Cloverfield (2008): a Review
These days, big-name film-makers tend to avoid making horror films. The reason: if they want to earn cash and kudos scaring people, they have to succeed in a niche even terrorists – who’re willing to maim and murder to achieve their ends – haven’t conquered.
We live in an age of unparalleled media obtrusion, where news of the most sickening crimes and debasements is steadily spewed out from TVs, laptops, phones, newspapers, and even iPods – where one can barely find out the latest football results without hearing about the latest suicide bombing or high school massacre.
Which leaves anyone brave enough to try professional scaremongering in a quandary: How can you scare a public that’s not only seen myriad make-believe aliens, zombies, ghosts, and vampires, but has also witnessed real maniacs fly real planes into real skyscrapers?
Producer J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves decided they could do such a thing, and all with a meagre $25 million budget and the butter-brand-like title Cloverfield. So, was it money well spent?
The film, shot entirely on a shaky personal camcorder á la Blair Witch, begins with several snippets of random footage in which the main characters are introduced and an atmosphere of banality is built. Soon, at a Manhattan party, a blackout causes the partygoers to step outside, where we see an explosion flair up from behind a line of tower blocks. As everyone screams and swears at what they’ve just seen, there is another explosion, this time powerful enough to decapitate the distant Statue of Liberty and send its head spinning into view.
Such sudden, violent mutilation of the skyline conjures up memories of 9/11, and that’s obviously what Reeves intended, but what makes the scene really terrifying is that we the audience, limited to a single person’s point of view, can see the demolition but not the demolisher.
This sense of unsettling mystery pervades the rest of the film too, so that, even when the culprit of the destruction is revealed (thankfully not al-Qaeda), it’s only ever shown fleetingly and selectively, and no attempt is made to explain its origins or purposes. It’s a technique that Hitchcock used to startling effect in The Birds, and which Reeves employs equally deftly here, knowing exactly what to show and what to leave to imagination, keeping us mainly in the dark but occasionally tossing scraps of information our way, scraps that only confuse and frighten further.
The subtle direction is supplemented well by the cast, whose competent acting and lack of big names reinforce the impression that the torment is really happening to ordinary people. And ordinary people is what this film’s about. There are no heroes in this movie, or if there are, we catch only glimpses of them, running towards the Lovecraftian leviathan, emptying their automatic rifles in vain before vanishing to an unknown fate.
But what really sets this film apart from other civilian-oriented fright-fests like The Mist is that even the main cast of the film are secondary characters here; the real protagonist remains the camera, and by extension the audience, and both camera and audience can do nothing but watch as they are first dragged away from the roars and explosions, and then, once composure is regained, brought ever-so closer again, towards a monster now disturbingly quiet, and towards a messy but satisfying denouement.
Of course, the film’s not perfect, and there are several minor plot inconsistencies and contrivances. Anyone who finds such things infuriating, or suffers from motion-sickness, or wishes to have all loose-ends tied up, or expects to see Citizen Kane, should stay away from this film. But everyone else will find in Cloverfield a bold and innovative reminder of how exhilarating it can be to feel scared.