(UN)POPULAR CULTURE

The home of writer & author A. J. BLACK

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from May 20th, 2014…

The secrecy and curiosity surrounding what would become known as Cloverfield remains seven years on as memorable as Matt Reeves’ resultant movie itself.

Shot in complete secrecy by Bad Robot, with Paramount’s backing, and inspired by BR’s founder JJ Abrams looking at Godzilla toys in Japan with his son and thinking how the movie world needed an American version, Cloverfield was trailered as simply 1-18-08 with no fanfare and took the world by storm – what was this mysterious found footage piece that seemed to simply be a light, preppy relationship drama until the Statue of Liberty head came crashing down the street?

Speculation was rife for months and finally the answer came as Cloverfield presented itself as a monster movie classic for the YouTube generation – a lithe, intense, chaotic piece of work with an emotional tether at its heart and a frenetic refusal to take a breath.

It hit home at just the right time, Cloverfield.

Found footage was at peak popularity, with Paranormal Activity in a different spectrum setting the world alight around the same time, while the moment with the Liberty head perfectly encapsulates the fact Reeves was tapping into the burgeoning era of camera phones recording everything, uploading to the World Wide Web, information being instantly shared which accounts for our players here literally watching news reports of the carnage as it unfolds mere blocks away.

The equation of fusing a found footage, close camera, ground level conceit with a traditional monster movie was, frankly, an inspired one & Reeves milks it to full potential, backed up by a solid template script by Drew Goddard which lands a simple but highly effective character story at the movie’s centre. It allows Reeves to start with a feint almost, spending a good 15 minutes or so on establishing how Mike Vogel’s everyman Rob is about to take a promotion in Japan (one of many Godzilla winks throughout) while attempting to reconcile his love for Odette Yustman’s Beth, while events are documented by TJ Miller’s lugubrious Hud & various other players are drawn into their desperate bid for survival when Reeves–just as you’re genuinely involved in the relationship drama–yanks you and those characters into the truly nightmarish, chaotic scenario that unfolds. It’s a clever, careful start.

The characters aren’t even particularly well drawn, none particularly three dimensional, but we don’t need much more than a sketch out because once they’re thrown into the action, it’s the emotional punch that comes into play. You do believe Rob would lead them all into the heart of the madness to save Beth, and having such a human component helps anchor the drama as New York is utterly torn apart around them. Reeves plays the card of never quite showing the monster for the majority of the piece–less a towering Godzilla, more a Lovecraftian limbering beast–and keeps everything at the level of our characters, through Hud’s camera; it’s a distorted viewpoint of course through this one lens but that’s the point, we’re not supposed to understand everything.

We see the military, we see something strange drop into the ocean, hear incongruous things, but we never quite get enough to piece together a reason this is all going down. We see the response, we know the reaction, but we don’t need the *why* – that can be up to us, which is classic Abrams in his approach and further helps sell the very concept behind Cloverfield. If this situation happened to us, we’d be just as terrified & frantic as these people, and such focus allows us to care & relate to these people. Alongside this element, Reeves nails his blend of shaky-cam action, the odd bit of vicious blood letting and where he needs to employ CGI to sell the monster – it looks low-fi yet believably epic, and remarkably it all clocks in at roughly 70 minutes (perhaps 80 if you listen to Michael Giacchino’s ‘Roar’ overture on the end credits, quite a brilliant homage to the scores of Godzilla composer Akira Ikufube).

Though some may claim it weightless, hollow and perhaps even indulgent, Cloverfield is quite a stunning, fresh use of the found footage concept which cleverly updates the Godzilla-inspired idea of a monster rampaging through a major city that had almost become cliche in popular culture. Matt Reeves made the idea thrilling and scary once again, tapping into modern uses of technology to film–even perhaps thematic parallels to 9/11 to some degree given the setting–but ultimately he delivers a piece of by turns thrilling, witty, intense and excellently staged entertainment with characters you like and want to see get through the chaos they’re thrown into.

No doubt this one reminded people just how great monster movies can be, especially if given a fresh, vibrant perspective.

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