REVIEW: “Cloverfield”

Cloverfield poster

Whenever I’ve heard people talk about the movie “Cloverfield” they usual use words such as “disappointing” or “mediocre”. In light of that my expectations for the film were pretty tepid. But “Cloverfield” had something else working against it. I’m not a fan of the handheld ‘found footage’ technique that at one point had become wildly popular. For me it only works in small doses and more often than not it turns out to be a liability. So here we are, five years after the film’s release and I’m giving it a shot.

I have to say that as a whole there’s not a lot to “Cloverfield”. It’s very cut-and-dry. It takes no real chances. It has practically no depth to it at all. Yet it’s completely honest. It’s committed to its simple but clear vision. It nicely captures that 1950’s sci-fi B-movie vibe. Most importantly I was with it from the opening government archives “credits” all the way through to its rip-roaring finale. Is it the greatest thing since sliced bread? No. But I enjoyed it a heck of a lot more than I anticipated.

As I mentioned, “Cloverfield” is filmed using the ‘found footage’ method which means that weak stomachs may end up a but queasy. It starts off calm enough. The first 15 minutes or so of its tight 85 minute runtime is spent at a party introducing us to the central characters. Rob (Michael Stahl-David) is preparing to move to Japan. His brother Jason (Mike Vogel) his girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) plan the surprise going away party in their New York City apartment. “Hud” (T.J. Miller) is tasked with “documenting” the party on video. And then there’s Beth (Odette Yustman), a girl that Rob has a tricky romantic relationship with. That’s really all you need to know about any of these characters and we get it all in the first few minutes of the film.

The movie picks up when the party is interrupted by a huge tremor. The first reaction is that it’s an earthquake but we quickly learn that’s not the case. I won’t go into heavy detail but let me just say that the huge old school creature feature fan in me was pretty excited. I think this is where the movie fell short for some people. This is clearly a classic tip of the hat to the big monster pictures of the mid to late 1950’s mixed with a popular modern filmmaking technique. Your enjoyment of “Cloverfield” will probably depend on how much that interests you or how much of it you can buy into.

Cloverfield

Director Matt Reaves and writer Drew Goddard borrow from several older movies. My favorite are the television
newscasts taken straight from George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”. It’s here that we and the characters first learn about the deadly threat facing New York City. Things only get worse as the filmmakers throw us right down into the middle of the city in chaos. We’re take along with our main characters in what turns out to be a survival horror/science fiction. It’s simple but it’s at times exhilarating and it’s clever in its execution. The special effects are a blast and we get them in carefully measured doses. I also thought the performances were serviceable with the exception of T.J. Miller whose line reading is never all that convincing. He has an occasionally funny line but he’s mainly just your run-of-the-mill doofus.

There are a few other things that keep this from being a full-blown gem. There isn’t one hint of explanation in terms of the creature’s origin or makeup. It simply pops up downtown and the rest is catastrophic history. Now this was clearly intentional and it wasn’t a huge deal for me. But I still couldn’t help wanting to know more about this threat. Also, while the hand-held camera was more effective than in most films that have employed it, it’s still not my first choice for how I want to watch a movie. It’s also worth noting that “Cloverfield” was a really fun experience the first time through but it doesn’t seem to be the kind of movie that would have near the same effect the next time around.

Yet still I have to say I was surprised with this movie. I don’t agree with the common criticisms and I found myself thoroughly entertained. With its short running time it doesn’t overstay its welcome and it’s never misleading or pretentious. Sure it has some throw-away characters and you never get as much information as you would like. But it’s still a fun and well-made return to the monster movie genre that I still love to this day. In other words it delivered for me. I’m not saying it will have a long-lasting impact, but for 85 minutes I was glued to the screen and I soaked up every bit of what I was seeing.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “THEM!” (1954)

I’ve recently started revisiting some of the 1950’s sci-fi classics. I remember growing up and watching many of these films whenever I had the chance (which wasn’t often in the days of no cable TV and only three watchable local channels). The 50’s and early 60’s sci-fi genre saw mankind up against everything from huge tarantulas, sea monsters, giants, and a large assortment of alien threats, and as a young boy I loved them all. Of all of the 1950’s sci-fi creature features, “THEM!” most certainly ranks among the best of the bunch. “THEM!” was first conceived as a 3-D project from Warner Brothers, at least until a series of on-set technical issues arose. So the production team created the film in glorious black and white and I can’t imagine it any other way.

The movie’s main threats are giant ants which mutated as a result of radiation from a nuclear test detonation over the New Mexico desert in 1945. These massive insects are well over 9 feet long with bone-crushing mandibles and are byproducts of the new atomic age (at least new in 1954 – when the film was made). In fact, it’s Edmund Gwenn’s Dr. Medford character who paints the new nuclear world as a terrifying, unknown, and unpredictable place. That theme plays in the background of the entire movie and while maybe not as effective today, it’s still easy to see how it could create a fear and tension on its own.

The ants are first discovered when New Mexico state trooper Sgt. Peterson (James Whitmore) and his partner come across a little girl wandering aimlessly through the desert. She’s in shock and unable to tell them who she is or what she’s doing. They end up connecting her to a demolished camper of a now missing vacationing family. A string of other mysterious deaths, including Peterson’s partner, leads to F.B.I. Agent Graham (James Arness) being called in to help with the investigation. Dr. Medford (Gween), a leading myrmecologist from the Department of Agriculture also joins the investigation along with his “expert” daughter Pat (Joan Wheldon). They discover the reasons behind the deaths and their main goal becomes killing the bugs while containing them within the desert. But that doesn’t work out so well and before long they have a potential global crisis on their hands.

The story is attributed to a collaborative effort, but combined with Gordon Douglas’ marvelous direction, it is extremely clever and well constructed. The story starts off with a murder mystery feel as the officers, agents, and scientists piece together clues to uncover the mystery behind the deaths. What’s impressive is that it doesn’t feel manufactured or underplayed. The early investigation scenes are very well conceived and helped even more by Douglas’s slick use of his cameras. Smartly, the movie doesn’t reveal the ants right away which builds the suspense and anticipation so that when we finally see them, they have been established as a serious threat. Of course by today’s standards there’s nothing particularly scary of unnerving about them. But I still have no trouble going back to when people first saw the film and I still get a little giddy when I hear the ant’s menacing screeches.

I also love the way that everything in the story is taken seriously. Sure, there are some moments of good humor, but as a whole, the story is told in a very factual, pokerfaced way. One reason this is so good is because it leaves the audience toying with the possibilities that these bizarre and outlandish things could happen. While the writing is essential to this, the performances are equally important. Whitmore, Gwenn, and Arness are perfect fits for their roles. Wheldon is good as well although she isn’t all that convincing as an esteemed entomologist. But there are other small but fun roles to be found. A young Leonard Nimoy has a brief scene as an Air Force communications officer. Fess Parker also has a brief but entertaining part as a boozer stuck in a mental hospital.

“THEM!” has been recognized as an influential movie within the science fiction genre. Many great films that followed featured elements that could be traced back to this movie. For example, I couldn’t help but connect the idea of a queen laying eggs deep underground only to have them destroyed by flamethrowers to one of my favorite sci-fi treats of all time – James Cameron’s 1986 classic “Aliens”. It’s also a movie that helped usher in the new era of horror/sci-fi cinema. From the classic Universal monsters to the age of big bugs and spacemen, “THEM!” was at the forefront of the transition. I don’t doubt that many modern moviegoers will have a hard time digesting not only this movie but the entire genre. But the genre holds a special place in my heart and “THEM!” was the quintessential big bug movie.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS