Cloverfield: 2 Disc Special Edition Review

Back in the good old days of monster movies, it was enough to simply have a behemoth rampaging around a city. King Kong set the template for minor classics such as Them!, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. Japan took the genre and made it their own with Gojira in 1954 which was followed by more sequels than it is possible to count and still stay sane. Soon, however, one monster wasn’t enough and Gojira was teamed up with the likes of Gidhra, Ebira, Mosura, and such one-offs as the Smog Monster and Mechagojira. By 1998, when Hollywood produced the remake, Godzilla, the main monster was supplemented with lots of baby monsters who behaved like refugees from Jurassic Park. It would seem that it is now impossible to have one monster going beserk without the benefit of nostalgia value – the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong - or irony – the remake of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman - or some other kind of novelty.

The trick with Cloverfield, which is basically Gojira revisited, is to have the whole thing told through use of subjective digital video camera, complete with frequent wobble. It’s not unlike The Blair Witch Project made on a 25 million dollar budget with a city as the setting rather than a forest. The ‘found footage’ angle is also inevitably reminiscent of Cannibal Holocaust, although we never discover exactly how the footage came to be in the hands of the US military. We follow a small group of characters through their first inkling that something is wrong, through a desperate attempt to evade the monster and finally to their ultimate fates. The film runs just over 80 minutes, 10 minutes of which are credit titles, and there are frequent stops and starts when the camera is turned off and on.

It’s certainly a promising idea and when Cloverfield works, it works very well. The scenes involving the monster are spectacularly effective with stunningly good special effects work, particularly on the spider-like parasites which drop from the monster’s body and do all sorts of horrible things to passers-by. What these spiders actually do, apart from mutilate their victims, would seem to be some kind of parasitic activity – certainly, the results of being bitten or scratched are terminal, as one of the main characters discovers. There’s a particularly tense scene in the New York subway system when one group discovers some of the spiders chasing them.

Unfortunately, the film has a number of serious problems which prevent it from being as effective as short stretches suggest it could have been. The first, and most serious, is the first twenty minutes. This opening is meant to establish the characters, and establish them it does – unfortunately, the main thing which is established is that you never want to see or hear anything from any of them again. If you have a particular taste for smug yuppies with too much money and no common sense then you might not have the problems that I did. But I just wanted them all to die so the only appeal the film held in character terms was that of a slasher movie – who was going to get it and how? The plot which is set-up in this first section is banal. There are two brothers, Rob (Stahl-David) and Jason (Vogel), and the former is going away to work in Japan. What Rob hasn’t told anyone is that a couple of weeks earlier he slept with his best friend Beth (Yustman). At his going-away party, she turns up with another guy and argues with Rob. If this sounds like an episode of Hollyoaks then you get an idea of the level upon which it is operating. It’s a good twenty minutes before the first power cut which signals the arrival of the monster and never was a monster attack more welcome.

The second problem is the proliferation of irritating elisions and questions which tend to prevent full involvement with what’s going on. How, for example, did Beth get back to her apartment so quickly when the monster attack happens shortly after she leaves the party? Why would the military reveal their plans to a group of civilians and then let them go off on a little jaunt to save their friend when it would violate security and put them in danger? Why has no-one else thought of using the subway system? When the monster is so big and loud, how does it sneak up behind the cameraman at the end without him noticing? Why is there not a single scratch on the monster after all the ammo being fired at him? How does Beth recover so quickly from her little problem with the metal spike which goes through her shoulder? Where have all the people under 18 and over 35 gone? More to the point, why do all the main characters look like catalogue models? Given these quibbles, it seems churlish to point out that the filmmakers never bother to explain where the monster has come from or what happens to it – such basic narrative elements are excluded from this heavily stylised film.

There’s also a credibility problem with the style of the film. The person using the video camera – for the most part, an allegedly loveable nerd called Hud – is meant to have no experience at using one, hence his inability to keep it still and prevent the audience from becoming nauseous. But he seems to have no problems with framing, particularly where the monster is concerned, and the crowd scenes have a definite whiff of experienced staging behind them. On a different tack, what’s annoying about the style is that Hud keeps panning away from things we want to look at – i.e. the monsters – to things we don’t care about – i.e. the main characters.

If I’m being hard on Cloverfield, that’s because there are constant glimmers of how good it could have been. The first encounters with the monster are very well staged, revealing just enough to make the CGI creation intriguing without being laughable. The violence is sparing but when it comes has a brutal and harrowing edge that is genuinely startling. The special effects are often astonishingly good, largely through some clever camera work – although this again tends to run contrary to the idea that Hud is filming everything. There’s also a satisfyingly grim ending which almost doesn’t give way to sentimentality, although it succumbs in a final scene which continues a thread running through the movie of the events being taped over a film of Rob and Beth at Coney Island. On the whole, Matt Reeves comes out of the film as a director to watch but he, along with writer Drew Goddard, might want to consider whether it’s worth spending a quarter of their running time elaborating characters who turn out to be as dull as ditchwater.

The Disc

Paramount’s Region 2 disc of Cloverfield is a nice package. Purchasers have the choice of whether to buy a one-disc edition containing film, commentary and some branching “supplemental files” or a two-disc edition containing some more extras.

The film is correctly framed at 1.78:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s a very faithful transfer of a deliberately stylised visual experience. The various elements laid on to make it look like found footage tend to mask the quality of the image but the rich colour palate needs no excuses. The warm browns and blues of the opening contrast nicely with the harsh light amidst orange haze of the night time exteriors. The coming of dawn is a particularly striking moment with pale blue-grey shrouding everything. Overall, this looks just as good as it should do and Paramount are to be commended on the faithfulness of the transfer.

The 5.1 sound varies from being tinny and minimal to going all out to occupy the surround channels with loud noise. The subwoofer is well used during the explosions and dialogue is usually clear, except when it’s meant to be obscured.

The first disc has an effusive and easygoing commentary from Matt Reeves. He doesn’t say anything he doesn’t already cover elsewhere but it’s a pleasant listen. There are also “Supplemental Files” which can be accessed through an option on the menu which allows you to press enter whenever a camcorder power meter appears. These are short making-of features which cover things already discussed on the second disc but in a bit more detail. For example, at 24’08” you can see a 2 minute featurette about the destructive physical effects. This is a nice feature for people who don’t have the second disc but only die-hard fans of the film will want to watch absolutely everything.

The second disc is headlined by a 27 minute documentary about the making of the film which contains lots of comments from Matt Reeves and producer J.J. Abrams. The latter admits the debt owed to Gojira and the former brims over with enthusiasm. It’s all very good natured and just a little bit dull. The second featurette, about the visual effects, runs just short of 20 minutes and goes into detail on the creation of the monster. This is fascinating, particularly for those of us who are interested in monster design but it does highlight the fact that the monster is a lot more engaging than any of the human characters. There is more about the monster in a separate 7 minute piece and those with a tolerant sense of humour might enjoy “Clover Fun” – my sides remained resolutely together. Finally, there are four deleted scenes – no monster action or explanations I’m afraid but some more of that awful party from the beginning – and two alternate endings, neither of which is much different to the one we ended up with. One of them looked to me like an unintentional homage to Jules Et Jim. The deleted scenes and alternative endings have optional commentary tracks from Matt Reeves who explains clearly and eloquently why they were not used.

There are 16 chapter stops and everything is subtitled, including the commentary track. There are also some easter eggs which I was unable to find but no doubt you, dear reader, will have more luck.

Cloverfield has been somewhat hyped up, both before release and after, when many audiences reported that it gave them motion sickness. Four months later, it’s possible to give a rather more cool response and recognise that there are some very good things contained within an experience which is, on the whole, unoriginal and not particularly innovative. Still, at a brisk 81 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome and if it does nothing else but add a new monster to the iconography of the genre, it has achieved something which will last. The DVD looks and sounds fine and contains extra features which are engaging enough, even if they aren’t particularly essential.

6 out of 10
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