Directed by: Matt Reeves
Written by: Drew Goddard
Starring: Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman, Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller
“You know what’s wrong with the Matthew Broderick Godzilla, Mike?”
This is a question a friend of mine asks whenever the topic of the 1998 American film raises its ugly head, and each and every time, before I can offer my own opinion, he always tells me what he thinks.
“The makers of Godzilla don’t realize that we want to see a monster movie. ‘Who cares about the giant creature that’s out there stomping the city to rubble? No, what the people really want to see is a film about two people discovering their love for one another and that giant lizard just gets in the way of their romance.’”
The same could be said for the plot of the new blockbuster Cloverfield, but in this case, the filmmakers know we’re here for the scares, and better yet, they know how to deliver them.
Like The Blair Witch Project before it, Cloverfield is presented as “found footage” from a recovered video camera.
As the “tape” begins, we are introduced to Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), a young executive who has just taken a job offer in Japan, and Beth McIntyre (Odette Yustman). The two have been friends for years, but their relationship has now become physical. After spending the night together, Rob offers to take Beth to Coney Island for a day of fun.
The tape then cuts abruptly to a month later. Rob’s camera is now in the hands of his brother, Jason (Mike Vogel). It seems that Jason’s girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas), has planned a surprise farewell party for Rob, and she’s asked Jason to walk through the crowd to record well wishes from all of their friends. Jason is less than thrilled with this duty, however, and he talks mutual friend Hud (T.J. Miller) into taking the job from him.
As Hud rolls tape, distant explosions rock the building, bringing the party to an end. Something has come out of New York harbor, a huge, monstrous creature. It is now rampaging its way through the streets of the city and no one knows where it came from or how to stop it. Rob, his brother, and their friends try to escape, but a frantic cell phone call from Beth sends the group on a rescue mission right into the heart of the action instead.
Ask any kaiju (giant monster) fan about human characters and they will probably roll their eyes and tell you that this has traditionally been the weakest aspect of these films. We don’t care if the scientist gets the girl! We want to see monsters beating each other to a pulp!
Thankfully, the 21st centruy monster movies are an entirely different animal.
Like Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, Cloverfield focuses on rich, believable characters whom we care deeply about. Writer Drew Goddard (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, LOST) has experience taking outlandish situations and making them seem plausible. By feeding off our 9/11 fears, even going so far as to re-create some of the events of that horrible day, he has made his giant monster a very real threat to our heroes and heroines. He also knows a thing or two about pacing. The film is a lean, mean 85 minutes, and just when you think a scene is running out of steam, he delivers some new shock to get our adrenaline pumping again.
Be warned! Just as in Goddard’s television work, people are going to die, and it will be who you least expect and when you least expect it. This serves to create unbelievable tension in each and every scene. At one point, during a leap from a collapsing rooftop, I was literally gripping the arm of my theater chair.
I cannot remember the last time that happened.
Director Matt Reeves has created a horror film for the YouTube generation. In this age when we are unsure if what we are seeing online is real or staged, Reeves orchestrates scenes that feel incredible authentic and carry with them great emotional impact. Looters stop in their tracks to watch the horror unfolding on plasma televisions. A mother calls to check on the safety of her children, only to be told that one of them is dead. Movies shot on film stock tend to be one step removed from reality. By using video, Reeves has made everything in Cloverfield seem hyper-real, and ultimately, far more terrifying than a traditional horror film.
Much credit also goes to the technicians the video camera never captures, from editor Kevin Stitt to the technicians at the Tippett Studio who brought the horrible beasties to life. By using quick cuts and fast movements (but surprisingly little shaky-cam), the creatures remain frightening no matter how many times we encounter them.
Cloverfield is everything the 1998 Godzilla film should have been and wasn’t: a frightening thrill ride with characters we care about and a monster that is more terrifying than a simple over-grown iguana. If you remember loving the Japanese monster films of old, or you just want to see a fresh spin on traditional horrors, you need to run to the nearest theater and strap yourselves in, because like the Coney Island-going main characters, you’re in for a wonderful time!
Fan boy note: You must stay for the end credits! No, nothing is going to jump out at you in the final frame, but “Roar! (Cloverfield overture),” composed by Michael Giacchino and performed by the Bratislava Orchestra, is a throwback to the wonderful classic Godzilla themes that will have you smiling for days.
4.5 out of 5 stars.