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Yesterday I played hooky with  Jason and Jessica and and went to see Cloverfield at the first showing of the day. Upon walking out of the theater I got an e-mail from my friend Peter in NYC who had just seen it as well, and a lengthy review he’d just written. Since I knew a lot of you folks are monster movie fans as well I got the OK to share the review here. The full thing is after the jump, and yes there are spoilers. As for me, I had a great time at the movie, ok, here’s Peter’s review:

 

I just got back from a screening of “Cloverfield” (digitally projected and looking very sharp). I thought you, my fellow monster fans, might enjoy some of my reactions – there are “spoilers.”

So, in brief, it is a fun “ride” of a movie worth seeing on the big screen and the decision to make it a “found videotape” is a gimmick which allows the story to have a very immediate “you are there” feeling. Yes, it could be described as “The Blair Witch Project” meets the American “Godzilla,” but it succeeds with this premise and there were some smart choices made so that it functions satisfactorily for a feature length movie. At a bit under 90 minutes it doesn’t wear out its welcome.

It is a bit tedious at the start as the characters are established. They are all dull normals who are conventionally good-looking and witless. Patton Oswalt was on the money in his salty early pseudonymous review – it looked like they were filming the Abercrombie and Fitch catalog. No geeks or nerds (or odd-lookers) amongst the crowd. Not a single person who might have actually watched a Godzilla film (the leads are probably all too “cool” to have intentionally seen a kaiju flick). A true Giant Monster Geek would have been a welcome addition. He or she then might have had the savvy to advise the others what actions might be possible in order to get through a giant monster attack. If these vapid folk actually watched the news reports on the TV screens in the background, they would have had more info to work with and perhaps bettered their odds. However, these brain-dead mannequins do everything wrong, so they are essentially a guide for how NOT to survive a kaiju visitation.

Also, if there had been a nerd/geek amongst this group of gargantua-fodder Gen-X Barbie & Kens, there might have been some snappier dialogue and some neat ways to play off the old genre clichés (the “Evil” character in “Fright Night” cleverly served that purpose). What if the two leads were both monster geeks? That would have been more fun, but perhaps too alienating for their target audience of consumers. Otherwise, the banter is pretty much what you’d expect, except for a very “written” sounding reference to Coney Island at the beginning, and you know how boring most people are in their “natural state.” Thankfully, there’s enough action so that you need not listen to the empty-headed chatter or too long. I did find one touching moment, when during a brief lull a cell phone call from a mother leads to the revelation of the demise of one of her sons – that seemed genuine.

The character doing the filming, Hud, is apparently a first time video camera user and there is an attempt to show him getting “into” filming tributes to the departing Rob, but he doggedly keeps filming throughout this chaotic night which seems a bit far-fetched. If he was presented as an obsessive guy who always filmed his life experiences (who perhaps then posted same to U-Tube) like so many people who live publicly on their blogs these days, then it might have been more plausible.

I suppose the device of having the “romantic flashbacks” being the bits of tape that weren’t newly recorded-over (it wasn’t a fresh tape in the camcorder) were supposed to be poignant, but I found them maudlin. However, once that annoying loft party saying “farewell to Rob” is interrupted by what seems to be an earthquake and then power failure, you are finally over the hill on the coaster and the rest is pretty much nonstop carnage.

The initial destruction intentionally captures the 9/11 atmosphere and does it well. Anyone who was here in Manhattan for that will get a few deep chills from those scenes. Oddly, no cars are running and power seems intermittent, and like everything in this film there is no explanation whatsoever. Thus the film makers are spared having to shoot the insane traffic jams that would have happened if such an event was to actually have taken place (and for folks who have never been here, yes NYC really is the city that never sleeps and there are plenty of cars out during the wee hours of the morning when the action begins).

The monster itself is pretty weird looking, perhaps too lanky for something that is supposed to be causing so much physical damage. You don’t see enough of it for my taste, but the scenes with it are effective. More potent are the monster’s creepy spider-lice parasites which it scrapes off on a building, setting them loose on a rampage. If you are bitten, you’ll swell up and explode after a time, but it isn’t made clear if there are little parasites in you like “Alien,” or if these things have some sort of super anticoagulant needed to feed off of something as big and tough as the monster, which causes frail humans to burst.

The big monster didn’t have enough screen time to emote any personality, and his looks were reminiscent of W. D. Barlowe’s extraterrestrials from his book of designs from years ago. The face also had a bit of the eponymous stowaway from the old “It! The Terror from Beyond Space” film as well, but it is only seen briefly. A pity as the sort of axolotl breathing sacks on the side of the head, flexing asthmatically, were a nice design touch. Sadly, the monster ultimately doesn’t come across as iconic. Godzilla is an icon, and would be even if there was only one film. Same for King Kong, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and more recently the Alien and the Predator – memorable, unique beasts with character. That just isn’t happening here.

It was a nice throw-away that Marlene says at the beginning – wherein she is shuffling around in shock, covered with building debris dust – that the monster is eating everyone (words to that effect). That seemed promising, but isn’t pursued again until almost the very end. To me, people would seem rather too small to be interesting to something that big, but of course are perfect for the parasites to be chasing. Perhaps the creature’s natural food source are schools of smaller edible things?

There are some nice set pieces and the entire series of images – done in long takes – is very well choreographed. To falsely do amateur video footage and work the SPFX in must have been quite a challenge and it was executed admirably.

There is no score to the film, just the source music at the party. At the beginning there are some deep bass sounds like giant footfalls, clearly a reference to the opening of the original Godzilla film. For the end credits the talented Michael Giacchino wrote “ROAR!” which is an overture that plays like a symphonic suite of themes that could have been used had this film been scored as a conventional giant monster movie. The wordless solo soprano voice is a bit overused for my tastes, but otherwise evocative giant monster type themes are presented, well-orchestrated and exciting. Great stuff! I hope he gets the chance to score the sequel if it is shot more conventionally. Perhaps some other humongous beastie from the sea bottom will arise to do combat with a relative of this city-smasher (who may or may not have survived the final air force attack).

So, if you like your giant monsters, this is a well-done take on the genre, and certainly worth seeing on the big screen as the sound effects alone will grab you and throw you against the wall. I trust that the collector’s Blu-Ray disk set will include all the online backstory material – the sinking of the oil rig, the attacks on the ship, Slusho, the Tagruato machinations, the Manga adaptation and so on. The film itself stood on its own without this material, but the enriching build-up accomplished via false international newscasts, blogs, commercials and so on did fit it more into the kaiju genre, and definitely add to the experience.

Peter H. Gilmore

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