Here's the first movie in awhile to actually make digital-age "ballyhoo" work. So many films have attempted to use a slow buildup of leaks, rumors, red-herrings and the organic nature of internet Film Geek hype as the "first act" of a moviegoing-as-sideshow experience and come up short on the final "capper" of the film itself, but not so "Cloverfield." Here we are, a mere 18 days in and 2008 already has it's bold, stark "Movie Geeks vs. Everyone Else" dividing-line film - a promising start indeed.
"Cloverfield," as you probably already know, stages a classic-formula Giant Monster movie in the mold of "Godzilla" and "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" from the P.O.V. of a group of average New Yorkers (via their possession of what has to be the world's most durable camcorder) trying to get themselves and a potentially-trapped friend out of Manhattan while the Army fights what appears to be a losing battle against a gargantuan beast tearing up the cityscape. The film is presented in the form of said camcorder's recordings, apparently unedited, pressaged only by the unsettling indication that this account of "Incident Codename: Cloverfield" was recovered from "Area formerly known as Central Park."
I should preface this by pointing out that I despise shaky-cam cinematography and find the "found-footage" conceit to be completely played out... and I STILL loved this movie. Although it IS kind of interesting that the film hangs it's signature gimmick on the notion that it's sole point-of-view is a camcorder being operated by a guy set up as the dumbest of our none-too-sharp main cast... but that he's STILL got a better sense of when to hold the fucking frame steady than the "Bourne Ultimatum's" just-so-slightly-overrated Paul Greengrass does.
The first thing to understand about this movie, maybe the most important thing, is that what you're looking at is LITERALLY a cinematic sideshow attraction - the movie equivalent of a nondescript blob of vaugely-eerie "something" floating in a jar of formaldehyde purporting to be the preserved corpse of a Chupacabra. You KNOW it's a put-on, the point is to (hopefully) enjoy the skill with which the put-on is executed: How well the barker has pitched the show, how 'real' the patently-unreal thingee in the jar is, etc. It has to be done JUST RIGHT - too fake and it's no fun, too "flashy" (i.e. the blob looks more like an art-designed Geigeresque masterpiece than a 'could be anything' chunk) and the illusion of plausibility is broken.
So, basically, to complain (as MANY will do, garaunteed) that "Cloverfield" has a choppy narrative, little to no structure, largely-unlikable characters and an almost total lack of traditionally-cinematic "arcs" for said characters is to damn the film for doing exactly what it sets out to do: Look as much as possible like an authentic video tape recovered from a camera found in the aftermath of a movie-traditional Giant Monster Attack on a major city. YES, the 'story' plays out without structure because reality doesn't have act-breaks. YES, the cast of "average folks" are annoying, uninteresting and unremarkable because "average folks" ARE more often than not annoying, uninteresting and unremarkable - if they weren't, they wouldn't BE "average." Getting mad at this movie for these things is like getting mad at Tom Brady for completing a pass.
The second thing to understand is, despite the fact that this is visceral "ride" movie that can be enjoyed (theoretically) by anyone without much preparation, at the end of the day it's still a Monster Movie and thus a Geek Movie almost by-default - meaning that it's "principal" audience of interest are the devoted genre fans who're sufficiently well-versed in their Toho, Harryhausen and so-forth that they can plot the "classical" structure from memory and thus oughtn't be AS bothered by the lack of "explaining what It is and where It came from" scenes since you've seen your share enough to fully imagine them taking place beyond the frame.
You'll notice that I didn't open this with a "Spoiler Warning," because there's really nothing to "spoil." As I said above, the film is "getting away" with it's street-level view of a forumla genre film by having what "main" action we do see adhere to said formula as closely as possible. As such, those expecting some kind of grand surprise as to what "It" eventually "is" are setting themselves up for dissapointment, and if there IS some unique element to "It's" backstory it's not one we get to hear in the movie-proper. It's not Godzilla. It's not Cthulhu. It's not Voltron. It's not George, Ralph or Lizzie. It's not the Smoke Monster from "Lost," and no I didn't see any Dharma logos anywhere.
Something must be said, I think, about the film's seemingly deliberate evocations of 9/11 in the way it stages it's citywide destruction - and not JUST a big ol' told ya so (see: http://moviebob.blogspot.com/2007/07/cloverfield-has-poster.html) from me. While it's true that every movie that obliterates a major city is going to remind us of That Day for a long time, "Cloverfield's" upfrontness is unmistakable and undeniably effective: During the first attack sequence, a crumbling skyscraper sends a dust-cloud down the street and sends the heroes ducking into a deli to dodge it, watching the cloud blast by them through the windows. Afterwards, we even get dust-covered streets, scraps of paper "snowing" gently to Earth and ash-encrusted survivors wandering in shock. And that's some of the more SUBTLE stuff - there's at least one major visual reference that I'm genuinely impressed they pulled off without seeming in bad taste. This is hardly unprecedented; the original "Godzilla" repackaged post-Hiroshima angst into the form of a giant dinosaur, so it's appropriate that America now also have a creature-feature reflecting the shared national-nightmare of OUR day of devastation.
"Cloverfield" is, in the end, more of an attraction than a narrative-film. All said and done, it's a ride movie... but it's a unique and gloriously-executed one, and easily one of the best "found footage" stagings ever concieved - EASILY superior to "Blair Witch," "Cannibal Holocaust," "Last Broadcast" and most of the other so-called vanguards of the genre. Yes, part of me hopes that it's success (it's going to be BIG, count on it) will lead to some more traditional "Kaiju" city-stompers flooding the blockbuster scene (what the HELL ELSE is all this modern CGI technology here FOR!!??) for now I'm enjoying the hell out of this one. HIGHLY reccomended.
FINAL RATING: 9/10