First of all, let me just say that Cloverfield is amazing. See it now before it gets talked and parodied to death. Hot tip: a birdie told me to watch the water in the background of the final shot and that’s all I’ll say.
So what’s the story? It’s a love story set against a disaster movie, told using a Blair Witch Project aesthetic — but a bigger-budget scale. Presented as a top secret handy-cam tape recovered by the Department of Defense (it actually fooled the audience members behind us, who thought the projectionist was incompetent) code-named “Cloverfield”. It is actually written by Drew Goddard and directed by Matt Reeves under the aegis of wunderkind J.J. Abrams, none of whom work for DoD. (A birdie also tells me the name ‘Cloverfield’ is a J.J. Abrams inside joke, his company Bad Robot being located near a Cloverfield street.)
A going-away party for Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) in lower Manhattan is interrupted by an epic disaster-type event which sends him and his hip, young friends into the chaos-filled streets of New York. Really, it’s best not know a lot going in…
Cloverfield is a thrilling piece of escapist entertainment, but it also blatantly borrows from 9/11 imagery. Make no bones about it, just as Godzilla was a metaphor for the nuclear bomb, the ‘Cloverfield monster’ is a metaphor for a terrorist attack. Some reviews are calling these evocations tacky, but I think they tie in to current events on a wonderfully subconscious level: The first sign of the attack is an upended oil tanker and the beheading of Liberty herself. At one point, a character even speculates that our own government might have accidentally created this monster — which presumably makes Charlie Wilson’s War a pre-quel.
The special effects are outstanding, at most points completely seamless. I do have to say that the design of the monster looks just like the cave troll in Lord of the Rings: Fellowship and the little creatures are reminiscent of ‘face-hugger’ aliens or the critters from Starship Troopers. No matter, they are scary as bejesus, and the story is fundamentally, as I said, a love story.
My friends disagree with this, but I think Rob goes after Beth because that’s what his brother told him to do and Lilly stays with Rob because he’s all she has left. Malena goes with them because she is friends with Lilly and also (and here’s where my friends disagree, she has a bit of a thing for Rob). Hud, of course, is there for Malena.
One more technical note: the whole thing is held together with some great sound design and directorial staging. I understand some of the final cuts involved taking out lines where characters joke about the situation, which I think was a wise choice. The weird reality moments, such as the horse carriage loose on 59th street, is what makes it scary instead of cheesy. We’re there with the characters, experiencing the visceral absurdity of it all — which, more than any movie I’ve seen, perfectly captured what it was like for me to be in Manhattan on September 11.
J.J. Abrams talks about his philosophy of storytelling: the mystery box.
On the effects – by Tippett Studios and Double Negative.
F23 – The real camera behind Cloverfield
They also used a TGV Viper and other cameras, according to articles linked here.