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January 18, 2008

Cloverfield Review *No Spoilers*

It was good. It was very tense. I cared about the characters. The camera shook a lot. (Lots and lots and lots.) It was short.

Possible spoiler: a monster attacks Manhattan.

I'm not sure I'm up to writing a full review. Maybe tomorrow.

Later: Okay, I still can't sleep, which means it's time for a review. This will be spoiler-free, but I'm tucking it into the extended entry anyways. Also, be aware that there are already some spoilers in the comments and a great big honkin spoilery review from TheEJS. He colored it white so folks could have the option of not looking at it, but it still kinda shows.

Not Godzilla 2008:I'll start with some general observations of what this movie is not. It is not an action/adventure flick. The good guys don't all get knocked out of their daily lives by events, find their way together, hatch a plan, and take on the antagonist while developing meaningful (but superficial) relationships with each other. There are no amusing one-liners, no sweeping orchestral cues, and no heroes.

Instead, the movie is completely character-driven, an actual science-fiction drama in the first person. By first person, I mean what you've already heard about the "shakycam." The film is entirely shown through the lens of a hand-held camera that the characters keep with them. (More on this later.) Which means the audience's information is limited to that which is possessed by the characters...on the ground in the middle of a disaster. In other words, there are unanswered questions here.

What this means is that this movie is probably not a good choice for 10 to 14 year-old boys, like the ones sitting next to us in the theater. During the movie and especially at the end they were confused and upset. This wasn't the updated Godzilla that they wanted to see. In their eyes there was too much talky, not enough killy. And not enough explanation.

Characters & Setting: The first fifteen minutes are spent introducing the main characters in what I think is a pretty novel manner. I doesn't feel gimmicky at all that they're dragging this camera around and pushing it in everyone's face before the monster strikes. Without spoiling anything (although there's really not much to spoil here), I'll just say that they do a very good job of telling us who the important people are and their important character traits. Even here, the principle is "always leave them wanting more," something that this movie does over and over again by choosing to leave some things unsaid. No clunky exposition here.

I suspect that these first few minutes are also intended to acclimate the viewer to the shakycam. To some extent that works, but I have to admit that I never really got over the distraction even though we were sitting several rows back from where we normally would. There were parts where I wanted to yell at the guy holding the camera to straighten up and stop squirreling around; and that's when they're not running and screaming their way across the city. I can't imagine how difficult it would be to watch this film from the front row.

Speaking of the city, she is as beautiful as ever. She is also recognizable throughout. Unlike some films ostensibly set in NYC, folks familiar with Manhattan will never feel lost in this film (except when the characters do). As you've seen from the trailers, yes, the Statute of Liberty gets its head ripped off. As you've read here at AOSHQ and elsewhere, there are a few scenes that strongly recall 9/11. Of course, this is a monster movie in New York, which means it's knocking buildings down and people are running through the streets bleeding and confused. I will admit that these scenes are probably more terrible now than they would have been before. But that's just because we are (or at least I am) still a little messed up about that day.

The Antagonist: The monster looked and sounded great. I was pleased that, though they don't come right out and show you the whole thing immediately, they don't tease the viewer for too long. Very quickly after the attack begins, the characters get a good look at what they're facing.

Keeping in mind that nothing is explained about it...the monster itself may be the one big plot hole. It is simply unstoppable and invincible, as TheEJS describes in ALLCAPS rant below. You simply have to accept the fact that just shooting it with a tank isn't going to make it go away. If you can't get over that fact, you may be bothered throughout the movie.

And while I'm on the subject of plot holes and tanks, maybe one of the more knowledgeable morons will explain to me how an Abrams tank (probably more than one, but we see one clearly) finds itself on Manhattan in the middle of the night. Yes, the military has obviously been called in to take on the monster, but the bridges and tunnels were mostly out and blocked with fleeing people. It's my understanding that the M1A1 is too heavy to be lifted by helicopter and there are no runways on Manhattan. It did take me out of the movie for a minute when it shows up. Am I missing something obvious here?

The Atmosphere: This is a tense movie. There were a few points where my knees were shaking with combined shock and dread. And it's all done without a soundtrack to provide the normal emotional cues. The effect heightens the importance and significance of ambient noise and distant sounds. The fact that the point of view is so limited by the hand-held camera, especially in dark scenes, increases the creep-factor. (In the middle of the film, when some adjustments were being made by the characters to the camera, one person in my theater couldn't help but groan, "Oh, no.")

The one expository tool that helps it along is the use of TV news to get a bit of the bigger picture. There is almost a sense of relief (for the viewer and for the characters) when the characters get to stand, even for a few seconds, in front of a television and hear from the anchor what is going on elsewhere. It only happens twice (maybe three times?) in the film, but each time was well placed, I think, to keep the terror from getting too out of hand.

The Verdict: It was a good movie. I only felt knocked out of it a few times by the shakycam or possible plot difficulties (the tank), which is good for me. I usually can't help but get distracted by plot issues or problems with the setting or continuity errors in movies. None of that bothered me with this one, which means it's a rare gem. (Speaking of rare gems, go see Juno. Bring a teenager to translate for you.)

It gets an 8/10 from me.

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posted by Gabriel Malor at 11:56 PM

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