Cloverfield is a 2008 found footage style film brought to us by JJ Abram's production company, Bad Robot. The story centers on a group of friends running around New York City as they try to escape a large scale disaster. If you somehow have never heard of this movie, then check out the trailer. If that seems even remotely intriguing to you then you should go watch it on your own and circle back for our thoughts. If you are just now returning from this task, welcome back, and feel free to read our spoiler-filled review with impunity.
Jake: This week we’re jumping on the ‘Cloverfield’ franchise hype freight train and… reviewing the original Cloverfield. Jack and I first saw Cloverfield as part of a pre-screening in a chemistry lecture hall. Fast forward about eight or so years, and here we are. We’re taking this Cloverfield thing from the beginning, because that’s a good place to start. We’ll get to that 10 Cloverfield Lane thing next week.
Mark: Unfortunately (fortunately) for you, dear reader, Jack is unable to uphold his sworn duty to review horror movies this week. I assume both you and Jack swore an oath, right Jake? In any case you can consider Jack’s duties shirked for the week. As usual, this means I have to swoop in and pick up the pieces. For those who haven’t taken a gander at our about page, my name is Mark and I work as the unseen but lovable behind-the-scenes editor for A-Z Horror. I’m basically the emotional glue that holds this whole thing together.
Jake: Oh, hey Mark. Of course we swore an oath. What kind of slapdick operation do you think we’re running here? I was going to reminisce with Jack in this post about the first time we saw Cloverfield and devote some of the review to how we felt about it then vs. now, but in the same spirit I was discussing above, Jack isn’t here this week. He’s likely shit-canned drunk and urinating in a public art fixture as I write this. Or being a lawyer. I’ll go with the first though. Fuck me, right?
Mark: I always figured that’s just what Jack’s brand of justice looks like. Lawyer hard, party hard kinda thing.
Jake: Anyway, this movie starts with a title card immediately giving you quite a bit to chew on. It sets the stage for where the found footage element of this found footage film came from. ‘Cloverfield’ is a government case name designated for the recovered footage, which was pulled from an area “formerly known as Central Park”. A.KA. some real shit went down. Got it. I’m in.
Mark: That lovely spoonful of foreshadowing is then immediately followed with an early morning scene between two young lovers talking about going to Coney Island for the day as scene through the lens of a handycam. How’s that for thematic juxtaposition? Real artsy stuff. You then get a few smashcuts jumping to the “current day” where the majority of the movie takes place. It’s a bit disorienting at first, but it gets the point across that the camera belongs to a guy named Rob, his friends are throwing him a going away party, they are planning on filming it as a send-off gift. The opening scenes are from a tape that is being recorded over from a few months prior.
Jake: I think it does a pretty effective job of immediately establishing the reason for filming, which is such a crucial thing for any found footage movie to keep my attention. If there’s not a good reason why a camera is involved, I’m likely out from an immersion standpoint. The movie also does a pretty effective job of introducing you to all its main characters without some ridiculous exposition thrown in.
Mark: Yup, you have Lily who planned the party, Rob’s brother Jason, and the aptly named Hud, who gets stuck carrying the camera for the whole movie. Hud is tasked with “documenting the evening” and getting “farewells” from everyone at the party. It’s through his camerawork that we are introduced to the last main character of the movie, Marlena, who Hud is totally crushing on. We are also reintroduced to Beth, the girl from the Coney Island bit. Rob likes her, but I’m pretty sure his facebook status would say that “it’s complicated.” It’s interesting, when this movie came out basically no one in the cast was a recognizable name. Now, you watch the movie and you see that Hud is TJ Miller, Lily is the chick from Gotham, and Marlena is from Masters of Sex, that show that people totally watch for the writing and for no other reason.
Jake: Yeah, and these 20-somethings are definitely doing something right. Someone has an apartment that looks like the entire floor of a goddamned building that is within eye-shot of the Statue of Liberty. Now I don’t know where in the fuck you could live in Manhattan and have that sort of field of vision, but I can guarantee it would cost more than any of these bitches make. Old money ruining this nation. It’s Wall Street’s fault.
Mark: I mean there’s some backstory that Rob is getting a huge promotion to move to Japan and run a company, so I’m assuming he’s an up-and-comer of sorts. Maybe he just assumed a massive pile of real estate debt, as was custom at the time. Anyways, this is the point in the movie where shit starts to go down. The partygoers feel an earthquake and see on TV that there is an overturned oil tanker in the bay, and they run up to the roof to try and see it. Presumably to take a video and post it on liveleak or something. The thing explodes and sends shrapnel flying into the city. #ThanksObama.
Jake: I’ve never been around an oil tanker explosion, but that thing had a much, much larger blast radius than I would of expected. And speaking of blast radii, this all starts moments after Rob and Beth get into a fight and she leaves while he decides to get hammered on sake like a weirdo. Fast forward to the literal explosion, and you get the first scene of mayhem in the film as everyone runs for cover and gets to the ground floor where the insanity only picks up. All of a sudden, you’ve got another piece of large shrapnel barreling into a building in the distance and conveniently coming right for our rich young heroes. It’s not until it comes to rest in the street that you get a good view of it and see that it is the Statue of Liberty’s head. I have a small problem with scale in this scene, because the real head is much smaller than that. I’m a hero and don’t dwell on things though, so I valiantly moved past it. There is some great social commentary in this scene as well, as everyone immediately takes their phones out to start taking pictures of it.
Mark: Hey man, you get a solid picture or video of that and you could probably sell it for a huge chunk of cash to TMZ or some shit. At the very least you get to cash in on that sweet, sweet reddit karma. As far as the head size goes, supposedly when they modeled the head as being the correct size all of the test audiences thought that they went out of their way to make it too small. Hey, weren’t you a test audience? Are you responsible for this?
Jake: I am. I wrote them a very stern letter. Stay out of my business. Dick… Now I’m all out of rhythm. Anyway, almost immediately there is more commotion in the distance and Hud’s camera pans just in time to see something, obscured as it may be, moving between skyscrapers, bringing down the Woolworth building and sending a cloud of dust down the street. The group hides in a bodega. This is probably my favorite scene in the movie because of how well it seems to capture the chaos and dread of the situation. It feels in poor taste to make the comparison, but the sequence seems like it could have been ripped out of a 9/11 documentary. It was raw.
Mark: Poor taste or not, it seems like that was exactly what they were going for. In an earlier scene while they're still at the party some random extra says “you think it’s another terrorist attack?” They’re evoking terrorism for a reason. Terrorism is scary and most of the characters probably were around in 2001. It’s a probable guess anytime a calamity happens, and it’s also a bit of a commentary on the resiliency of the city and its inhabitants. It brings an additional emotional punch to the film as a whole. And hey, at least they didn't sneak the 9/11 bits in at the end after a romantic vampire movie or whatever that movie was about.
Jake: That’s fair, and it actually plays into the character dynamic as they first try to piece together what’s happening. Jason establishes himself as a leader, Hud is resourceful etc. Either way, I’m very impressed in everyone’s ability to sober up because not 20 minutes earlier they were mid-party. I guess exploding tankers and toppling skyscrapers are a bit more effective than a cup of coffee.
Mark: Like any sane group of people would, they decide to GTFO and head for the Brooklyn Bridge. As you might expect, there’s a bit of a crowd on the bridge as throngs of people try to escape the city. Jason gets separated from the group as Rob finally gets enough signal on his phone to get a voicemail from Beth, who says she is trapped in her apartment. As they try to turn the group around to go and get Beth the monster’s tail slaps down onto the bridge destroying it, and killing Jason. Panic ensues as everyone runs back into the city. It’s frenetic. There’s looting. There’s sounds of gunshots and general chaos echoing in the distance. It’s all done pretty well to bolster the general feel of a large scale disaster, and it doesn’t feel limited by the handycam gimmick.
Jake: Except for the goddamned camera’s battery life and overall level of extraordinary quality. That shit doesn’t lose battery, the sound doesn't blow out when buildings are falling and bridge cables are snapping, and it might well be indestructible as well because even to this stage in the film, it’s taken a beating. I might not have noticed as much if there hadn’t been a plot point written in where Rob had to go into a store looking for a phone battery so he could get the rest of Beth’s message.
Mark: I mean, you use your phone all day. You waste a shit load of battery taking photos of the Statue of Liberty’s head. You forgot to charge it the night before. We’ve all been there man. Besides, the point of the scene is to get everyone into the store to watch a news broadcast that shows these tiny creatures falling off of the big one. Given that the creature is clearly inspired by marine biology, I always had these little ones pegged as sea lice.
Jake: I was never clear on what they were supposed to be. The group stumbles into an intersection and comes face to face with the main monster for the first time, and it is big. This is clearly a Godzilla-inspired movie, but I’m happy with the overall choice to make it much different looking. The frenetic pace of the movie and handy-cam filming also makes it harder to focus on the creature so even as more of it is revealed, you still don’t have a great handle on its scale or features.
Mark: This was actually the first time in the film that my immersion broke a little bit, and strangely it was because the scene was too good. I generally have zero issue with suspension of disbelief, but this scene, supposedly filmed on a handycam, has perfect sound despite the monster roaring, machine gun firing, car alarms, and explosions. The group is right in the middle of ShitGoingDownVille and there is zero issue with the camera. I mean granted, the handycam is there so the experience can be in first person (more or less), but still the more you think about it the more annoying it becomes.
Jake: They barely make it as they escape into the subway as shit is exploding all over the place, and it affords a small reprieve from the mayhem that has ensued over the previous 20ish minutes. Once down there, they have the brilliant idea to use the tunnels as a way to stay out of the fray while making their way to Beth’s apartment. Hud flips on the camera’s flashlight and they take off into the darkness. This scene actually provides some of the best exposition in the film as Hud muses about the monster’s origin. His theory of it as something out of a deep-sea trench is still my favorite of the theories that exist on where it came from. He also has a brilliantly goofy monologue about a murderer that would set homeless people on fire and how scary that is. Contrast that to the fucking monster above ground, and it’s pretty hilarious.
Mark: It’s weird because the scene is simultaneously hilarious because of TJ Miller, but also among the creepier ones in the movie. There’s a huge stream of rats all running in one direction, which is understandably treated as a bad sign. We soon learn of the handycam’s next superpower, perfect night-vision mode. Rob flips the switch on the camera for Hud and we get to see down the tunnel only to reveal that it is infested with the sea lice creatures. It’s about as close to a jump scare as the movie gets. The scene would be a lot more stressful except for the sound the freaking lice things make. They sound like Donald Duck, but, like, aggressive. It’s hard to describe, but it’s one of the few things that kinda took me out of the movie. The rest of the sounds are so good and then you have this random cartoonish sound that’s almost comedic.
Jake: They suck. They sound like Donald’s nephews that one time he forced them to chain smoke cigars until they went comatose. It was distracting.
Mark: Anyways, they book it down the tunnel away from the Duck Tales. Hud get’s jumped, Marlena saves him, no good deed goes unpunished, and she gets pounced on. Hud, keeping his priorities straight, grabs the camera instead of helping.
Jake: They barely escape with their lives into a break room and you see how bad Marlena got it. She’s pretty torn up. That room actually seems like a pretty sweet deal to me. It’s below ground, has snacks, and has a couch. I might have stayed there. But because there has to be more of a plot and the power of love is strong, they look for a way out. Oh, it could also be because Marlena is bleeding out and needs help. I probably would have just thrown her to the gaggle of Huey, Dewey, and Louie and just settled in for the duration with a bag of Bugles.
Mark: Of course, they aren't cold hearted jerks who value junkfood above their friends and they decide to get Marlena some medical attention. Conveniently enough they open the door in the break room and immediately stumble right into a military triage center setup inside a Bloomingdale’s. I mean if you’re gonna set up a triage center, might as well be in a place with free cologne samples, right? The scene itself is meant to be a bit of a surprise and disorienting. You get hit with a bright flash of light, there’s a shit load of cross talk pertaining to the monsters, random soldiers with Alien style chest-burster wounds, etc. Watching it again, you can see what’s coming, but the first time is meant to be a bit overwhelming.
Jake: I mentioned that Marlena was not doing well. Turns out she’s reeeaaallly not doing well though. The camera pans to her and you see that she has blood coming out of her tear ducts, which is a sub-optimal place to be bleeding from. Almost instantly, someone screams “We’ve got a bite!” And she is grabbed by a bunch of doctors and pulled behind a curtain where, in a matter of seconds, she inflates like Violet in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and explodes in a cloud of blood. Damn.
Mark: It’s kinda surprising that a place so obviously concerned with soldiers who have been bitten by the lice things is also wildly complacent with the fact that they are connected to a subway full of them. Like seriously, it’s about 100 feet from them and no one really seems that concerned.
Jake: It was safe, man… There were at least three doors between them. Anyway, Rob somehow convinces the fucking military that they should let him go instead of enforcing their evac code, and one of them let’s them out. Not before telling them where to meet up for the final evacuation helicopters out of Manhattan and informing them that the government is going to enforce the “Hammerdown Protocol” at 6am, bombing the whole motherfucking city to prevent further damage. The group enters the streets again, and it is a much different scene. There is an eerie silence among the wreckage of the city around Central Park. The only thing that they see is a white horse pulling an empty carriage that is clomping through the streets. It’s a big juxtaposition in terms of color, tone, and does a good job of making you think of the world that was there a matter of hours beforehand.
Mark: It’s actually occurring to me literally as I write this that the white horse is a biblical reference to the riders of the apocalypse. Pretty sure War rode that motherfucker into battle. Not sure if this is intentional or not, but if it is that’s pretty slick.
Jake: They finally get to Beth’s apartment, but there’s a problem. It’s been almost totally destroyed, and has fallen into the building next to it. The only way in is to ascend the adjacent skyscraper and cross over via the roof.
Mark: I’m actually a bit afraid of heights, which made that one of the scarier scenes in the movie for me. Not really sure that counts for most people, but the acrophobics among us probably will squirm a bit. It’s also one of the four or five points in the film where it doesn’t make a ton of sense to keep holding onto the camera. If you readily admit that you could very possibly be about to fall to your death as you traverse a rooftop, wouldn’t you want both hands to be available?
Jake: They don’t fall to their death though, and make it to Beth’s apartment where she is passed out with a sizeable piece of rebar impaling her through the shoulder and pinning her to the ground. They grab her and lift her up, freeing her but also presumably causing a lot of issues like blood loss. It’s a movie though, so no matter. About three seconds later she is running alongside the rest of the group as they rush to the evac choppers.
Mark: As they get to the evac point, with the surprisingly mobile Beth in toe, Lily ends up getting separated and put onto a separate helicopter from the rest of the group because reasons. This whole sequence was pretty damn frustrating. The rest of the group gets into a second chopper and start to evacuate, but the helicopter pauses to watch the monster get bombed into oblivion. You get a bunch of patriotic yelling and high fiving, and then boom, wouldn’t you know it, the monster reaches up and gives the helicopter a “hey, how’s your father.”
Jake: It was super frustrating. Why wouldn’t it be trying to ascend more quickly to get out of the crossfire? Nothing about that seemed as urgent as was certainly necessary. The helicopter crashes in a pretty visceral and realistic scene, killing the pilots and injuring Rob, but the camera still comes out like a champ...
Mark: It’s the world’s most indestructible camera. The lens isn’t even scratched. It also seemingly has infinite battery life, impeccable sound recording, and perfect night-vision. It’s too bad it’s more durable than its owners, because I’m sure they would’ve given it a five star review on Amazon. The manufacturer is the real victim here.
Jake: Yep. Most definitely. Hud gets eaten by the monster, and Rob & Beth grab the camera because of course they do and run below a bridge in Central Park. They record themselves identifying who they are for future viewers because at this point they know the camera will withstand a nuclear blast. They get bombed, and the movie ends. But not before a smash cut to a flashback scene from Coney where the camera definitively picks up something large falling into the water just offshore. Is it a satellite? Alien monster in a pod? Who knows. It’s part of the charm and it didn’t feel cheap. It’s also incredibly easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention.
Mark: Hey Jake!
Mark: Guess what time it is? [Gameshow music starts]
Jake: Jesus Christ, really? We’re gonna do this even without Jack?
Mark: No. Just felt like messing with you. Let’s do ratings. [Gameshow music stops]
Jake: Fuck you.
For 1, think of how the guys of Letterkenny would rate greasy skids.
For 10, think of how excited this guy is to work at Walmart.
Mark: 9 - The story is incredibly solid. Most of the decisions the characters make are logical and believable. The plot is complex enough that it’s compelling, but not so overly done it’s distracting. My only knock is that there’s some deus ex machina thrown in at times (like the ridiculous helicopter evac) that messes the narrative up a bit, but it’s mostly minor nitpicking. Honestly one of the best monster movies of our era.
Jake: 8 - The only reason I’m not going higher is for a few of the small instances of ambiguity like the monster’s size, which have led to speculation on whether there is more than one (there’s not god damnit). The story is classic in its clear connection to Godzilla, but does what it does in a unique and refreshing way.
WORLD-BUILDING / IMMERSION:
Mark: 7 - The story does a lot to help the immersion. The found footage aspect is well executed and also helps quite a bit. The indestructible camera is distracting if you think about it, but there were only a few times that was apparent. The sound the lice monsters make is ridiculous.
Jake: 7 - pretty much for the exact same reasons as Mark.
Mark: 2 - I guess I’m clearly the brave one here. Or maybe I’m just a sociopath. The rooftop scene got me a bit because I’m afraid of heights. The subway is sorta creepy too, but outside of that there was nothing here that made me scared or even uncomfortable.
Jake: 8 - There are things that are inherently terrifying. Having your environment torn apart around you creating an inescapable trap is one of those things. Being left alone to deal with it is also scary. There is just something that is visceral and real about the fear these characters feel as the time wanes and they know they are about to be bombed. The monster is a crazy piece that doesn’t necessarily need to be what it is in form for the intensity and adrenaline to be there. This falls into the category of scary that is purely for that fight-or-flight sort of rush it gives. And bombing raid sirens are the most interesting, terrifying sound ever.
EFFECTS (OR JUDICIOUS LACK THEREOF):
Mark: 9 - The sound effects are great. The visual effects stand up well even after about 10 years. Not much I can fault them for except for maybe the sound of the lice things and the look of the bite wound on Marlena.
Jake: 7- Mostly for sound effects. They were ludacris in terms of how good they were in this one. The monster looks good despite the fact that there isn't a damn bit of practical effects.
Mark: 8.5 - As you may have read in our HRR for March, I love Cloverfield. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time. I’m knocking it slightly just because I don’t think it’s a particularly scary movie, and this is a horror blog after all.
Jake: 7.5 - I remember talking to one of my friends after seeing this for the first time and discussing how this is a movie that needed to be made. This perspective and riff on the whole Godzilla story makes a lot of sense and I’m very glad there was a filmmaker out there with the balls to tackle it. Well worth a viewing not just for the horror fan, but for people who like things.