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Review: Cloverfield

Poster for Cloverfield


Right off the bat: Cloverfield is made of awesome.

I loved this movie. It has some minor flaws, but overall, it was excellent. I thought the shaky camera would make me sick (or at least very, very irritated) but it wound up not being so bad-- in fact, it brought the scary right up to your face. There were enough breaks in the handheld stuff to give you a breather, too.

Honestly, we're talking monster movie here, so a science review is, on the face of it, pretty silly. I have a few of nitpicky comments, and I want to talk a bit about monsters in general... so I'll drop the usual Good/Bad format for this one, and just launch into the review.


The Review

This movie has a fantastic premise. Every monster movie ever filmed has always had a "God's Viewpoint": you are like an omniscient god, seeing all the action. You can watch the monster, seeing it clearly. Then you can be whisked to the military HQ and see what they're planning, then see what the hero is doing, and how the military plan will no doubt put him in danger.

Cloverfield isn't like that. When the monster attacks the city, you have no freaking clue what's happening. You are just like everyone else, trying to figure out what to do, scared, and not seeing much. Let's face it: New York is a big town, and you're unlikely to see the action very much.

So I loved that aspect of the movie. Together with the handheld camera, it really put me along with the protagonists, and it really tensed me up. By the end, my stomach was in knots.

And I loved the ending. It was very true to the main idea, that we don't know what's going on. It's a cliche to leave the audience wanting more, of course, but in this case it was taken to an extreme. You could say that the ending was very ambiguous, but I don't think it was even that. For it to be ambiguous we'd need to have at least two ways things could have gone, with some indication of events that we could argue over. But we weren't even given that option. We simply don't know what happened at all. That's not ambiguity, that's plain old uncertainty.

I think that rocks.

OK, on to the nitpicks!

Nitpick 1:

Image of the explosion from CloverfieldWhen the action starts, we see an explosion from a tanker in the harbor several miles away, and we hear the sound at the same time. That's just dumb: it would have taken several seconds for the sound to reach the camera. We see a flash simultaneous with the explosion, so that was basically just a bad mistake.

Years ago I watched a Shuttle launch from about 6 miles away. You could see the engines ignite, and the Shuttle take off, and it was all in perfect silence (except for people cheering). The Shuttle was well on its way before we heard anything (and then it was LOUD).

I think it would have been far more dramatic for the explosion to have been seen first, then we get to watch it in silence for, say, ten seconds before we hear the sound. That would have been very cool.

Nitpick 2:

Picture of
the heroes from Cloverfield looking a bit worn

The hero is trying to get in contact with his girlfriend using his cell phone, but the battery's dead. He runs into an electronics shop and grabs a new battery from a package and uses it in his phone, and he can then hear his girlfriend's phone message.

Yeah, have you ever bought a special battery for a piece of electronics like a cell phone, and it comes out of the package fully charged? Yeah, right. You have to charge it up for a few hours before you can use it. Update (Jan. 21, 2008): Several commenters on the blog have pointed out that some batteries do come with a partial charge. I have never seen this myself, so I provisionally retract this nitpick. You win this round, JJ Abrams!

It would have been more dramatic, in my opinion, to have him looking through corpses for someone with his kind of cell phone. Icky, but logical.

Which leads me to...

Nitpick 3:

Whatever kind of video camera he had, I want one. It holds a charge for a looooong time, even when used as a flashlight in subway tunnels. I actually have no problem with the amount of footage it took; in the very beginning of the movie they made it clear it had an SD charge, and since Our Hero was taking some very cushy job, he had lots of money for a really nice card. Maybe he bought a nuclear battery for it, too.

By the way, I have a video camera that uses near-infrared like the one in the movie. That was pretty accurate. It has an infrared LED in it that lights up everything like an invisible flashlight, but the electronic detector is sensitive to it. It makes everything look very eerie.

Nitpick 4:

Mrs. BA had more of an issue with this than I did, but how the heck can anything take that much punishment and not even be scarred? We saw the monster take a direct hit from a carpet bombing dropped by a Stealth bomber, yet a few minutes later we see it very much up close and personal, and it's ready to rock and roll.

I suspected for a while that maybe there was more than one Big Guy, but the military referred to it as singular ("It's winning."), and they'd know if there were more than one.

Also, we never learn where this thing comes from. Deep water, space, genetic engineering gone awry? Whatever, I have a hard time dealing with it not being so much goo and vapor after the abuse it took.

Unless it was Cthulhu. Hmmm.

Mrs. BA also pointed out that the little beasties were killable with an ax. So why were they vulnerable and the Big Guy wasn't? I actually don't have a problem with that. We have no idea if those were babies, or infantry, or what. They didn't look anything like the Big Guy, so they may have been an entirely different species.

Nitpick 5:

OK, so I love monster movies, I really do. But it's really really hard to make something that big naturally. You can't just scale up a human to 200 feet high and have it run around, for example. The bones would snap trying to support that much weight. The bones have to be much thicker to support more weight, which is why elephants have such thick legs and move slowly.

OK, so maybe there's a solution to this: as MacReady says in The Thing, "Cuz it's different than us, see? Cuz it's from outer space. What do you want from me?"

There may be something to that. Maybe it has some far stronger material for its internal support, like iron or some kind of carbon fiber. I can almost accept that. But we do know it eats humans, so I doubt it was actually alien. Did it come from the deep ocean? Nah. It breathed. Why would it evolve the need to breathe at all? It's not like this thing takes its summer vacation in NYC every year. We'd have known something about it, I think.

So the monster itself was internally (literally) inconsistent. At least it didn't breathe fire or atomic energy.

Nitpick 6:

Why doesn't Hud, the camera guy, ever do anything to help? Geez, what a useless jerk. The only time he helped was when they lifted the girlfriend off her impaling rebar, but that was it. I know, he was the storyteller, but blech. When he bit it (well, got bit), I was glad.

Nitpick 7:

Actually, this isn't a nitpick, but a comment. The parallels with 9/11 were very obvious, but you can't make a monster-attacks-New-York movie without making some homages. The paper falling from the sky was eerie. The part that got me was actually near the beginning, when they run into a drug store for safety. There was a harrowing video from the NYC attacks with this very thing. Moreover, in the actual footage the debris cloud from the WTC blows past the window, from left to right. That was duplicated almost exactly in the movie. If I ever run into JJ Abrams, I'll ask him about that. It was very disquieting.

Nitpick 8:

I'm not an engineer, so I don't know if a tall building can actually lean over yet remain standing, held up by a building next to it. That seems incredibly unlikely, but I can't say for sure.

Update (Jan. 21, 2008): A blog commenter pointed out that buildings are set up to direct thier structural load downward into the footings, so a slanty building would fall over. That sounds logical to me! So I win this one, Abrams!

Closing Thoughts

OK, that's it for nitpicks. Let me say that I thought this was an amazing flick. I suspect a lot of knockoffs will come out, and like others before it, it will change the way horror movies are done. I'm sure we'll get sick of ripoffs soon enough. But this was a good film.

Interestingly, there was no soundtrack to the movie, which makes sense in retrospect. But then, over the credits, they had a very Godzilla-like theme, which was jarring but made me laugh.

I am also VERY ticked at myself: in the credits, it mentioned there were stills from the movie "Them", which is one of my all-time faves (it's the original atomic-mutated giant ant movie). I can't believe I missed it in the movie!

Also, after the credits, at the very very end, we hear a crackling of some kind, but I don't know what it said. I bet it was "Stay tuned for Cloverfield II." Actually, those final words are transcribed on the Cloverfield Wikipedia page.

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