In the 1950s the United States was attacked by deadly mantises, giant ants, grasshoppers and just about everything else, up to and including a giant papier mache turkey. The assault continued into the 1970s, even reaching to the point where it was gigantic, killer rabbits. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms gave us our own dinosaur while It Came from Beneath the Sea gave us an octopus, but these were all one-offs. Even King Kong, who is supposed to be our giant monster, only managed to visit New York once, and our own attempt to embrace Godzilla in 1998 was something best left forgotten.
There have recently been announcements of a true sequel to Cloverfield, so maybe after all these years we'll get our own giant monster series. It's going to be a bit confusing since J.J. Abrams and company have already used the Cloverfield name for two other unrelated films, 10 Cloverfield Lane and The Cloverfield Paradox, simply because they hoped they could ride the coattails of the original film. It will be interesting to see where this goes since the sequel is supposed to be more of a normal film rather than jumping back on the found footage bandwagon.
Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) is attending a surprise going-away party before he heads off for a new job in Japan. His brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and Jason's fiancé Lily (Jessica Lucas) are in charge of the party, and Jason puts his friend Hud (T. J. Miller) in charge of the camera. Hud is happy to film everything, especially Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), a woman he has a crush on but who doesn't return the sentiment.
The party is made uncomfortable by the arrival of Beth (Odette Annable) and her date for the night, largely because Rob and Beth have been holding a torch for each other for years and had a one-night stand, after which Rob didn't call. Even more uncomfortable is the arrival of a giant monster that crawls out of the Atlantic and starts rampaging through Manhattan. After a failed attempt to leave the island Rob receives a call from Beth, who is trapped in he apartment. Against everyone's advice Rob decides to make the perilous journey to midtown Manhattan to rescue her as the military begins an all-out assault against the creature.
The found footage angle, just like any other movie, doesn't really bother me unless it's forced. There are times where it seems contrived for Hud to still have the camera with him, but those contrivances have payoffs in decent scares and action scenes, so I am fine with that. Pretty much from the time the monster shows up to the end is everything a movie like this should be, with the monster often just glimpsed or parts of it showing. If the decision had been made to show it clearly from the beginning I'm sure the CGI would show its age, but the way it was done is the same as how it would best be done with practical effects.
While the bulk of the movie is enough to make one forgive the beginning it has to be stated that the party is hard to get through. Even knowing what was to come it was difficult to put up with, since none of the characters are likeable (especially Hud) and it is too much like many parties I have been to that I wanted to escape. In all honesty I wouldn't have minded seeing a giant foot come down on their building and then spending the rest of the movie with an entirely different cast of characters. It is far from the only thing wrong with the movie, but everything else can at least be forgiven as an attempt to add a bit of structured plot. Apart from Lily and Marlena the introduction to the main cast just makes me wish I could got on a punching spree. Rob, for all his noble intentions, is just as insufferable as the rest.
The worst, though, is T. J. Miller as Hud. Or, worse, as T. J. Miller, since depending on which allegations against him have come about, his character stalking and harassing a woman who has no interest in him just seems to ring a little too true. It doesn't help that Hud also seems like he was bounced on his father's knee in a low-ceilinged room. It's almost as if they wanted to have a stoner character but then decided to pull back at the last moment.
What is truly good about the movie is that, unlike others of its type, this is the first time we get to see what is happening from the ground level. There is a scene in Godzilla where a mother and child are cowering and she says that they are about to join her husband, and that is probably the closest these films have come to portraying the human toll of such a a creature attacking a city. Since it is New York being attacked, and some of the scenes look eerily familiar to events in real life, it does have a bit of an impact for those of us who remember watching events unfold back in 2001.
One of the best things Cloverfield does is not give a lot of explanations. It is pretty clear where the creature came from, as that is shown in the background of one of the final scenes in the movie. However, there have been so many other theories, such as a woman passed out on the couch at the party was given a super serum by her activist boyfriend who stole it from the company that created the creature. Another is that it lived in the ocean depths, got hurt by a drilling platform and followed the boat back to its home. The only thing that direct Matt Reeves and writer Drew Goddard has confirmed is that the monster was an infant, and was just as scared about what was happening around it as everyone was about the creature itself. Other than a confirmation of where it generally came from there is no need for government and corporate conspiracies and the like; the monster shows up, wrecks everything and has to be dealt with. The best movie giant movie monsters are kept simple.
I am interested to see, after 13 years, where they go with this, and also pretty much relieved that most of the characters will be died, so maybe there will be someone to root for this time other than the monster. Still, despite all of its flaws, Cloverfield manages to successfully do what it promises.
Time: 85 minutes
Starring: Michael Stahl-David, T. J. Miller, Jessica Lucas, Mike Vogel, Lizzy Caplan
Director: Matt Reeves