‘Cloverfield’ an apocalyptic flop

David Hohwald

If you have been on YouTube in the past six months you’ve probably heard of “Cloverfield.” A successful viral marketing campaign has created a wave of suspense around the film, with people wondering what exactly happens, what the monster is and why the monster is in New York. Now if only producer J. J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves had decided to answer any of these questions. Their film amounts to the equivalent of a monster-based theme park ride – a spectacle that does little well and fails to achieve in some of the very basics of the medium.

“Cloverfield” definitely defies the conventions of traditional movie making – of that there is no doubt. The movie is presented as an eyewitness account of a monster attacking New York, recorded on an average person’s camera and collected by the Department of Defense. This may seem interesting, but the end result is more “Real World: Godzilla” than anything else.

The camera work is obviously different, and the hand-camera perspective choice is similar to Paul Greengrass’ pioneering style in the “Bourne” films and “United 93.” Seeing a first-hand perspective in film is so new that it draws attention at first, but this quickly mounts to frustration. By following the small group of characters (and I use that term loosely), the audience only gets a small look at the bigger scope of the events. This is exactly what Reeves intends, but the question is why? It serves little purpose to narrow this focus so much and turns the viewer into a passenger on the ride that is “Cloverfield.”

As for the characters, it’s hard to say the actors portraying them did a bad job, because there’s not much to judge. Michael Stahl-David is fine at what he does as the lead character Rob, but he has so little to do. There’s no development of the characters outside of what is seen on camera, so the viewer knows little-to-nothing about anyone on screen. These people might as well be strangers for the amount we know about them, and, sadly, they really are.

Reeves attempts to inject some humor and depth into the people at some points, but this falls so flat that it would be laughable if it were not so tragic.

There is hardly any motivation for these characters aside from fear, and this bland palette of driving factors ultimately makes the movie repetitive and pointless.

People we do not know move from point A to point B with the goal of reuniting Rob with Beth (another character we know little about). Is the love they feel real? It’s impossible to say, and that turns the driving force of the “plot” into a big ambiguous question mark.

That said, “Cloverfield” has some gorgeous special effects. In terms of explosions, damage and mayhem, the movie hangs with the best of them. Even the sound is impressive, with ominous booms and tremors filling the cinema and rattling the seats.

The only knock on this is that all the effects seem a bit wasted at times because of the singular perspective. Rarely do we get a good look at the action as the audience gets swept away in the commotion.

It would be nice to see what could be done with this amount of talent and multiple perspectives, because as thrilling as “Cloverfield” can be at times, in general it is like watching a reality TV show.

Much of the film is left unexplained, with characters giving out their general theories but offering no substantive proof, and this mystery is simply frustrating.

It isn’t the product of good plot-pacing or deft writing but rather omission of information.

Surely rumors and theories will dominate the Internet for months to come, which may interest some but will only serve to frustrate others.

As a movie, “Cloverfield” is a more spectacle than substance. The characters are simply there, undeveloped and unknowable, and the plot is driven through contrivance above anything else.

However, if you want to be in the shoes of someone in the middle of a monster attack on New York City, this is the film for you.

Sadly, the gorgeous sound and visual quality adds up to little as movie and seems more fit for a ride at an amusement park.

See it in the theater if you’re interested, as this movie’s technical prowess is best viewed there, but do not expect a film that does anything other than show a first-hand perspective of a monster attack.