Director    Matt Reeves
Starring    Michael Stahl-David, Lizzy Caplan, TJ Miller, Odette Yustman, Mike Vogel
Release    18 JAN (US) 1 FEB (UK)    Certificate 15
4 stars


18th January 2008

Forget the Army, forget fighter jets, forget nukes - the only real way to kill a city-stomping monster is an overdose of hype. The frothing anticipation that precedes event movies like Cloverfield tends to pump you up like a balloon, but more often than not, leaves you deflated like a punctured beach ball when it comes to the crunch. Too many monster movies promise a big swinging dick but fail to stay hard, leaving you gasping for more action, more plot, just... more. Well, if the hype surrounding Cloverfield - the nameless trailer, the MySpace pages, the seemingly endless internet nerd frenzy - can be considered as six months of teasing foreplay, then the first time you hear the monster's immense roar is like a guttural, back-breaking, teeth-rattling, ball-emptying orgasm. Hyperbole be damned: Cloverfield is every bit as good as you'd hoped.

We begin in true Blair Witch fashion, with a title card presenting what you are about to see as unaltered 'found footage' retrieved from the area "formerly known as Central Park" - there's your first clue shit's about to go down. Then you're introduced to your evening's company; there's Rob (Stahl-David, a kind of Matthew Fox/Michael Vartan cross-breed - that J.J. sure has a type), the lucky recipient of a surprise party before he departs to Japan; there's his on-off girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman); his brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and his girlfriend Lily (Caplan); and there's Hud (Miller), your gormless cameraman, who has been strong-armed into recording heartfelt testimonials for Rob at his shindig. Then, without warning, New York begins to fall apart at the seams: lady Liberty loses her head, a skyscraper collapses and all hell breaks loose. Something is attacking the city, and it ain't Voltron.

The best way to describe Cloverfield is 'orchestrated chaos'. From the moment the shit hits the fan, it's a ramshackle account of the most terrifying day in mankind's brief history. Captured in largely amateur fashion by Hud's ever-present handycam, the action is disjointed, obscured, a sheer mess of noise that's often overwhelming and almost unbearably tense - enough to leave you stiff as a board in more ways than one. In the middle of this gigantic citywide clusterfuck, the cast don't have time to act - it's all 100% reaction. It's bizarre to think this movie even has a director. Cloverfield is a movie that doesn't feel like it's been filmed, it feels like it's been found. Deconstruct the carnage once the smoke has settled and you'll find a movie with more going on beneath the surface than any other blockbuster you'll see this year. There is an invisible genius in its simplicity.

But you don't care about subtext or craftsmanship. You came to see a monster movie, and a monster movie you'll see. All the internet leakage, ARG waffle and Slusho sub-sites can't prepare you for the Cloverfield monster. It's simply indescribable. That's in part due to the fleeting glimpses it's afforded amidst the chaos, but mostly because it's the most ungodly, Giger-choking, ugly motherfucker you'll ever see on screen. Part parasite, part snapping turtle, part squid-whale-crab-ohmygodwhatisthat, it's a colossal force of nature that, at a stroke, makes every 'man in suit' monster you've ever seen completely redundant. The concept of 'mini-monsters' may sound like a duff one, but even the tiny creatures that fall from the big guy's belly provide similar thrills on a smaller scale. Like miniature versions of the Starship Trooper monsters, the little blighters serve to sustain the tension while the main monster is wreaking havoc elsewhere.

It's a testament to Cloverfield that such potential pitfalls are so spectacularly avoided. Worried that there'll be too much bullshit bonding between the characters? The raw footage crudely jumps from scene to scene, cutting out most of the chaff and deftly avoiding needless exposition while maintaining the illusion of a recording. Concerned about the apparently blunt exploitation of 9/11 imagery? There's just the one scene that might stick in your craw in that regard, but it's certainly not as offensive as, say, the gutless World Trade Center. Scared you'll fork out for a ticket and see nothing but blurry shots of a monster's knee disappearing behind a building? Don't worry, you see plenty - if anything, you see too much. But hey, damned if you do, damned if you don't - you wouldn't turn down a pretty girl for flashing too much boob.

Coming face to face with this unholy bastard is such a giddy thrill, it's inevitable that other scenes can feel like padding. All the necessary emotional beats are hit - lives are lost, loves are found, friends stick together etc. - but they do tend to slow things down somewhat. However, you can't derail an express train, and every moment spent in relative safety only adds to the creeping sense of nausea: the stinging, inevitable feeling of doom as Rob and friends venture further and further into the belly of the beast. Sadly, the final five minutes are fumbled somewhat, stretching disbelief to breaking point in a scene of unnecessary overkill. For a movie so determined to cling to some distant yet feasible semblance of reality, there are a few really, really ridiculous plot contrivances. Yes, ridiculous even for a monster movie.

What Cloverfield does nail, and what most monster movies resolutely fail at achieving, is the concept of being stuck in the middle of this cataclysmic event, of being a singular vision in a bigger-than-life scenario. Your handheld POV means you get no cutaways, no Michael Bay crane shots, no tracking the monster as it dry-humps every skyscraper in Manhattan. In this movie, there is no hero; no large-chinned Affleck swinging into the mouth of the monster to rescue his woman; no 'roided out Army general barking commands at his grunts; no panicked President resorting to nukes; no hick farmer flying an F-15 up the monster's butthole to save the day.

These things may all be happening for all we know, but not in this movie. There is no explanation, no pandering, no message. We're rooted at Ground Zero with our average Joes: clueless, distraught and shit-scared. No monster movie has ever felt so grounded - it shows a story destined to be a mere footnote of the world's darkest day, but it's your only window into that world. A ponce would describe it as Rosencratz And Guildenstern meets Godzilla. But not me.

So what is Cloverfield? The best Godzilla film never made? A re-invention of the monster movie genre? You could certainly argue both points: it feels like every creature feature you ever saw, but seen from a totally fresh point of view. It's as intense a movie as you're likely to see in months, an unapologetic bum-clencher through and through. On the flipside, it's fun - lots of silly fun. But more importantly, it's more than just an empty promise: all the marketing, the trailers and the dumbass internet theories in the world count for nought once you've seen Cloverfield in all its hideous glory. It's a monster movie par excellence; conceived expertly, delivered with devastating effect and destined to go down as a genre great. How about that for living up to the hype?

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