Often called "Blair Witch Project"-meets-"Godzilla", "Cloverfield" is a ground level look at a small group of characters trying to survive the night when a giant creature comes ashore and creates absolute chaos in the middle of Manhattan. There's no wacky sidekicks, no one-liners and really very little humor - the picture is an all-out assault for 90 minutes that puts the viewer right in the middle of the situation. The picture is definitely like no other big-budget monster movie before it, and while it's not without flaws, it's all the better for trying something very, very different.
The picture opens with Rob (Michael Stahl-David) walking into a going away party, as he's leaving the next day for a job in Japan. Some of the folks there include Jason (Mike Vogel), Lily (Jessica Lucas), Hud (TJ Miller) and Marlena (Lizzy Caplan). They're having a good time celebrating when all the sudden the building rumbles. The group heads to the roof and suddenly sees what appears to be a nightmare scenario: a massive explosion in the distance, and fireballs lighting up the night sky, one of which nearly hits the rooftop.
When the group scatters into the street, the situation certainly appears much worse, especially when the head of the Statue of Liberty flies through the air and lands in their street, taking out a few cars before screeching to a halt. The monster is seen in the distance and the group runs into a nearby storefront just as a building collapse sends a wave of dust and ash through the streets.
The creature is seen again in news footage, which stops the people stealing things out of an electronic store in their tracks. The monster sheds off parasites, which roll out and start attacking any humans they come across. When Rob gets a phone call that Beth (Odette Yustman) - the girl he was best friends with but really in love with - is stuck in her high-rise apartment, and he sets off across the city into the path of the creature to try and rescue her, with his Scooby gang (Caplan could be Thelma) right behind him.
So sets in motion a chase throughout the city as the group tries to find any way to safety they can. The army tries to combat the creatures, but nothing they do seems to be able to stop the creatures. The smaller creatures (which remind slightly of "Halo"'s flood creatures) create havoc on the ground level, and one scene in a department store that's been taken over shows how much damage they've done. Nothing is said about where the creature came from, but a tiny little event seen in the distance during the final minute of the film would seem to given some hint.
The movie does fall a little flat in the characters, some of which are actually kind of irritating at times. Some instances of dialogue also feel a little movie-esque compared to the kind of hard, realistic style the movie is going for. The performances vary, but Stahl-David does make a reasonably good lead. The first fifteen minutes of the picture are the party scene, and while the movie has to start somewhere, this scene is a somewhat bland open, and it's too bad that the picture couldn't have found a more rich way to introduce the characters.
As for the look of the feature, some theatres apparently posted warnings about motion sickness in regards to the picture. While the picture definitely does have quite a few seriously shaky moments with the camera, I actually found the camerawork to not be quite as severely volatile as I'd expected it would be. Visual effects are quite impressive, from the larger effects (the creature, a high-rise building leaning on the one next to it) to the smaller details. The edits are disguised rather well, which allows the movie to flow quite well and both build and hold intensity. There's also no score at any time in the picture. At about 75 minutes + credits, the picture is quite tight.
The film's hype was rather overwhelming (if anything, I almost felt the movie was too advertised, to the point where it turned me off), but I was pleasantly surprised to find just how well the movie does work. The characters may not all be superbly realized, but many scenes are - several scenes in the movie are simply terrifying and expertly constructed. One particularly creepy scene occurs in a subway tunnel, where the rats seem to be all running away from...something. A brief scene on a collapsing Brooklyn Bridge is also pretty astonishing.
Overall, the movie's camerawork is going to turn some viewers off, but I thought "Cloverfield" really tried to do a very gritty, unusual take on the monster movie and I think - despite some writing issues - it's a mostly riveting film.
VIDEO: "Cloverfield" is presented by Paramount Home Entertainment in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The film was shot with a few different digital cameras and does have a gritty, shot-on-video look. However, the presentation does look quite good, and while some scenes do intentionally appear slightly soft and grainy, many scenes do look crisp and detailed.
Given the filming style and the intended look of the picture, it's difficult to discuss flaws. Some minor video issues were seen, but were also almost certainly an intended look of the picture. No edge enhancement was noticed, but some minor artifacting was seen on a few occasions. Colors tended to be somewhat subdued, but rarely looked smeary or otherwise problematic. Overall, the picture looked better than I'd expected, given the intended visual look.
SOUND: The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is just marvelous, using the surrounds to full effect to put the viewer in the midst of both the film's most intense sequences - such as the characters getting in the middle of a military attack on the creature - and the more subtle sequences, such as the subway tunnel sequence. Audio quality is terrific, with crisply recorded effects, reasonable bass and - despite all the chaos - mostly clear dialogue.
EXTRAS: Director Matt Reeves offers a very good audio commentary for the picture, discussing the film's casting, working with the actors, trying to work within the film's visual style, effects and production issues and obstacles. Reeves really keeps the discussion going very well throughout the film, providing good insights and stories about how every scene was accomplished.
"Document: 1.18.08" is a 28-minute "making of" documentary that follows the production as they try to achieve the remarkable task - especially in this day and age - of keeping the details of the production a secret. The actors weren't even aware of what the film was about when they auditioned. We get a good look at the process of pulling several scenes together, from effects work to working with the actors to sets and more. Interesting tidbit in the featurette: rats apparently like Gatorade.
"Cloverfield: Visual Effects" takes a step-by-step look at the creation of the visual FX in the main sequences of the picture. "I Saw It! It's Alive! It's Huge!" opens with some discussion of the inspiration of the picture and then goes into an interview with creature designer Neville Page. We also hear from Reeves, Abrams, the FX designers and others about the creation of the creature.
"Clover Fun" is a few minutes of mildly goofy bloopers. Finally, we also get two alternate endings and four minor deleted scenes (all with commentary from Reeves). There's the teaser for the new "Star Trek" and "Indiana Jones" films, but oddly there's none of the "Cloverfield" trailers.
Final Thoughts: "Cloverfield" could have developed the characters better, but its portrayal of an enormous beast attacking Manhattan is startling, occasionally frightening and overall, pretty engaging despite its faults. The DVD presentation offers very good video quality, excellent audio and a nice set of supplemental features. Recommended, although those who can't take shakycam may want to try it as a rental first.
The Film B+