Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 25 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violence, Terror and Disturbing Images
Directed by: Matt Reeves
Written by: Drew Goddard
Starring: Michael Stahl-David, T.J. Miller, Odette Yustman, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan, Mike Vogel
The found footage genre seems tailor-made to tell stories on a small-scale. How else might one explain all those terrible backyard horror flicks that populate this unique subgenre spawned from a somewhat creative storytelling technique? What sets CLOVERFIELD apart from its handheld brethren is that this one is set on a massive scale. If told in a traditional narrative, this J.J. Abrams produced project would have been just another blockbuster giant monster movie. Told in this POV way, we are stuck following a group of civilians stuck on ground zero. These people would have been regulated to a single moment (probably involving either being squished or eaten by the monster) in the usual Hollywood picture, but we’re stuck with them on a thrill-ride that is being enjoyable enough. It also has some major flaws that stick out like a sore thumb.
A title card informs us that this is footage recovered from the site formerly known as Central Park. We then cut to the recovered recording itself. A group of friends and relatives are throwing a surprise party for their buddy Rob. He’s going away to Japan for business and his best friend, Hud, is recording his farewell party so there will be a little piece of his friends to go to Japan with him. The party is interrupted when a minor earthquake rumbles across the city. Turns out that it’s something much worse. A giant creature has risen from the ocean and is terrorizing New York City. This nasty beast is doing all sorts of crazy shit. This includes but is not limited to: leveling buildings, devouring bystanders, and ripping Lady Liberty’s head clean off her shoulders. Rob, Hud, and a few other friends in tow make their way across the toppling city to rescue Rob’s secret lover. The massive creature isn’t the only threat around though and the viewer witnesses all this destruction through the lens of the recovered camera.
Taken at pure spectacle value, CLOVERFIELD is a visual rollercoaster ride. Part of this is because the camera always seems to conveniently capture a shot of the mayhem we want to see from clear angles. Plenty of explosions, action involving the titular monster, and over-the-top scenarios play out much to the entertainment of the viewer. This is absolutely a style over substance film, but it satisfies as a wild time (this movie will always play much better on a giant movie theater screen). The creature design itself (caught in bits and pieces) is pretty damn creative. When I originally caught this film in the movie theater (all the way back in January 2008), the actual look of the monster thankfully hadn’t been given away in any of the promotional material. So I was surprised when I saw it. CLOVERFIELD did a solid job of getting my adrenaline pumping (even though I’ve seen it multiple times by now). The entire film plays out as a ride and should be enjoyed as such.
CLOVERFIELD does falter in three key areas that are essential to making a good film. The characters aren’t given much personality. Though they were guiding me through this adventure, I couldn’t have cared less if they all died. The actors came off as cut-outs whose only notable trademark is that they were either yuppies or hipsters that just happened to get caught up in this otherworldly disaster. To make things a bit more tedious, the film plays out as a series of beats. Between hitting these moments, the pacing is tedious. Some stretches drag longer than others, but they all have the capacity to bore in some way. Hud’s frequent attempts at comedy relief are hit or miss. At times, a few of his quips got a laugh out of me. Other times, it was plain annoying. The frenetic camera work is essential to the found footage technique, but things get downright migraine-inducing at points.
In the end, CLOVERFIELD works as a blast of big dumb fun. It’s pure B-movie entertainment that was supplied with a much higher budget than these kind of films usually have. The large-scale of the story is impressive, but the viewer also has to deal with hollow characters, dull patches, and frenetic camera work. It’s just a giant monster movie that happens to be told through a found-footage style. The mysterious and overblown marketing tactics wound up disappointing many viewers who were expecting something else. This one comes recommended, but be ready to put up with some noticeable flaws.