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CLOVERFIELD

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Michael Stahl-David, T. J. Miller, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman
Director:  Matt Reeves
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  84 Minutes
Release Date:  April 22, 2008

“People are gonna want to know how it all went down…”


Film ***1/2

The spirit of The Blair Witch Project is alive and well, thank you very much.  Cloverfield is a fright flick with a considerably bigger budget, but incorporates hand held video as part of the narrative to make the fear seem even more real and immediate.  You have to admire a movie that creates some brilliant, intricate special effects and then chooses to film them in the crappiest way imaginable.  It just works.

The ‘tape’ begins ominously enough, with a government warning and a notification that the video represents evidence of a case area designated “Cloverfield”, and was found in what USED to be Central Park.  The video was accidentally made over a record of a post-romantic encounter between Rob Hawkins (Stahl-David) and Beth (Yustman), so bits of their happy day sometimes show up here and there in between shots.

The new video was supposed to be a record of Rob’s going-away party in Manhattan.  His friend Hud (Miller) gets the camera duties, and he records testimonials from Rob’s brother Jason (Vogel), brother’s girlfriend Lily (Lucas), and the object of his own unwelcome amorous advances Marlena (Caplan).  Something happened between Rob and Beth’s magical night and today, however, making for an awkward evening.

But get off the soap opera…an impact that sends tremors and power outages throughout New York interrupts the festivities, and soon the group is faced with a rather grave bit of horror…some THING is attacking the city.  Something huge and otherworldly.

Most of the time, we only catch distant glimpses of the beast, but feel the impact of his terror close up.  When the friends try to get off the island into Brooklyn, it doesn’t take long before their plan turns into disaster.  With the military soon on the scene, it becomes clear to Rob and the gang that they must escape, and escape fast, before Manhattan is just a memory.

Hud keeps the video rolling as much as possible, and the urgency lent by the unsteady camera adds a sense of realism to the fantastic scenario, and gives us only as much information as they get, and at the same time they get it.  Like when we discover that the towering creature seems to be shedding some kind of parasitic beings that are a lot smaller, but just as deadly.  Imagine being trapped underground with a few of them!

Rob, having fought with Beth earlier, is now determined to try and rescue her from her high-rise, in a sequence that I can imagine would make the great Irwin Allen stand up and cheer.  It’s suspenseful and frightening in and of itself, but so is the entire film.

This is a classic modern monster film, and the kind of picture the last American remake of Godzilla should have been.  It’s effective, unnerving, and frequently jaw-dropping.  The special effects are remarkable and memorable, but they serve the unfolding terror and don’t dominate the proceedings.  In fact, my only minor quibble is a shot near the end, when we finally get a long, laborious look at the monster.  The movie was more effective only showing it from afar or in quick sightings between buildings.  Our imagination filled in the horrid details.  I think the film would have been better served following that pattern through to the end.

But no matter.  Cloverfield succeeds where so many horror films fail, in that it delivers real chills and thrills.  It doesn’t soak the screen in blood, so the moments of violence are all the more effective.  And it keeps us rooted in the action, so we don’t feel safe watching from our own living rooms.  The hand held camera might disturb those prone to motion sickness, but it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t the right choice.

One final thought…I sure would like to get my hands on the kind of camera Hud used in the movie.  It survives everything, and how long DOES that battery last, anyway?

Video ***

How do you critique an anamorphic transfer of footage that’s supposed to be a little sub-par?  Very carefully, I suppose.  Yes, there’s some murkiness and softness here and there, in the darker scenes particularly, but of course, it’s all servicing a complete vision, so it’s nothing to complain about.  Overall, it works very well, and does a good job of showing us only what we really need to be seeing at any given time.

Audio ****

So how does a home video camera produce such remarkable 5.1 sound?  No matter.  The soundtrack is explosive, dynamic, and enveloping, as the sounds of terror, however distant from time to time, are always noticeable.  The quieter moments are just as chilling as the all-out barrages of activity, and dialogue is clean and clear throughout.  No music, of course, except during Rob’s party.

Features ***

There is a solid commentary track from director Matt Reeves, who also lends his optional commentary on two rather unnecessary alternate endings that aren't really very alternate, plus four deleted scenes.  There is a making-of featurette, looks at the creature and the special effects shots, plus some outtakes and previews.  And you can access the movie's website through the DVD.  The menu screens are very well done to boot.

Summary:

There have been recent attempts to resuscitate the gigantic monster movie, but none successful until Cloverfield.  Using big budget effects with small money camera styling creates an urgent, immediate sense of terror that carries you through to the end.

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