Friday, January 18, 2008


It's always interesting to see how a movie with a completely revolutionary marketing strategy pans out. The Blair Witch Project did it with great success in 1999, whereas Snakes on a Plane failed miserably at it in 2006. I suspect Cloverfield will be quite the successful movie. The first teasers were released with Transformers last summer, and the name of the movie was never even indicated until November. This mystery automatically created a flurry on internet message boards with wild speculations. JJ Abrahms (producer of Lost, Alias, and several other highly successful TV shows ) led a titillating advertising campaign of phony websites, and clues, while leaving fans to spread the word. It worked. I was incredibly excited to see it.

It's always fun going to a movie on opening night. The theater is always packed, and it's always a rowdy crowd. It was like that with Grindhouse, 300, Pirates of the Caribbean, and probably most of all with The Return of the King. Cloverfield was no exception. In fact, there were near riots when the projector stopped working for about 20 minutes mid way through). All the hype and all the anticipation turned a rather generic movie into a very enjoyable experience.

Honestly, there's nothing special about the movie. It's unique in that it is entirely shot from a hand-held digital camera. It was of course shot in high definition, but then degraded to look like it was done with a consumer product (from experience, the visual effects would have been impossible to do otherwise). The plot of the story is simple. Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) is leaving for a job in Japan, so his brother Jason (Mike Vogel) Jason's girlfriend, Lilly (Jessica Lucas), and Rob's friend, Hud (T.J. Miller) are throwing him a going away party. Hud is given the task of documenting it. In the midst of the party, something seems to rock the building, we see explosions, and the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty. Clearly something is attacking the city. In the midst of the chaos and attempted evacuation, Rob sets off to find Beth (Odette Yustman) the only person he cares about. Jason, Hud, Lilly, and Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), who functions as a romantic foil for Hud, join him in his search. This leads to them making their way through battle-torn streets, abandoned neighborhoods, and even subway tunnels.

The movie is presented in a documentary style. Obviously nobody was fooled into this actually happened like the Blair Witch Project, but the opening sequence claiming that this tape was recovered from a secure government site indicated that things did not bode well for our heroes, or New York in general. The hand-held approach created an incredibly intimate and realistic style for the movie. The 1998 Godzilla remake was so bad because it was all flash and glitz. Cloverfield has some wonderful effects, but it's much more effective in what it doesn't show. The shots of the tail of the monster, or the reaction shots of the soldiers firing at it, or even just the trail of destruction were far more powerful than when they showed the monster in its entirety. I can understand why they did that as little as possible.

It's difficult to present a story over the course of one night. The film makers need to somehow draw you into these characters and make you care about them, and yet not simply tell you their back story. Director, Mark Reeves, essentially does this in the early party scenes, setting up the relationships between the characters. This is done pretty clumsily, creating some stilted and awkwardly written conversations. But it is a monster movie, so don't expect Shakespeare.

The thing that shocked me most about this movie was that it only cost $30 million. This is nothing compared to the $130 million of the similarly themed Godzilla, or the $250 million price-tag for Spider-Man 3. How they were able to create this movie with such a small budget, I can't possibly imagine. Clearly they were able to keep their budget down by using relatively unknown actors. This also helped the story in that the audience finds it easier to be drawn into everyday characters than say...Tom Cruise. But how they were able to essentially destroy New York City for $30 million just astounds me.

The story is, of course, incredibly weak. And I found myself almost being mad Rob for putting others in danger for a rather selfish, guilt-ridden reason. The movie is also filled with some laughably absurd lines Hud to keep the mood light. Don't worry, I won't spoil any of them here, because they are truly the gems of the movie. It's still just a monster movie, though. Abrahms said that he wanted to create a uniquely American monster, but it just seemed like any other monster to me. The best parts were before you knew what it looked like. I don't know if they could have pulled off an entire movie without actually showing the creature (or if movie goers would have rebelled). It would have been really nice to see them try.


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