Saturday, 15 March 2008

Review: Cloverfield

Way back at the start of the year, I tried to express how excited I was by the prospect of Cloverfield. I wasn't sure at the time both whether my excitement would last until I saw the film, and whether the film would in any way live up to my expectations. As it is, I was still excited when I finally sat down in the cinema, having managed to avoid as much speculation and background and as many spoilers as I could. I'd also managed to convince myself to lower my expectations, which was a good idea as it turned out. That is not to say that Cloverfield is a bad film, it is an extremely accomplished monster movie, but aside from the pure entertainment, there's not a huge amount there.

The strongest and weakest points of the (short) trailer were the ambiguity of the images. There was no explanation, no real setting (other than, obviously, New York) and, most importantly, no confinement of expectations. This left people free to develop their own visions and ideas about what was happening, and their own back stories and explanations as more details were revealed. This was a real hook, because it avoided alienating people by giving away any context, while providing them with a clear idea of the style of film to expect, a disaster movie from the point of view of a handheld camera. The other side of the coin, of course is that there is no way that the film itself could live up to the multitude of possibilities that could be suggested by the trailer, and hence there is the risk that many people who end up seeing the film are going to be disappointed by the actual plot and scripting decisions that were made. This, then was the reason I tried to keep my expectations low, to avoid being underwhelmed by something that had in reality not promised anything at all.

So, on to the film itself, and, as I said before, I did enjoy it. It is very much a popcorn movie - lots of action and special effects without too much story or too many character dynamics to distract from the pretty pictures - and accepting it as just that definately makes for an entertaining 84 minutes.

The uniqueness of the presentation, showing us events through a single camera carried by one of the actors (though not permanently on) is not a truly original idea, of course, but it is the first time (that I am aware of) it has been used in conjunction with a big budget and large-scale special effects. In general, I thought it worked very well - there are a few moments where suspension of disbelief is required, as to whether the characters would keep hold of the camera, much less point it appropriately, and it feels sometimes like we are looking at what the character is looking, rather than it being truly footage from a heavy piece of equipment being carried. For example, there are a noticeable lack of scenes where conversations take place with the camera rested on the ground and forgotten - most of the time (even if nothing notable is happening) the camera moves and looks where the character holding it looks, even if the situation doesn't really seem to warrant it.

This is a minor point really, though, since there needs to be some artistic licence given to allow the film to feel dramatic and connected, rather than disjointed and jarring (as I feel actual 'found footage' would be). There are other ways in which the central idea is used well, particularly the way that we see glimpses of the previous tape footage when characters review the original tape. This simple idea gives another dimension to a film that otherwise would be relying too much on on-camera exposition and background. The scenes from the past and the present are clearly designed to fit together meaningfully, but rather than being jarring, this feels nicely poetic, and I thought it was one of the film's strongest points.

The main problem with the handheld camera view, for me, was not the shaking (which I had no problem with at all, but which seems a major bone of contention for a proportion of those who have seen the film) but with the character holding it. While none of the characters showed particular imagination or personality, the one holding the camera for the majority of the film came across as a hugely irritating half-wit. I have no problem with the idea of a character like that existing, and some of the moments with him saying totally the wrong things to try and comfort one of his friends were nicely done, but having him essentially be the commentator and guide for the whole film becomes really quite wearing after a while.

There is a certain level of horror-movie type plotting through the film (though without any particularly scary moments), and the brief amount of time allowed for character development means that the main characters seem to make some fairly bizarre decisions. It would have been nice to perhaps have some more focus on the development a couple of characters, but whenever this seems to be happening, there is generally some interruption to move the plot forward. This is not to say that the characters feel totally one-dimensional, necessarily, but there is sometimes the feeling that the choices they make are for scripting purposes rather than ones true to the character.

There is a significant portion of the start of the film dedicated to character setup, and while it provides a good contrast to the dynamic later scenes, there is a fair amount of trivial back-and-forth, which fits with the setting of a party, but possibly wastes too much time, given the length of the film. Having said that, the dialogue throughout seems pretty realistic, with long speeches and monologues generally avoided, helping it feel more like a 'found' piece than a scripted one.

Although the characters may occasionally feel slightly off, they are inhabiting a world that shows huge attention to detail. The early scenes of panicking crowds and large scale destruction are excellently done, and the backdrop of devastation throughout the film is detailed and consistent. The special effects are great, and the main monster is strange enough to be constantly disconcerting when glimpses of it appear.

In general, and ignoring some of the concessions that need to be made in order for the story to be cinematic (84 minutes of people hiding in a cellar might be more believeable, but would be less interesting), the film is excellent fun, barrels along at a good pace, and has just enough to the characters to keep it interesting. There are some minor points that don't work, and I thought it might have been a better film without the final 10 minutes of the original tape, but it's definately a worthy addition to a genre that gets written off too easily.

Verdict: Tightly produced, and entertaining to watch. The short run time keeps the pace up, but leaves possibly too little room for interesting character development. 7/10

4 comments:

Andy J. Wotherspoon said...

I haven't yet seen this film, but I shall try to get to see it whilst it's in cinema. I've heard of a similar style film but about xombies, no idea what it's called or what it'll be like.

I sometime wonder what films would be like if they where a lot more realistic, as I find myself thinking at some point in any film (bar fantasy etc. ones which can do whatever the hell they like) thinking "that wouldn't happen" or "surely they wouldn't do that" the old "he's behind the door" thing (lots of ""s), but then I also think whether or not the director decided to do what he did as full on realism wouldn't have been as interesting as true realism.

Saying that, a film from a camera POV where it gets left on the floor, or held at the side during a bit of dialogue, could make for some great shots. I'd quite like to produce a short film that tries to keep with realism as much as possible and aims to have people react how they would in a situation, however this then requires good acting and knowledge of how one would react, or to just have the situation really happen.

Hopefully the POV style films will continue and go from strength to strength as there is some cool stuff that can be done. I did quite elike (in a sense of the word) the blair witch project, for it's interesting use of cameras, but it totally went to the "you just wouldn't keep holding the camera" extreme.

the end

Andy J. Wotherspoon said...

George A Romero's Diary of the Dead, is what I was refering to before. Looks meh.

TheTelf said...

The problem with realism as opposed to scripting is that it tends to be much less mainstream, meaning that studios are more likely to drop 'interesting' techniques in favour of more common cinematic ones in order to ensure they make their money back.

I'm sure there are a few documentary-style indie films that would fit your suggestion, and probably more to come, with the increased publicity potential of the web meaning it is now much cheaper to produce and distribute films.

Andy J. Wotherspoon said...

indeed, indy films hoooo.

I may have started with the thundercats type thing, wonder why??