Cloverfield: Matt Reeves Formulaic Movie

A clear triumph of marketing over product, Cloverfield has been aggressively advertised on the Internet, billboards and buses for weeks. Would the monster-creature picture deliver big numbers at the box-office? Or would young audiences, mostly teenagers, feel they were subjected to overkill advertising for a trashy horror film that’s no more than a pastiche of familiar conventions, albeit put together in a shrewdly “re-imagined,” pseudo-modernist package.

It’s impossible to watch “Cloverfield” without thinking of all those classic monster films, from “Godzilla” to “Jaws” and most recently “The Host,” all superior to the new product (and it is a product).

It’s also hard not to notice that the central filmic strategy is borrowed from “Blair Witch Project” and its imitators, namely, heavy reliance on camcorder and shooting almost every event from its POV.

It’s telling that the bright filmmaker J.J. Abrams (“MI: III,” TV’s “Lost”) is the producer and not the director; it’s doubtful that he would consider helming such a trashy flick. Paramount must have known what they have in their hands for press screening were held rather late, just days before the film’s opening, January 18.

The story is rudimentary, a skeleton, sort of an excuse to introduce the creature and the havoc. If my watch is accurate, the narrative per se occupies no more than 70 or so minutes of the total 85 minutesand even that is too long considering what’s on screen.

On the eve of his departure for Japan, Rob (Michael Stahl-David) sees his going-away party as an opportunity to confess unresolved feelings and tie up loose ends. But Rob’s “honest” intent takes an unexpected turn when a jolt shakes the group. First, they sit down to watch news reports of an earthquake, then they rush to the roof to reassess the damages. The disaster begins with a fireball that explodes on the distant horizon, predictably followed by power failure follows. Not knowing what to expect, the devastated partygoers follow mass psychology, and rush out hysterically into the streets only to observe some human screams and one big roar.

As directed by Matt Reeves, from a script by Drew Goddard, “Cloverfield” is a film that abides step-by-step by the formula, restricted only by its PG-13 rating, but considerably enhanced by appealing to viewers’ vicarious joys of seeing New York City damaged and tarnished.

In the past, La La Land used to be the natural, almost exclusive target for sci-fi disaster actioners. This is the second apocalyptic sci-fi in a month, after “I Am Legend,” that’s set in Gotham. (You can add to the list the abysmal 1998 remake of “Godzilla,” and, of course, Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of “King Kong”).

The filmmakers are too shrewd and movie-conscious not to be aware of their homages, tributes, and borrowings. It’s probably not a coincidence that Rob heads for Japan, the country that has given us the seminal monster picture, “Godzilla.” In fact, Abrams’ inspiration came from visiting a toy store in Japan, while promoting “MI: III” there with his son Henry, and noticing a plethora of Godzilla-themed toys, owing their existence to a monster that has been a global cultural icon for decades.

A movie like “Cloverfield” consciously reflects and deliberately exploits our various anxieties and phobias in the post 9/11 climate. Here is what producer Abrams has to say about motivation: “We live in a time of great fear. Having a movie that is about something as outlandish as a massive creature attacking your city allows people to process and experience that fear in a way that is incredibly entertaining and incredibly safe. I want to have that experience myself–to go to a movie that’s about something larger-than-life and hyper-real, and ‘Cloverfield’ certainly is.”

The characters are second-hand and one-dimensional. Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel) who’s eager to record video confessions from the party’s guests, including Lily (Jessica Lucas) and Marlena (Lizzy Caplan).

There’s some humor in the character of Hud (T.J. Miller), who is assigned to document the event with a camcorder, a task for which he is unqualified. The film is shot from the point of view of Hud’s camcorder, through which Reeves and screenwriter Goddard try to interweave the relationships between the characters and their reaction to the monster’s attack. I say try, because it’s not a movie about characters, all introduced in the first 15 minutes.

Size matters only when it comes to the creature. Abrams and his collaborators have designed a monster of a skyscraper’s size. In the tale of Drew Goddard (the screenwriter-collaborator on Abrams’ “Alias” and “Lost”), the main focus is on a giant monster wreaking havoc on New York City rather than on a group of youngsters undergoing an extreme crisis.

End Note

Don’t be surprised if most critics would use the following sentence in their reviews. In the press notes, Abrams recalls that the project was pitched to Paramount’s top execs as “a Cameron Crowe movie meets Godzilla meets Blair Witch Project.”

That pretty much sums up the picture, with more emphasis on Godzilla than the other elements.

Cast

Marlena – Lizzy Caplan
Lily – Jessica Lucas
Hud – T.J. Miller
Rob Hawkins – Michael Stahl-David
Jason Hawkins – Mike Vogel
Beth Mcintyre – Odette Yustman

Credits

A Paramount release of a Bad Robot production. Produced by J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk.

Executive producers, Guy Riedel, Sherryl Clark.

Directed by Matt Reeves.

Screenplay, Drew Goddard.
Camera: Michael Bonvillain.
Editor: Kevin Stitt.
Production designer: Martin Whist.
Art directors: Douglas J. Meerdink, John Pollard (New York); set designers, George R. Lee, Jane Wuu, Chad S. Frey; set decorator, Robert Greenfield.
Costume designer: Ellen Mirojnick.
Sound: Ed White.
Sound editors and designers: Douglas Murray, William Files.
Re-recording mixers: Andy Nelson, Anna Behlmer.
Visual effects supervisors: Kevin Blank, Michael Ellis, Eric Leven.
Creature designer: Neville Page.
Stunt coordinator: Rob King.
Associate producer: David Baronoff.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 85 Minutes.