Like 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, which took advantage of nascent Internet
marketing to whip audience interest into a fervor and ingeniously, partially sold itself as a rescued artifact, Cloverfield is a guerrilla-style exercise in “found footage” subjectivity, unfolding
completely in handheld style, with often canted or shaky camerawork. Reframing a classic monster movie conceit as a post-September 11
allegory of big city trepidation, and skillfully evoking more dread than
lasting cathartic release, it’s also a thrilling, skewed slice of cinematic terror tailor-made for our times, now new to DVD.
Delivering on its pre-release buzz to the tune of $165 million worldwide — unlike Snakes on a Plane, the last such sensation to so strike a viral marketing vein — Cloverfield owes its existence to the participation of producer and Lost hit-maker J.J. Abrams. Yet the style, unique framing device and top-shelf execution are what ultimately help sell this mash-up of classic genre filmmaking with new-school tropes.
Blair Witch Project, the film chronicles the plight of a group of young
people fighting for their lives trapped in an unforgiving outdoors, in this
case an urban jungle under siege by a gargantuan rampaging monster, and
hundreds of hostile smaller, scurrying creatures which pose every bit as much
of a threat. The film opens chillingly, with a silent
title card that stamps the subsequent video camera footage as a found audiovisual
document, from the
after a hook-up between long-time friends Rob (Michael David-Stahl, above left) and Beth
(Odette Yustman, above right). The videotape, and thus the movie, then leaps forward a
month, to the evening of a huge going-away party for Rob, who’s preparing to
Tasked by his girlfriend Lily (Jessica
Lucas, below right) with recording the event, Rob’s brother, Jason (Mike Vogel), passes off
the duty to friend Hud (T.J. Miller), who fruitlessly tries to engage Marlena
(Lizzy Caplan, below middle) in flirtatious small talk. The party takes a turn for the
awkward when Beth shows up with another guy. Rob’s suppressed feelings of affection
come bubbling to the surface, words are spoken in anger, and Beth leaves.
Suddenly, a massive jolt shakes the remaining
revelers, and the power goes out. As the group heads outside to see what
exactly has happened, fireballs explode on the horizon, and utter havoc is unleashed.
After one route of evacuation is sealed, Rob receives a distraught cell phone
message from Beth, and becomes determined to make his way to her apartment to
try to find her. Friends in tow, the group sets out, but when the destruction
and fighting on the streets between the creature and the National Guard gets
too intense, they seek shelter underground, and try to traverse subterranean subway
Nicely balancing confusion and
interpersonal anxiety with these grander, under-siege segments, Drew Goddard’s
screenplay is a thing a pared down grace and lean, muscular virtuosity. It
starts by sketching out the underpinnings of character in fine fashion. After
18 brisk, well-plotted minutes of typically angsty young adult introduction, the
movie yields to mayhem — basically an hour-long dash through urban hell.
As with other apocalyptic and sci-fi
movies, Cloverfield squeezes some
bedazzlement out of the destruction of familiar, iconic buildings and
monuments. Here it’s the
panicky set piece. There’s also the beheaded Statue of Liberty, which arrives
early in the movie, and additionally serves as the perfect visual metaphor for
still-lingering apprehension over the state of world events and its own
security. Yet director Matt Reeves (a co-creator of
TV’s Felicity, whose other feature
credit is 1996’s The Pallbearer) also
proves himself effective at simplistic evocative imagery, as with a coachman-less
horse-drawn carriage wandering through
Key to substantial gratification with Cloverfield are two bits of necessary surrender:
succumbing to its overall framing device, and accepting the notion that such
trauma unfolds against a PG-13 backdrop, which is only really a matter of
language, coming after movies like Superbad
and the Hostel films have made coarse exclamatory talk integral to their stamp of “realism” within their respective
genres. The action sequences here — which include a bravura night-vision attack in the
subway tunnel, as well as a ferocious street battle with real military sniper fire that Hillary Clinton would surely remember — are so tensely effective as to eradicate any legitimate
quibbles with the rating for the rest of movie, a problem that arguably plagued Live Free or Die Hard last summer, at least in advance of its release.
Cineastes holding on steadfastly to the notion
that less is more may balk at the degree to which the film reveals its monster.
While it’s true that this does if not undercut then at least muddy the water with
respect to the movie’s metaphorical associations, it’s interestingly handled
within the framework of the film, and seems a commercial tip of the cap as much
as anything, something that DVD interviews about its late production inclusion seem to support. It’s undeniable that Cloverfield
is, at its core, a metaphor for the terror and uncertainty of the real world,
from its aforementioned iconic poster and DVD cover image and willfully vague tagline (“Some
thing has found us”), which makes no mention of a CGI monster on which millions
of dollars was spent, to specific dialogue of choking despondency (“I don’t
know why this is happening”). Like much
great cinema, Cloverfield works on multiple levels; it’s incidentally a monster thriller.
The single-disc DVD’s packaging, as well as its main menu screens and the jittery, chopped-up style of some of its featurettes, loosely continues upon the theme of the movie as a “found artifact,” with a brown, classified, “Project Cloverfield” sticker taking the place of the usual side-binding sticker found on many releases. The DVD itself, meanwhile, is slightly degraded in mock fashion, though it does bear the Paramount and Bad Robot corporate logos. Presented in a 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio enhanced for 16×9 televisions, the movie comes with Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio tracks in English, French and Spanish, with optional subtitles in each of those languages. It’s also worth noting that all of the main supplemental features are subtitle-enabled too, which is a nice touch.
First off, director Reeves sits for an audio commentary track, and it’s a thoughtful and substantive affair throughout. Even better, however, may be a superb 28-minute making-of featurette which intersperses interview segments with Abrams, Reeves, producer Bryan Burk and other behind-the-scenes figures with loads of on-set production footage from the movie’s semi-secret summer 2007 shoot. A good bit of material here features Miller, since he’s the lens through which so much of the movie unfolds (costar Margot Farley good-naturedly chides him that he can “screw up everything twice, as an actor and a cameraman!”), but Caplan also flashes her droll wit, and we learn that some of the actors stay out of breath by jumping rope between takes. Reeves and editor Kevin Stitt, meanwhile, talk about the “soda straw” approach of the movie’s visual scope — that is, creating a grand vision captured in very restricted form. After 28 days of principal photography in and around Los Angeles, the production moves to New York City with a skeleton crew; there, even under the codename “Cheese,” they amusingly discover pictures of their shoot posted to the Internet within mere hours.
A separate 22-minute special effects featurette duplicates a bit of footage, but does showcase plenty of impressive green-screen work, from the Brooklyn Bridge sewquence and other street scenes. Another six-minute featurette focuses more on the creature design itself, with conceptual artist Neville Page talking about his work, the skin of the creature and its pupil-less eyes, which are modeled after those of a great white shark, nature’s most efficient killing machine. Blooper fun gets highlighted in a four-minute segment called “Clover Fun,” and there are also four brief deleted scenes and two alternate endings, all with optional commentary from Reeves. Most of the former are judicious tonal trims (a wisecrack from Hud during the ultra-tense subway sequence, for instance), but I did wish a post-attack sequence between Marlena and Lizzy — part of a brief re-shoot, in which she acknowledges the trauma caused by Jason’s death — had been left in. The two alternate endings, meanwhile, are very much variations on a theme; without spoiling the specifics of the conclusion, one is essentially a different coda, built around a shot for which Reeves had great affinity, while the other focuses on a very brief interstitial flash which hints at the source camera actually capturing the film’s footage being found.
Finally, there’s also a special Easter egg on the disc, able to be found by toggling right after lingering above the Spanish subtitles option on the set-up scene. Doing so will yield a two-minute clip of cast and crew members riffing in goofball fashion on one of the military figures’ lines of dialogue in the movie — “Rack ’em and pack ’em, we’re phantoms in 15!” Cloverfield, meanwhile, seems to be rightly enjoying a bit more than a mere 15 minutes in the pop-cultural spotlight. To purchase the film via Amazon, click here. A- (Movie) A (Disc)