When I first saw the mysterious trailer for Cloverfield last summer, I thought “probably just another disaster movie,” though I prayed “giant-monster movie.” As a lifelong Godzilla fan, I couldn’t believe that I’d be lucky enough to get a fresh, interesting take on kaiju – the Japanese word for “monster” and the name for the giant-monster genre – let alone an American-made one with a big theatrical release. Well, I did get a fresh and interesting take. But, unfortunately, it is neither deep nor captivating.
Cloverfield appears as found footage taken by handheld camera by one of several twentysomething friends who had rushed into the heart of New York City to rescue one of their love interests as the city was being attacked by (yes!) a giant monster. (More on that later.) As other reviews have mentioned, the point of view is unique. It’s not that of the army trying to kill the monster or scientists trying to understand it but of the poor SOBs in its way. The perspective also allows us to run in the scampering civilians’ shoes. For example, while trying to avoid being stepped on, the cameraman glances back repeatedly, just as we would.
But the poor SOBs’ POV also reminds us why they’re normally not the focal points of kaiju – they’re just never as interesting as the monster or the fighters trying to kill it. Here, there’s not much for the main character, Rob, and friends to do beyond finding Rob’s gal Beth and surviving. Though most of the actors do yeoman’s work in trying to make the characters more than just pretty speed bumps, they’re let down by the DELETE. I was never convinced that Rob would just drop everything and go rescue Beth, or that she was worth his risking his life for in the first place, or, most significantly, that his pals would accompany him. There were a few telling encounters with other survivors but not enough of them to make us care about the main meat-sticks.
The movie’s most unique attribute, the shakycam, also proves to be its most harmful. The money shots of the monster are often fleeting, and any savvy filmgoer will notice that, by pulling away at just the right times, the cameraman limits the producers’ need for – expensive – CGI effects. The monster itself is another mixed blessing. With an odd assortment of limbs and a surly attitude, it’s sort of cool but no more out there than your average, oversized, Ultraman baddie. The creature also doesn’t do anything imaginative. It spends most of its time just roaring, crashing somewhat haphazardly into buildings, and getting shot at by the United States armed forces. No radioactive breath. No laser eye-beams. Just some gruesome tick-like creepy-crawlies that fall off and create problems for Rob and company later. Sure, the thing tosses around a tank and steps on some stuff, but that’s nothing Godzilla couldn’t do in his sleep.
Now that the movie killed at the box office, maybe we can get a sequel or something dynamic like, say, a “documentary” about the creature’s origins or a look at its potentially lethal physical and emotional aftereffects on Rob and his group.
If you want more depth and destruction from your kaiju, or if you’re new to the genre, check out the original Godzilla or the 1990s’ Gamera trilogy. As for Cloverfield, it isn’t a giant-monster-movie renaissance, but maybe it could lead to one. I’m praying.