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Movie Review: Cloverfield

Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by Drew Goddard
Paramount, 2008

1999’s The Blair Witch Project was one of the most divisive major hits ever made. You had the faction, including me, who thought the perspective of a video camera and use of “what was that?” sound was particularly effective in making a situation more immediate and tense. Then you had another faction who thought that the camera shaking every millisecond basically amounted to you watching a bad home movie for an hour and a half. And another faction just threw their arms in the air and said, “Sheeeut, that ain’t even scary…where’s the gol-dang witch?”

Working at a theatre that had The Blair Witch Project, I saw firsthand people coming out of the auditorium in order to vomit, because they couldn’t handle all the motion on screen. Our auditoriums smelled like pine for months because of the special “vomit covering” that you apply when someone can’t make it to a trash can or toilet.

Surprisingly enough, The Blair Witch Project, successful as it was, did not spawn any big screen imitators. Even the sequel was hardly connected to its source material. It took nine years for Cloverfield to arrive and get everyone thinking about shaky video again.

Manhattanite Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) is about to leave for Japan as vice president of his company, and his friends are throwing him a surprise going-away party. Given the job of manning the camera is his best friend Hud (T.J. Miller), who is supposed to go around getting warm sendoffs from everyone in the party. Our main group will include Rob, his brother Jason (Mike Vogel), Jason’s girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas), Hud, and Hud’s object of affection Marlena (Mean Girls‘ Lizzy Caplan).

Rob has some unfinished business with Beth (superhot Odette Yustman), a girl he slept with and fell in love, but had to break up with because of the job. There are obviously some feelings still there, but she leaves the party with some other guy she’s been seeing before he can make a play. A little while after, a loud rumbling is heard in Manhattan, which the news reports as a possible earthquake. But then, another is heard, and somewhere in the city a huge explosion is met with buildings getting trashed.

All of this is captured by Hud, who continues to bring the camera everywhere he goes, even as New York City tries to evacuate and get away from what he initially only captures a glimpse of: it’s a huge monster straight out of the sci-fi playbook. When an escape across the Brooklyn Bridge fails, Rob gets a call from Beth, who says she’s badly hurt. Rob wants to find her, even though the rest of the crew, and who could blame them, want to get the hell out of there.

I think this will please at least one of the disappointed factions of The Blair Witch Project: those who just wanted to see a monster. You get to see the monster a lot in this, even though I thought Hud was a little ADD with his focus. There are times when he’s completely safe (those aren’t many) that he moves the camera’s attention to something else. It’s all in the effort of the Jaws less-is-more school.

Once again, I found the immediacy of a video camera make things way scarier than had it been shot traditionally. I’ve always thought that distance from a scary subject makes it more effective. When a horror movie goes to close-ups, I think it activates my adrenaline more than my fear. Something happening far in the distance has always seemed a lot scarier: take, for instance, 9/11, which you’ll be seeing a lot in reviews for this movie since shades of it eerily recall that day. The images are especially frightening because they just don’t seem real…but they are.

There will be people who can’t stand this for the same reasons as Blair Witch, and you’ll have some critics hate the movie because of some implausibilities like, “There’s no way a guy just holds on to a camera during all of this” (I disagree, in this day and age), which of course was another knock at BWP.

Beyond the cool/scary visuals, there’s also an incredibly creative rescue scene involving a building that is leaning on another building. Is this the best movie I’ve ever seen specifically released in January? I think it has to be. It gives you everything you’d want…unless you also require a still camera. That’s the decision you’ll have to make: is all the super-cool stuff not worth the headache? It was worth it for me.

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