Directed by Matt Reeved
Written by Drew Goddard
starring: Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman, Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller
First, a confession. I was geeked out to see this movie in a way I have not been about any movie since Joss Whedon’s Firefly follow-up, Serenity. It’s important that you know that so you know how many grains of salt with which you’ll need to take the rest of this review. This is actually the first movie I’ve ever gone to see in the theaters by myself, since my wife refuses to see horror movies and everyone else I know was busy during the time I had to go (I decided that taking my daughter out of school or subjecting my five-year-old to this was just not a good idea. I’m devoted to the idea of passing the geekery down to the next generation but even I have my limits). So, there I was, opening day, noon showing. There were a lot of people in line at the box office, including a field trip from some sort of group home, but most of them turned out to be in line to see 27 Dresses (I know!) It was just me and some older couple in theater 9 to see Cloverfield. I was in front of them, so it was almost like a private showing.
So, was it worth it? After all the online build-up, the viral marketing campaign, the title-less trailer in front of Transformers (I know!) featuring the decapitated head of the statue of liberty … did it live up to all of it in a way that other recent internet phenomena have not (looking at you … Snakes on a Plane)? For me? Absolutely. In fact, I loved this movie in a way I have not loved a movie since Serenity. It’s not perfect, by any means. In fact, its almost imperfect enough to be perfect, for the experience it provides. But I’ll get to the flaws later.
What Works: This film is shot, and presented to the audience, as if it is footage found by the military at the sight of a disaster. And it really does look like a videotape you’ve popped into your VCR. There are snippets of old footage interspersed with the new, a couple newly in love sharing one perfect day, but the bulk of the movie starts at a party being thrown for the guy in the couple who’s going away to take a job in Japan. He’s also blown it, big-time, with the girl of his dreams. This just happens to be going on the same night what can only be described as a GIANT FUCKING MONSTER attacks New York City. We follow these characters as they try to survive the attack, first attempting to get out of the city, then heading back to the disaster to save someone. It does not turn out well. Do not get attached to any of these characters.
What I really liked about this film was how it presented the events from the perspective of the normal people caught up in them. Another movie would have given us, Independence Day style, the broad picture, characters ranging from Scientists to soldiers, probably the nuke-ordering president, a couple of civilians in New York (most likely family or love interests of the other main characters) telling this story from beginning to end, finding out what the monster was as how it could be defeated, eventually someone coming in at the last minute, finding an ingenious device to kill the monster before the entire northeastern seaboard has to be destroyed. And that movie would have been fine, I guess. Depending on the writing and the performances, it could have been fantastic. It would also have been tired. If there is one that this movie isn’t, is tired.
The device, some would say conceit, of the camcorder puts the viewer right there in the middle of the action, living, dying, running, screaming. I felt like I had survived the monster attack myself (actually, survive is too strong a word). Another thing that works is the monster itself. We do eventually get a very good look at it, but for most of the movie is it glimpsed through dust, around corners, it is felt more than it is seen, which makes it scarier. It gets no less scarier when you do actually see it. And yes, as you make have heard, the camera work is a little sick-making at first. But unless you are especially prone to motion sickness, you will get used to it.
What doesn’t work: Horror movies aren’t really great at creating really compelling characters, and this one is no different. These people are fodder, and there are attempts at depth that fall flat somehow. Still, there is enough there that you do end up caring about these people and what happens to them. It’s saved by some of the performances, especially Lizzy Caplan as Marlena and Michael Stahl-David as “main character” Rob. There also some logical problems. We’re never shown that the Monster is that incredibly fast-moving, but it goes from decapitating the statue of liberty to stomping mid-town Manhattan is about twelve seconds. (I guess you could say it was just kicking it around, but still…) And whoever manufactures this video camera should use this film as an advertisement because this thing provides a great picture and extremely loooong battery life despite being kicked, dropped, rolled over, monster-stomped, and crashed in a helicopter. This product is highly recommended.
Bottom Line: People are either going to love or hate this movie. I loved it. The older couple behind me hated it. The ending is somewhat ambiguous and that’s going to make a lot of people leave the theater unsatisfied. But the ending is not the point. The experience was the point. And I had a great experience watching this movie.