Since many people are asking what exactly “Cloverfield” means in the context of the movie, let's deal with that right of the bat – it doesn't mean anything. It wasn't even supposed to be the film's real title initially, just a red herring to throw people off track named after one of the streets near producer J.J. Abrams' West L.A. Office. But once the buzz began following the untitled trailer in front of Transformers, that was the name that stuck – its only reference in the movie comes at the beginning when we are told that what we are about to see is footage dealing with a military case designated with that code name, found in “the area formerly known as Central Park.” That gets a laugh – one of the film's few.
As with THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, then, we're supposed to be watching found footage, which entails a few narrative challenges, some of which are dealt with quite cleverly. Can't do flashbacks? Sure you can – just pretend that the tape being watched features footage that's being taped over an older video, which occasionally intervenes during the moments when our “present-day” characters stop the tape to watch their own footage (this results in an ending reminiscent of IRREVERSIBLE, of all things).
[Also, be warned: If BLAIR WITCH gave you too much motion sickness, take a buttload o' Dramamine before even thinking about seeing this]
How to handle exposition? Have the main camera be held by a dumb guy, Hud (T.J. Miller), who's the kind of person that needs to say things aloud in order to process them, like “That one that grabbed me was trying to drag me away. What's up with that?” Hud at times seems borderline autistic – handed the camera at the beginning of the evening, he is told to document everything as a going-away present for his best friend Robert Hawkins (The Black Donnellys' Michael Stahl-David), and aggressively tries to do so at the party even when it's clear that everyone finds him annoying and wants him to stop. And when the bad shit goes down, and New York suddenly finds itself under attack by a giant monster, Hud maintains that dogged determination to document the entire evening no matter what.
Incidentally, is it just coincidence that “Robert Hawkins” is also the name of one of the main characters on TV's Jericho? As a TV guy, Abrams can't be unaware of the show, especially since it was a show quite clearly brainstormed after the success of Lost. Jericho, like CLOVERFIELD, deals with the fear of terrorism in a fictional context. And even though the main guy is called “Rob” by everyone here, he goes out of his way to say “Robert Hawkins” out loud at least once.
Anyway, after about 20 minutes of character build-up at Rob's party – he's headed for Japan soon, which is an obvious nod to the whole kaiju genre – there's a big explosion in New York harbor, and then another one. Soon it becomes clear that something really big is attacking.
Most normal people would evacuate immediately, but there'd be no movie if the characters got away quickly. Rob had earlier had a bit of a scene involving Beth (Odette Yustman, who made her acting debut at the age of 5 in KINDERGARTEN COP), an old friend who he has recently, finally had sex with, but can't bring himself to say he loves her because he's leaving for Japan. As a result, Beth showed up to the party with a date, Rob got mad, and she left. But when the monster attacks, He gets a phone call from Beth saying she's trapped – and because he now feels he has to prove his love above all else, the dumbass decides to head right into the epicenter of the action to rescue her. Along to back him up come Hud, Rob's potential future sister-in-law Lily (Jessica Lucas, of THE COVENANT), and Marlena (MEAN GIRLS' Lizzy Caplan, delivering the best acting of the lot), a brooding French chick that Hud's been pathetically trying to hit on. If they allowed people to take camcorders on the King Kong ride at Universal, it'd be a bit like this.
As if it isn't bad enough that there's a huge-ass thing that's apparently not just bulletproof but also missile-proof, it has parasites too, giant flea-like things that it scratches off and which then run wild spreading disease with their bites. So of course the army's considering nuking New York, yet another reason to NOT go back for the not-quite-girlfriend who's most likely dead. But Rob is dumb. Again, if he weren't – no movie.
There are lots of minor nitpicks to be had with CLOVERFIELD, enough that the movie will be ruined for some. Unlike the actors in BLAIR WITCH, for instance, who looked like real grungy film students, these guys look like actors: all perfect teeth, perfect make up, beautiful looking even first thing in the morning, and even the unshaven guys are perfectly unshaven in a way that normal dudes aren't. Marlena the stereotypical French girl is actually the most convincing – maybe because French girls are automatically hotter.
Other problems: It's amazingly coincidental the number of times Hud's camera accidentally seems to point at a Mountain Dew logo, even when they're hiding out in a subway tunnel; it's tough to believe that people in this real-life situation would keep their language at PG-13 levels (speaking of which, how is THERE WILL BE BLOOD rated R for violence and this isn't?); there's one character that has a hole in the chest and in great pain, yet manages to run in the next scene without any difficulty; there's a really annoying Kevin Smith reference (“I'm not even supposed to be here!”); and finally, who the hell still leaves the date stamp turned on on their camcorder (the sturdiest and most versatile camcorder ever built, by the way).
Yet none of these things troubled me greatly. More cerebrally minded critics and audiences can and will pounce on them, but the swiftness, economy, and momentum of the storytelling is enough to sweep right over the rough parts. I love that the monster and its parasites look like they came out of THE MIST – in many ways this feels like an unofficial sequel (is Lovecraft the new touchstone for horror designs?). I thoroughly enjoyed the idea of using a tilted over skyscraper leaning against another as a climactic backdrop. Could have gone for even more gore, but what they gave was good. For director Matt Reeves, this a huge step beyond THE PALLBEARER, and arguably the best film to be released in January in the past couple decades.
Now, I know there are many out there who don't want to see the movie but have a curiosity about the monster. If you do intend to see the flick, stop reading now.
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Okay. You've been warned...
Imagine a giant bat without wings or ears, that walks on all fours like a gorilla, has no wings, is albino and hairless, but also has two smaller T-rex-like arms mid-abdomen and a long possum tail. Its head is like a cross between that of an insect and a bird. And it's the size of Godzilla.
Abrams describes it in the press notes as a baby. If and when Paramount asks for a sequel, I'm thinking Baby-Mama might be involved.