Review: “Cloverfield”

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Many months ago, I was in the theater waiting for some movie to start, and I saw a preview that really caught my attention. It was some guy filming a party with a handheld camera, when suddenly, there’s a loud noise outside. The cameraman wanders out there, and joins a cluster of people standing on the street just as a sizeable chunk of New York blows up, raining debris on the onlookers as they scramble for safety.

That was my first and last taste of Cloverfield before I actually saw the movie last night. I’d meant to see it on the big screen, but I sort of lost interest as time went on. Now, I’m glad I didn’t spend twelve bucks on it. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the movie isn’t good.

It starts out slow. Very slow. Somebody named Rob is having a going-away party before he goes to Japan to be vice-president of something or other. The first fifteen or twenty minutes of the film is just a guy whose dialogue makes him sound drunk or high (or maybe a little slow) bumbling around and talking to people. I’m fairly certain this scene was meant as exposition, but it does a piss-poor job of it. Almost immediatley, I found my mind wandering. A lot of characters talk, but not one of them feels like an actual human being. After the tenth or so minute of this, I began to have my doubts.

Then, the aforementioned part of the city blows up, and it’s a mad scramble, first to get out of the city, then to go back for Rob’s girlfriend, who he apparently feels responsible for because of some argument they had. Blah-blah-blah. The plot, such that it is, is fairly contrived and stupid. It’s not compelling. It’s not even amusing in all its badness, because the film takes itself so seriously. We’re supposed to care about these characters, but that’s hard to do because they’re so flat and uninteresting, and the dialogue is so badly-written that, at several points, I cringed.

And it’s criminally short, too. As I came up on about the sixty-minute mark, I reached what I was certain must be the middle of the film. Now, I told myself, it might get interesting. But no. Five minutes later, it was over. Just like that. No conclusion. No attempt to wrap it up. Like the filmmakers got bored and wandered off. All right, I’ll admit it, the ending isn’t something you’ve probably seen very often, and I applaud Cloverfield for that. But the way the film was going, I was expecting a different ending.

The whole film is like that: I kept expecting one thing, and it kept delivering something else. At times, the movie was gritty and realistic in a very admirable way (which I’ll discuss at greater length later), but at other times, it was hackneyed and stupid, and endless stream of pointless scenes and stupid dialogue and clichés. It’s like there were two sets of directors: the good set and the crappy substitute set that came in whenever the good set wandered off, which was pretty often. The good scenes, the scenes that start to be immersive, are always (always!) followed by scenes in which the characters become irritating nonentities again. That, coupled with the short length and bad ending, make Cloverfield a hard movie to enjoy.

But like I said before, there were still some parts of the film that I actually did like (after all, at least it wasn’t Resident Evil or worse, Alien vs. Predator). For one thing, the entire film is shot from the viewpoint of somebody’s handheld camcorder, and although this kind of realism clashes terribly with the unrealism of the characters, it’s real enough to illuminate those scenes that are actually good. At times, it had a documentary feel to it, and I get the feeling that the directors deliberately mimicked the excellent documentary 9/11. There are points where the stupid main characters fall away and you’re left with a crowd of extras running around and trying to escape, and at those times, you could be forgiven for forgetting that you’re watching fiction. There’s a scene in a field hospital with wounded soldiers walking around, the mortally wounded being carted by on stretchers, and an alien something or other being carried away in one of those sealed glove-boxes that people use to handle biohazards. It’s an impressive scene, and there’s a real sense of panic and confusion and doom as the soldiers try to save those who can’t be saved. And when one of the characters falls sick because of exposure to the something or other, the way the CDC guys in the blue plastic biohazard suits respond put me a little bit in mind of Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone.

But, as I said before, this scene was immediatley followed by something stupid and unrealistic that didn’t fit at all. That’s the fatal flaw in Cloverfield: it’s impossible to really appreciate the realism, because the realism is always followed by unrealism.

I should also make a note that the special effects are mediocre at best. Considering how pretty and real-looking everything’s getting these days, and considering the fact that the filmmakers were trying to make a movie that felt like someone videotaping real life, they probably should have fired about half the writers and (film-review gods forgive me for saying this) spent more money on special effects. This is the first (and I hope the last) occasion that I ever end up saying anything like this, but if there’s a single movie where more special effects were needed, it was Cloverfield. The way the movie tried to make it really feel like video, with occasional stutters in the camera’s recording, or accidental flips back to earlier footage, was admirable, but completely diluted by bad dialogue and unrealistic CGI.

Now, before I cruelly dismiss the film, I do want to say one thing in service of it: the basic premise was good. It’s basically a Godzilla movie from a completely fresh viewpoint, and that kind of original thinking is pretty impressive. But in the end, the execution was rotten, which ruins the whole thing.

All in all, Cloverfield didn’t even come close to living up to all the hype and expectation around it. It was a bad, sophomoric, amateurish movie that could have been really impressive if it had just tried a little harder. As it is, though, it’s a real disappointment, and I wouldn’t reccommend even renting it, unless you just have to know what all the hype was about.

One final, nitpicky point before I hand down my judgment: Are we really supposed to believe that a handheld camcorder can run constantly for an hour, despite getting dropped, beaten up, blown up, and crashing from a helicopter?

Final Judgment:

*   *   `   .   .   .   .   .   .   . (2.5/10 asterisks)

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