Cloverfield: What's that coming over the hill?

Greg Buchanan 7 February 2008

Cloverfield tells the tale of a band of friends who meet one night in New York to say goodbye to Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who is leaving for Japan. This initial comedy of manners, shown from the perspective of Rob’s best friend Hud (T.J. Miller) who has been tasked with filming the party, is a delight for all the family, what with Hud’s misguided attempts to woo Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) and Hud’s tactless spreading of gossip about Rob having slept with long-time friend Beth (Odette Yustman).

Then there are earthquakes and explosions in the distance, and as all flee the Manhattan apartment, the torn head of the Statue of Liberty is hurled into the street. We see a high rise building shake as the mortar shells and tanks of the United States armed forces blaze.

In an age where many know the entire plot of a film before its release, all that was known about this film for weeks and weeks came in the form of a poster showing a headless Statue of Liberty and three question marks. Conceived and produced by J.J. Abrams, the creator of cult television series LOST, Cloverfield deals in question marks and mysteries in much the same way as the TV series that preceded it.

Abrams said upon the film’s announcement that he wanted to make “a monster movie. I’ve wanted one for so long. I thought, we need our own monster, and not King Kong. King Kong’s adorable”. Adorable would not be a word to describe Cloverfield. When cameraman Hud is asked what the monster is, he calls it “something terrible”. Its revelation to the audience is gradual, shown in glimpses, and it is this conceit – to make a monster movie where the creature is not actually seen for most of the film, and deals with the personal romantic issues of its characters amidst the destruction – that guarantees its place as cult classic.

Yet for a camcorder film that works much like its spiritual predecessor The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield never truly evokes any strong emotions from its audience. Humour, suspense, anxiety, horror – all these are present, but there’s never any real character payoff. We get glimpses of the lives of Beth and Rob, whose romance is central to the plot, through segments of footage that had previously been taped over on the camcorder. They work much like the flashback sequences in LOST but, to draw the inevitable but possibly unfair comparison between the two, Cloverfield is too fragmented and too fast-paced for there to be much character development past the relatively quiet opening.

Each of the leads, all of them relative unknowns, play their parts fairly well, but it is only Hud (T.J. Miller) that achieves any sense of rapport with the audience, however silly his quips and comments are – a sizeable feat for someone who’s hardly seen on screen.

Cloverfield succeeds most as an entertaining innovation of a genre that had grown stale. Throughout the years we have seen silly monsters in suits; we have seen huge special-effects laden blockbusters where, goshdarnit, our all-American hero will save the world single-handedly through a contrived plot device or die trying.

If it fails in certain respects, it’s because it is trying to do so much – mixing a half-comedic half-terrifying exploration of how people would realistically react to an attack in the heart of New York (complete with hasty camera phone snaps) with a naturalistic attempt at special effects. Cloverfield is funny, it is full of suspense, and even though it may not be a contender for Best Film, it is (ahem) monstrously


Greg Buchanan