It's Miller time in Cloverfield
Hype and a well crafted viral marketing campaign can make a movie popular but it can't turn a mediocre movie into a good one. This is very much the case when it comes to 2008's "Cloverfield" a movie which caused a stir thanks to the marketing campaign and the fact it is shot in the style of a home video. Take away the found footage filming technique and what remains is a predictable storyline which goes from semi-realism to sci-fi nonsense when it makes its big reveal. "Cloverfield" is not a bad movie and does the shaky home-video style footage quite well but doesn't deserve the hype of being a great movie that it received.
During a leaving party for their friend Rob (Michael Stahl-David), a disaster strikes NYC as the lights go out and the ground begins to shake. With explosions going off and buildings crumbling beside them, a group of friends decide to leave the party to head to the streets. Accompanied by Hud (T.J. Miller) who had been recording the party on home video for posterity, the group of friends manage to capture the events as they unravel whilst trying to escape what ever it is causing the mass destruction.
Part of the problem with "Cloverfield" is that once you take away the novelty of the home-video camera technique what remains is pretty much an average action/sci-fi movie which sees a group of friends trying to escape what ever it is which is demolishing NYC. Yes at times the special effects are spectacular, the scene where the Statue of Liberty's head bounces down the avenue is impressive, but that doesn't detract from what is a weak, run of the mill storyline. Even the big reveal when we discover what is causing the destruction across NYC fails to turn this movie into anything better and attempts to make it feel like a horror movie fail because it was not at any time terrifying.
What doesn't help is that to me "Cloverfield" is a slightly confused movie as it doesn't know what it wants to be. It starts of very realistically, you have real characters at a party and when the first signs of disaster strikes it manages to keep that realism by suggesting that they maybe suffering from an earthquake. This to me was very good and with the home-video style footage gave it a sense of realism. But then the big reveal comes as to what the disaster actually is and it takes "Cloverfield" into a new dimension and turns realism into sci-fi making it feel utter nonsense. To some this may have worked but it disappointed me as it turned tension into farce because it was no longer real.
Of course the big selling point when it comes to "Cloverfield" is that it is mainly shot from the view of a home video camera. Ignoring the fact that you wonder why someone running for their life bothers to continue filming when they are in real danger, it is in fact one of the better examples of how to make home-video footage work on the big screen. Techniques such as the occasional break in recording where you get to see what was on the tape before being recorded over, helps to make it feel real and although you get the obvious shakiness of the footage as well as the amateur nature as the poor guy with the camera turns too quickly it doesn't make the movie unwatchable. Although by the end of the movie, which at just 85 minutes is just about right, I was starting to get a little bored of the home-video styling.
What stops "Cloverfield" feeling less than average is that the special effects are stunning and honestly were a bit of a surprise. The aforementioned scene where the statue of Liberty's head goes bouncing down the street is one of the best special effects scenes I have witnessed for quite a while and this is just one of many effects laden moments which make "Cloverfield" feel a little spectacular. Not all the special effects work and I can't but help say that I was disappointed when it came to the big reveal as the special effects fail to make it feel realistic.
Adding to the problems is that despite the initial attempt to introduce the main characters, thanks to the leaving party, you don't really get to feel for them. Harsh as this may sound but because there was no real character development I couldn't have cared if they died or not. This is down to the nature of the movie which captures a limited moment in time and so doesn't allow for back histories and relationships to be fully explored so that we can connect with the characters. It also doesn't help that for the most the performances are pretty unmemorable with only Michael Stahl-David making any real impact as Rob and is the only one who was really convincing when it came to showing the fear of the situation. As for T.J. Miller who plays Hud the man behind the camera, well all I can say is that at times his running, inept commentary made him not only annoying but also unnervingly like Will Ferrell.
What this all boils down to is that although it's not a terrible movie, "Cloverfield" is a prime example how a unique selling point and a clever marketing campaign can make a hit out of an average movie. Remove the home-video novelty and what lies beneath is a mixed movie which has a few good elements, such as the special effects, but enough bad ones to stop it feeling anything more than average. But it is a good example of how using home-video style footage can work without being tacky and overly annoying.