J.J Abrams has become a king of marketing. Exploiting the use of surprises, mystery, and trailers in a far superior format than almost anyone else. One of his most significant feats of marketing was Matt Reeves 2008 film, “Cloverfield.” The “Godzilla” and “Blair Witch” crossover that took the film community by storm in its inaugural trailer drop that occurred during the opening night pre-show for Michael Bay’s “Transformers.” The trailer was mysterious and sent all of us film fans into a frenzy of research and obsession on the IMDB pages of the internet, but we would soon be even more surprised that the found-footage subgenre of Hollywood had manifested a surprisingly frightening thriller that answers the question: What would it be like to witness a monster attacking your city?
Providing a lensed perspective for our journey, literally, Director Matt Reeves (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” & “War for the Planet of the Apes”) joins Screenwriter Drew Goddard (“The Cabin in the Woods” & “The Martian”) as they team with J.J Abrams’ Bad Robot Studios to provide an answer to that question.
The film opens with a seemingly normal state of living as we are introduced to our first camera operator, Rob (Michael Stahl-David). He’s just awoken from a beautiful night out with the girl he loves, Beth (Odette Annable). She is his college crush and one that he finally got to spend a night with, and it leads to a setting that the camera continuously flashes back to when it becomes faulty, as if to say to the audience and whoever is watching this footage: “Remember when things were normal?” The footage fast-forwards by a month as we meet Lily (Jessica Lucas) and Rob’s (Michael Stahl-David) brother Jason (Mike Vogel) as they are shopping for supplies for Rob’s (Michael Stahl-David) going away party, as he’s been awarded a vice-president position at a company in Japan. While this party is being put together, Jason (Mike Vogel) hands off the camera to our chief camera operator, Hudson (T.J. Miller).
He’s the best friend of the party’s star, but he’s that guy whose best friend with the most important guy, not necessarily friends with everyone else. He’s awkward, and constantly interrupting private conversations with the excuse that he’s “documenting.” Luckily, he continues documenting when the city comes under attack from something, as in the midst of some party drama, Manhattan shakes and quivers. As off the shores of the New York Harbor, an Oil Rig was surprised to unlock a crevasse that unleashed an organism of some sorts that is believed to have suffered from the scientific theory of deep-sea gigantism. Unlike a giant squid though, that may grow to be as big 13m in length, this monster is the size of buildings. It's lurking, carries multiple appendages, and has small arachnid/arthropod-like creatures descending from its outer shell. It's a reptilian-like arthropod creature that seems to be incredibly hard to kill.
With missiles, machine gun fire, and massive caliber weaponry from tanks and fighter jets being unable to put a dent in its rampage. Our camera holder catches its fearsome arrival, but it's rarely shown in full view. No wide shots or steady frames are to be found, which can be quite frustrating as a filmgoer, but in that same frame of mind, it's the logicality behind the filming that bothers me.
I can get past the shaky camera movements because this inexperienced photographer isn’t going to set-up a tripod to film, he going to carry it and point it to see what’s happening, he's not going to give the viewer a visual language to follow. But the idea of the camera surviving nuclear fallout, multiple drops to the concrete floor, or that its battery lasts this long is something hard to believe. This is a cheap 2008 camera being used in the midst of firefights; I doubt it would make it as far as it does.
Nonetheless, the film does maintain a sense of realism that overcomes that one aspect of implausibility. Its perspective lensing provides for some incredible sequences that would never be shot by some random dude, but a talented cinematographer like Michael Bonvillain (“Zombieland” & “American Ultra”) could definitely fabricate them. His mastermind direction from Matt Reeves leads to a multitude of scenes that are exceptionally thrilling, one that continues to send shivers down my spine takes place in the subways tracks of New York City.
Our group of everyday joes head back into the city, after losing a few friends, to help Rob (Michael Stahl-David) save the girl that he loves. On their way back into midtown, they are bombarded by a fleet of U.S soldiers launching another attack on the gargantuan beast, the sounds of war drown out our characters' dialogue, a realistic use of the sound design that warrants some applause. Stuck down in the subways, they wait for the war zone to move on, but after a few hours pass they attempt to take the trails of the subway to her apartment. While in the midst of awkward conversation made by our doofus camera operator, rats begin to flee between their feet.
Lily (Jessica Lucas) states “They’re all running in the same direction,” Rob (Michael Stahl-David) calmly suggests “Yeah, like they’re running away from something.” Moments later an eerie growl echoes through the tunnels, as Rob (Michael Stahl-David) shows Hudson (T.J. Miller) how to use the night vision. Once it comes on, we see those same small creatures walking on the ceiling, staring into the lens of the camera. Their growls and rumbles begin to overwhelm the audio as they attack our group, even biting one of them as she risked herself by saving our camera holder.
It all feels too cinematic to be believable as someone’s lost footage from the event known as “Cloverfield,” but it lends to some frightening sequences nonetheless because it's doesn’t carry too much of Hollywood’s fingerprints to seem implausible. It sucks you into the story as if your there alongside them, watching all of this as it occurs. The use of shielding the identity of the monster, the performances from relatively unknown actors, and the constant barrage of shaky cam assist in the film feeling naturalistic or like the legitimate dose of realism that found-footage is designed to be. “Cloverfield” is one of those films that alongside its brilliant marketing, uses it's filmmaking techniques to assist it's storytelling past the hurdles that if filmed otherwise, would be seen as mundane.
The camera operator, Hudson, depicted by T.J. Miller in his first acting gig, is someone that assists in that believability. Many see him as kind of douche who is continually sticking the camera in his friends face instead of consoling them or making conversation about flaming homeless men in the midst of an already stressful situation. If a monster attacked your city though, wouldn’t you find some way for your brain to comprehend everything? What if talking out of your ass was your defensive mechanism? Things become weird when were placed in those sort of life or death situations, it just so happens that this is how Hud (T.J. Miller) dealt with it all. I can’t blame him for that, which is just the icing on the cake for a film that uses all the tools available to become something far more legitimate than you’d expect.