A film review by Craig J. Koban

CLOVERFIELD  jjj

2008, PG-13, 87 mins.

Rob: Michael Stahl-David / Hud: T.J. Miller / Lily: Jessica Lucas / Marlena: Lizzy Caplan / Jason: Mike Vogel / Beth: Odette Yustman

Directed by Matt Reeves / Written by Drew Goddard

CLOVERFIELD is film thatís as audacious and inventive as it is derivative and routine.  Itís ostensibly a standard, run-of-the-mill monster film with a skyscraper-sized beast that wreaks havoc in The Big Apple.  The film is about ten per cent story and 90 percent action and thrills, which is augmented by the obligatory one-dimensional human characters that desperately try to evade being the monsterís next meal.  Add to the mix the usual motley crew of hard edged army drones that attempt to come to the rescue, but seem to fail miserably.  

To be fair, CLOVERFIELD doesn't reinvent the wheel.

Yet, the whole enticing hook the film is its handling of the underlining material, not to mention its aesthetic choices.  Yes, the film has all of the staple elements of similar films of its genre, but it wickedly and audaciously deviates itself apart from the pack in terms of its focus.  This film is made from the perspective of the ordinary people at ground zero of the monsterís path.  The monster itself doesn't take center stage, per se, but rather is shown in fleeting glimpses here and there.  Much akin to the handling of the aquatic protagonist in the first JAWS, CLOVERFIELD understands that the key to generating thrills and an unrelenting sensation of dread is in giving an implied notion of menace with the creature.  By not showing it too often, the scares almost seem more substantial and effective.  Oftentimes, we are scared more by what we donít see on screen.

Most importantly, CLOVERFIELD differentiates itself in the sense that it is overwhelming filmed in sporadic, chaotic, and fast moving hand held shots with a digital camera, to provide a feeling that we are watching the events of the film transpire through he viewfinder of a typical camcorder.  With jump cuts aplenty,  constantly jerky and hyperactive camera zooms and dollies, and a grainy and garish tinge, the techniques here are nothing groundbreaking (THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT used the exact same style to great success nearly ten years ago), but the effect here creates an undeniable sense of eeriness and realism.  As a result, CLOVERFIELD breathes with considerably more thrills and genuinely frightening moments than other witless monster/horror films.

I appreciated the filmís stylistic tone and choices, but this certainly leads to a real pickle for a film critic.  Paradoxically, I find that my greatest sense of pleasure derived from CLOVERFIELD also leads to my largest criticism of the film.  There is no doubt that the camera work is crucial to contributing to the look and feel of the proceedings, but even while watching them during the incredibly sparse running time of 84minutes I found it also exhausting and headache-inducing to watch, almost to the point of mental fatigue.  This film is the ultimate endurance test: many audience members will love the verisimilitude that the digital film stock provides, but many more will find it frustrating, annoying, and difficult to sit through.  This is a film that people will embrace and appreciate or turn away from and ridicule...a real love/hate work.

I find myself somewhere right in the middle.  Itís hard to criticize the filmís choices.  If filmed via standard technical means it would have been just another monster flick.  And the all-over-the-map imagery reinforces and heightens the realism.  Yet, the visuals fly back and forth with such a stunning speed and dizzying pace that I found even myself growing queasy by the minute.  On many occasions I felt the need to close my eyes and open them back up just to prepare myself for the next onslaught of images.  Many films leave one feeling emotionally exhausted; this one is a rare breed because it made me feel physically drained as well.  If anything, do yourself a favor and sit as far away from the screen as possible in the theatre.  Your head will thank you later.

As much as the film is passionate in giving us a different perspective in a monster film, its story is nevertheless made up of regurgitated elements of other banal monster film plot threads.  The characters are fairly flimsy, but the actors are spirited and do what they can with the material, which is to look as scared as hell as often as possible.  Attempts at drama are feeble at best, and CLOVERFIELD has a central love story ripped out of day time soap operas.  Yet, like all other creature features, CLOVERFIELD is about mayhem and spectacle, and not much more.

The film is essentially presented as segments of video filmed during one fateful and gruesome night that covers everything from a going-away party for one man, the initial appearance of the monster, all of the destruction that it leaves in its path, and to the journey of a few lone party goers to stay alive.  The opening title cards begin the film ominously, with an indication that the "tape" we are about to view is classified government information codenamed "CLOVERFIELD" and that it was taken primarily of where what "once was" Central Park (this, of course, predicates that the tape was discovered later by the army).  When the video tape plays its April and we see footage of two young lovers, Rob (Michael Stahl-David) and Beth (Odette Yustman), who have just had a night together and are recording the morning after.  These opening moments are mundane and have a sort of perfunctory, everyday nuance about them, which is in stark contrast to what is to come.

The tape then jump cuts to May during one evening in New York where a bunch of Robís friends plan a going away party for him (he has taken a job in Japan).  We see his brother, Jason (Mike Vogel), his girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas), Robís best friend - and cameraman of the rest of the footage - Hud (T.J. Miller, who's conveniently established as having no experience with a camera, hence, the rest of the filmís look), and the object of his lust, Marlena (Lizzy Caplan).  As the night progresses we see the comings and goings of the players, and then disaster strikes.  Explosions are heard in the distance, and as everyone hurries into the streets they see buildings crumble in the distance and, without warning, the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty flies through the air and crashes in the street (has there ever been a more abused landmark in movie history?).  Several hundred yards ahead a looming creature - hundreds of feet tall - can be seen.

Thankfully, the film never explains the monsterís origins (it does have some speculation).  The army shows up, but it's clear that nothing can stop this beast (it also seems to be secreting hundreds of smaller creatures as well, to complicate matters).  When a general evacuation order is given, everyone in the city flees, except the small group of party goers, lead by Rob, who achieves the impossible by convincing them to accompany him to Bethís 49-story Central Park apartment to save her.  Why?  Well, Rob has a heartbreaking voice mail from her which indicates that she is trapped there.  Even worse, her apartment is nearly in ruins and has been pushed into the side of another building.  Like all other monster horror films, the characters of CLOVERFIELD defy all rational thinking and instead of fleeing the beast, they go back into its path to save a woman that is most likely dead, not to mention that their chances to escape - even if they find her - are slim.

Despite its steadfastly low-tech look and paltry-by-todayís-standards budget ($25 million), CLOVERFIELD looks as polished as films that cost five times as much.  The creature work is seamless and consummate, and there's seldom a moment where the monster (provided by Phil Tippetís effects studio) does not elicit a sense of awe.  Many shots involving it are subdued and seen from a distance, which adds to a haunting verisimilitude.  Key moments create strong tension (a sequence in a darkened subway tunnel is fiercely thrilling, as is a late moment in the film where Rob and company try to reach the top floor of Bethís nearly collapsed apartment, with creature nearby).  If anything, CLOVERFIELD is an evocatively uneasy and spine-tingling film.

There a many aspects of the film that still manage to generate unintentional chuckles.  Itís funny how a creature that is half the size of a typical New York office building can sneak up on characters out of no where and frighten them with little warning (would you not hear a creature that size coming from a mile away?).  Also funny is the durability of the camera within the film, which has to be one of the most impeccably crafted and rigidly strong cameras ever created.  Not only does it have a battery life that defies all modern conveniences (it covers what appears to be an entire evening and early morning without needing an apparent battery change), but it also manages to survive - in tack - explosions, debris flying at it, viscous attacks by monsters.  I mean, this tiny camera is apocalypse-proof.

Then there is the filmís beyond obvious 9/11 allusions, which are too difficult to ignore.  Whatís most off-putting about CLOVERFIELD is not the manner with which it drums up distressing and painful memories of 9/11 (which is clear with the monster destroying the city and buildings collapsing into a thick smog of smoke, dust, and debris), but by how the film never manages to address that tragic day.  9/11 never seems to have happened in this filmís universe and not one person - during all of the mayhem - mentions the thought of whether the initial devastation (before the creature is revealed) is the work of Al Qaeda terrorists or not.  Great sci-fi films often act as mirrors or parables to modern events, but the indignant way CLOVERFIELD utilizes 9/11 imagery without having anyone in the film reflect on it is kind of shameful.

The film was the initial brainchild of J.J. Abrams (creator of TVís LOST and ALIAS and the director of the last MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE film, the best of the trilogy), who produced the script by Drew Goddard (frequent writer of the two TV shows mentioned) and directed by Matt Reeves (whose last film was, oddly enough, THE PALLBEARER from 1996, followed by stints filming episodic TV shows like FELICITY).  CLOVERFIELD was also ingeniously marketed, with a teaser trailer released last summer alongside TRANSFORMERS with no name attached, just a few scenes of disaster from the film and a release date.  Itís not too difficult to see how intense interest and anticipation for this film germinated over the last seven months, and the film developed a cult following before it was even released.

In the long run, the film that has emerged is both unique and derivative, exciting and routine, and - as a visual experience - both exhilarating and exasperating.  Itís a film that deserves to be admired for its choices (its willingness to be a different type of monster movie is commendable), but itís those choices that also makes CLOVERFIELD difficult to sit through.  On the whole, it's inventive, scary in parts, and has an unconventional tone and feel for a monster film.  At under ninety minutes, the film is tolerable, but nevertheless hugely fatiguing on the eyes.  If any longer, it would have been physically unbearable to sit through.  Overall, I liked the filmís daring attempts to be different, but the filmís relentless visual disorientation is often  too tiring to sit through without wincing.  Thatís the intentional effect, I guess, but it perhaps leads to some unintentional side-effects as well. 

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