Review by Michael Jacobson
Stahl-David, T. J. Miller, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan, Mike Vogel, Odette
Director: Matt Reeves
Audio: Dolby Digital TrueHD
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 84 Minutes
Release Date: June 3, 2008
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?
Blu-ray technology really shines through, even when the source material is deliberately limited. I noticed far more detail and contrast in this presentation than before. Some darker shots show a bit of grain, making it look as though everything had been shot on video, because...well, it was. But the added contrast make night scenes look clearer and crisper.
Dolby TrueHD makes for great horror movie sound. The added dynamic range really turns up the fright factor, and the added subtleties from the rear channels help aid the effect that a single camera is filming the events, and therefore the source of sound can change depending on the position of the person with the camera. There's not a lot of music except for the party at the beginning and the credits at the end, but that's a wise choice; it adds to the realism.
For a truly unique viewing option, the Blu-ray disc offers "investigative mode". This creates a computer screen image where the film plays out intact in HD (you can even still use subtitles if you want), but you also get a digital map of Manhattan that tracks the creature (whom I now learn was simply referred to as an LSA or Large Scale Aggressor by the government), as well as the principle human activities and military movements. A radar screen tips you off to movement, and there is a screen that adds additional information as the film plays. It tells more about the characters and even offers some 'scientific' theory as to the creature and it's origins. This mode acts like the film is a real government document and continues the illusion that these events have already transpired, so don't use this mode until you've seen the film at least once; otherwise there will be spoilers.
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. All of the extras have been remastered for high definition. The menu screens are very well done to boot.
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. It's an effective illusion, and one that Blu-ray makes even better.