way that I had a hard time relating to them. And call me crazy, but when I go see a monster movie, I don't want to waste any time getting to the monster. I don't want to spend twenty minutes watching characters I don't like partying at some apartment I could never afford. I was bored out of my head by the time the monster arrived, and that could have been fixed if Goddard had either written better characters or gotten to the point faster, or if Reeves had stayed in the editing room longer.
Goddard's script also raises questions, mainly only due to the logic of movies like this. For example, why do they run towards the giant killer monster from Hell to save that girl that's probably dead? Yes, I understand it's a primal instinct, but it's also incredibly stupid and will probably result in their painful and messy deaths. And why would Hud keep filming? Wouldn't your survival instinct be screaming to drop the camera and run for it? If he were a TV cameraman by trade, or even if there were some throwaway line where Hud said he wanted to make a ton of money by selling the footage to whichever news network offers him the most money, I could be cool with that. It would at least be somewhat plausible. But he's just some random schmuck who had a camcorder thrust upon him for no reason other than the intended cameraman didn't want to do it himself. At least the style has a point in other movies, because the characters are making a movie or are part of a TV camera crew. But in Cloverfield, there's no reason beyond needing the movie to keep going until they reach the end.
But what about the acting? Hopefully that could help the movie, right? Believe it or not, I actually didn't think the actors did all that bad a job, for the most part. They're a little week in places, but more often than not, they do decent enough work in spite of the crappy roles they're stuck playing. As the de facto leading man among the ensemble, Michael Stahl-David is endearing despite his character repeatedly making so many unbelievably stupid decisions. He's earnest in the role, to the point of making the character almost believable. I also thought Jessica Lucas and Lizzy Caplan were good, though I didn't find them too particularly memorable. And Mike Vogel and Odette Yustman aren't around long enough to really make any lasting impression. But what I saw of them wasn't awful. If there's a bad performance, it comes from T.J. Miller. He's supposed to be Cloverfield's comic relief, but he isn't really all that funny. Only a few of his jokes work, and he doesn't even really deliver those well. The character is pretty much an annoying jackass for the whole movie, and I kept waiting for somebody to snatch that camera from him and beat him over the head with it. Miller doesn't do anything to overcome any of the flaws in the material, and the bad part is that we're stuck with him for the whole movie.
And I know there's no real reason to bring it up here, but I wanted I wanted to punch its viral marketing in the face. None of it had any sort of bearing or impact on the actual movie itself. It was pointless! I can forgive the movie for not explaining the origins of the monster, since doing so while using the BLAIR WITCH style would have seemed forced and tacked on. But going by the viral marketing, I felt like I had to do tons of reading about crap I didn't give a damn about in order to get the big picture. It all ends up raising more questions than it answers, so I generally just try to pretend the viral marketing didn't exist.
But on the whole, Cloverfield is a movie that is, at its best, just okay. For all the hype and speculation that surrounded it, it wasn't either good or bad. It was just kinda there. But assuming it had better writing, I actually wouldn't mind seeing it remade as a conventional movie. Even if the Blair Witch style does lend itself to some cool moments, it ends up feeling like just a gimmick. And when it's all said and done, Cloverfield is just plain mediocre. So I guess I'll give it two and a half stars on the Sutton Scale. It could have been better, so let's hope J.J. Abrams has learned his lesson if he ever chooses to make Cloverfield 2.
Final Rating: **˝