After its early post-teaser-trailer hype and no doubt to the great satisfaction of producer J.J. Abrams, “Cloverfield” was filmed in complete secrecy. Thus what began as a low budget horror and monster-movie turned into an international smash-hit that proves once again how possible it is to make money without financial clout or big star names attached. The concept is as simple as it is terrifying in our media-saturated age of citizen-journalism, on the spot as news breaks: Think of “The Blair Witch Project” relocated to the big apple and crossed with “Godzilla.” Whether or not the film is a mashup of previously existing documentary and monster conventions is a valid question and debatable but the attraction of “Cloverfield” will be its execution and its fresh if not unique style.
The film is presented as a home-movie, initially to record testimonials at a going-away party in Manhattan, complete with grainy and shaky footage as well as the obligatory running commentary by the operator. The party is abruptly interrupted by a huge explosion in the lower city and (in a great “Escape From New York” tribute) the Statue of Liberty’s head flung down on of the avenues. As the tagline taunts – something has found us. And whatever that something is, it’s pretty angry. In the ensuing panic five friends, played by Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller (as the cameraman), Michael Stahl-David and Mike Vogel stick together to try and rescue an injured friend across New York, filming as they go. It’s a harrowing experience for the viewer as well as the characters as they dodge between explosions, an evacuation, the home guard and the something itself. Director Matt Reeves and screenwriter Drew Goddard mercilessly (yet, one feels gleefully) exposing us to horror after horror and teasing with as little background as possible (the addition of CGI is prominent yet not intrusive, a welcome feature) to root the film in a sort of bizarre reality most films can never get close to.
Amidst the non-stop action and truly terrifying suspense there’s little room for respite, just enough to catch a breath with some trivial but nevertheless touching footage of what was previously recorded on the tape. The impact and importance of the human story of “Cloverfield” cannot be understated and as is so often the case with sci-fi or fantasy, it can accurately reflect struggle and suffering in a disaster zone without becoming laden with sentimentality. Reeves never allows the story to descend into simple bravado action and even his shaky first-person view seems to enhance the experience on a level that goes beyond mere effect or technique to suggest insecurity. In these moments, it’s place in the the horror genre comes into its own and leaves even the toughest viewer shaken. So much so in fact that on release some theatres displayed a notice, warning of side- or after-effects similar to sea-sickness. If that isn’t convincing enough for you, you’ll just have to see it for yourself.
Officially, “Cloverfield” contains no original score. To aid its docu-style, this feels natural but it didn’t prevent Abrams from asking regular collaborator Michael Giacchino to compose a suite of music for the end credits. The result, “Roar!” otherwise known as the “Cloverfield Overture” has to be one of the most bombastic single cues on film in a long, long time, featuring a full orchestra, bolstered low brass and some very haunting female vocals over the top. Giacchino provides us with twelve minutes of a glorious and very memorable over-the-top action-romp and as such it’s a shame that the idea couldn’t be explored over an entire film. While it pays significant tribute to Akira Ifukube (the Japanese “Godzilla” composer), the piece is littered with Giacchinoisms, a style that would find further exploration in his score to “Super 8” three years later. The piece is only available for digital download but considering the price, every film-score enthusiast should have this in their collection.
While the idea behind it may not be very new, “Cloverfield” is among the best hand-held camera films out there and makes for thoroughly gripping viewing throughout. If you’re looking for some mind-numbing thrills and are prepared to suffer some nightmares afterwards, J.J. Abrams has created the perfect film just for you. See it if you can.
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