Warm-up movies during the waves of people included our usual House of Wax and we also decided to watch the original Frankenstein for the first time in years. (The last time we saw it was in the theater, actually, which was a weird realization.) I put on Frogs while we at a late dinner, just so Moe could see a young Sam Elliot.
Then it was time to settle in for the last movie of 31 Days, 2017 edition. I felt bad about last year's choice - Phantasm - as it was a selfish one and I don't think Moe liked it much. This year I let her choose and - out of a group that included Bram Stoker's Dracula and Fright Night - she chose:
I have a blu-ray of Cloverfield that I've never watched. I think I got it as part of a 'buy 2, get 1 free' promotion, but I'm not sure what the other films were. (Maybe Dark City and In the Mouth of Madness?) I was happy to have Cloverfield - I remembered enjoying it when it was released - but I've just never been in the mood to watch it again. If I'm in the mood for found footage I'm generally looking for something smaller and rougher. If I'm in the mood for some kaiju action I'm looking to see the monsters - preferably monsters fighting each other.
This is a roundabout way of saying that I hadn't seen the movie in a while and wasn't really in the mood to watch it last night. (I was leaning more toward Fright Night, actually.) Sometimes that really colors your appreciation of a movie - and sometimes the movie flips your mood around and you end up enjoying it despite yourself. Which was it this time?
The blu-ray mentioned earlier. It's as good as you can expect for a found-footage movie from 2008. (Okay, maybe better than you'd expect - somebody sprang for the really good camera.)
Cloverfield is basically a Godzilla movie from the point of view of the people running away and screaming "Godzilla!" Giant monster attacks New York City, group of people tries to rescue a friend and escape. The gimmick is that it's all seen through a hand-held camera. Found footage kaiju film kinda sums it up.
|Wait. Is this a prequel to Escape From New York?|
The movie is elevated from your standard found footage fare on a couple of fronts - first, it actually takes the time to build a bit of a relationship with the characters. Even the cameraman - Hud - gets some character moments, which is something of a rarity in found footage movies. The cameraman is never focused on - otherwise you'll start to wonder why this person is still shooting video. Second - this movie had a budget. I know that sounds stupid - all movies have a budget - but I mean it had a BUDGET. Like $25 million worth of budget. So no dodgy CGI monster that shows up and ruins all the atmosphere in the last ten minutes.
|I do miss everyone screaming "Godzilla" though.|
The plot is still pretty threadbare - there's just not enough room to develop a real deep story when the rationale you're running with is "he was filming testimonials at a going-away party and is still filming things for... uh, posterity." It boils down to "guy realizes the woman he loves is in jeopardy, heads into danger to save her." The filmmakers do employ a pretty cool trick to add some depth - the tape used in the camera has been used before, and as Hud stops and starts recording the camera rolls the tape a few seconds forward, allowing us glimpses of the film that was recorded previously. It's not a lot, but it provides a few character notes that helps make some choices more believable.
|"So you're still filming because you're basically an idiot? |
Okay, I actually buy that."
A giant monster movie stands or falls on the quality of its monster, and on this front Cloverfield succeeds quite well. I remember being disappointed when I saw it in the theater because I never got a clear view of the monster. This actually ends up working to the films advantage, because it's much more realistic and terrifying to see a giant limb come down on a car in front of you or to see tank shells exploding against a the side of a creature mostly obscured by buildings. The few glimpses of the entire monster - primarily from a helicopter - are slightly disappointing. A scene in which the characters are moving between two buildings toppled against each other while the monster approaches is, in comparison, pretty freakin' awesome.
|Did you see that?!! Did you guys see that?|
The cinematography suffers from a certain inconsistency. Sometimes it's pretty obvious that the camera is being held by an amateur - the shakiness so bad that some people suffered nausea and migraines in the theater - and sometimes is just as obviously being held by a pro that manages to make sure all the important bits are in-frame and in-focus just when they need to be. I'm so used to that sort of shifting quality in other found-footage movies at this point that I barely registered the changes (though I did have to look away from the screen during the escape from the Brooklyn Bridge).
|This was also shaky - but awesome.|
The ending falls down a bit, as is the case with almost all found footage movies. I would have ended it with the final monster attack, myself - but I understand that it would undercut the whole "footage found in Central Park by the military" wraparound element. Still, I was way more invested in Hud than I was in Rob and Beth, despite the bits of previously taped content, and I felt his loss a little more than the others.
|Salud, Hud. You deserved better.|
One sidebar - when this movie came out it was seven years after 9/11 and I felt that connection far more keenly back then. The shots of collapsing buildings, dust and crowds running for safety had a distinctly different weight to them when I first saw them. I never imagined that there would be enough of a distance from those events that seeing visual reminders of them would have less of an emotional impact - but here it is, and I wasn't immediately flashing back to that day. Weird.
The Bottom Line
Cloverfield is actually a much better movie than I remembered. I went in with a bad attitude and ended up engaged with the characters and their plight and enjoying the monster and the disaster movie vibe. I think I've always put this film on a level below some of my favorite found-footage movies like The Blair Witch Project or [REC] and it totally deserves to be up there with them.