We’re happy to report that this Goddard – Abrams – Reeves monster thriller holds up, when most everything else from the years of shaky-cam nausea and ‘found footage’ boredom disappoints. The ‘found’ video recording of the end of NYC is more than a gimmick, and it brings the panic for a you-are-there night of mayhem, chaos and destruction. The show was engineered to look like low-grade amateur video footage . . . so . . . why a 4K presentation? Curious format-philes will want to know.
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray + Digital Code
Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment
2008 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 85 min. / 15th Anniversary Limited Edition SteelbookStreet Date January 23, 2023 / Available from / 30.99
Starring: Michael Stahl-David, Odette Yustman, T.J. Miller, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan, Mike Vogel.
Cinematography: Michael Bonvillain
Production Designer: Martin Whist
Art Director: Doug J. Meerdink
Film Editor: Kevin Stitt
End title Music: Michael Giacchino
Written by Drew Goddard
Produced by J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk
Directed by Matt Reeves
For this viewer 2008’s Cloverfield is still the best ‘found footage’ thriller, a millenial horror subgenre perhaps begun with 1998’s The Last Broadcast (1998), and that paid off big for the distributor of The Blair Witch Project (1999). In sci-fi we talk about the much earlier Special Bulletin (1983) and even an embryonic episode in Caltiki, the Immortal Monster (1959).
A spirited project from a trio of young creatives, Cloverfield is a professionally crafted giant monster ‘Kaiju’ saga enhanced with convincing visual effects. To sell it, the producers and Paramount created a viral advertising campaign to convince the audience that something incredible and different was on the way. The first theatrical teaser didn’t even give the name of the film being promoted, and online updates made certain that fans were kept guessing. What was this thriller even about?
“Guys? I don’t feel so good.”
Forget Paranormal Activity, which has all the charm and creativity of static security video. Cloverfield’s old-fashioned monster is an unexplained mystery. Skipping pseudo-scientific rationalizations, the show sticks to the subjective viewpoint of a small group of young adults overtaken by a terrifying disaster. They have no time to philosophize, sing songs or remember Mom. There’s no ready explanation for the giant beast seen only in disturbing glimpses.
The disaster happens in New York City with both imagery and context that evokes the TV coverage of the 9/11/01 attacks. Cloverfield taps that trauma on the visceral level. Some critics felt that the association was deliberate and in bad taste.
The advertising made no overt reference to 9/11. Art billboards depicted a ravaged NYC skyline, but director Matt Reeves’ official stance is that he made Cloverfield to give America a ‘national identity’ monster, like Japan’s Godzilla. Who was Reeves kidding? America already has the best monster-myth ever, and his name is King Kong.
The horrible terror crime 9/11 was a political-criminal reality, not an existential mystery. The colossal ‘thing’ in Cloverfield is apolitical. It evokes the fear that chaos and bloody disaster could come from anywhere at any time. We mentally want to hang a placard around its scaly neck: “I AM NOT A METAPHOR.”
🎶 “And you know something’s happening /
but you don’t know what it is . . .” 🎶
Unexplained Things often make great entertainment. Cloverfield may be not provoke profound discussions but it delivers a first-person video game ‘reality’ vibe tailored to the audience of 2008.
A group of affluent 20-somethings gathers in a Manhattan apartment to bid farewell to Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), who’s taken a prestigious job in Japan. Party organizer Lily Ford (Jessica Lucas) assigns Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel) to ‘document everything’ with a video camera, a chore that Jason unloads onto to his nosy friend Hud Platt (T.J. Miller). A mini-drama plays out when news spreads that Rob has slept with Beth McIntyre (Odette Justman), who attends the party with another guy. Beth and Rob squabble, and she hastily departs. Hud uses the video camera to chat up Marlena (Lizzy Caplan).
A sudden blackout hits the city. The group — and Hud’s camera — witness a giant explosion across town. Running to the street, they barely miss being crushed by the head of the Statue of Liberty. In the dust of collapsing buildings, Rob gets only a fleeting look at some colossal alien creature, furiously smashing through the city. A multitude runs to escape across the Brooklyn Bridge … but Rob and his close friends choose instead to head back to mid-town. Beth has sent a cell phone appeal from her parents’ apartment on Columbus Circle, saying that she’s trapped and bleeding.
Found footage movies tap into the reality of home video and our knowledge that almost no public event can be reconstructed from multiple home video viewpoints (now, cell phone video). Reeves’ video images present a monster rampage as it might actually be recorded — Hud’s video view repeatedly pans to see what’s happening, only to record the blur of something disappearing behind a building.
In one respect Cloverfield emulates a brilliant Alfred Hitchcock showmanship coup from 63 years ago. Big-budget director Hitch ‘poached’ on the low budget domain of William Castle, saved money with a cut-price TV crew and scored with a timeless classic: Psycho. Producer Abrams’ Cloverfield sidestepped the $200 million price tag of a comparable special effects epic, like Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla. As the film’s ‘star’ is its unusual format, a non-star cast has been recruited; the top ten or so actors are listed in the credits alphabetically. The filmmakers boast of grabbing entire scenes with a $1500 off-the shelf pro-sumer video camera, without benefit of studio facilities. That’s the kind of investment / payback ratio that Hollywood LOVES.
Movies and TV have been playing with erratic handheld camerawork for a couple of decades now, beginning as a foolish style choice that said a jerky camera somehow made things more ‘real.’ Cloverfield forces us to watch intently to comprehend the action. The initially elusive Cloverfield monster zips through the frame in subliminal doses, a glimpse seen out of the corner of one’s eye. Cloverfield adds another level of distance with its intelligent application of ‘found video’ logic. Great pains are taken to suggest that the video we see was recovered in Central Park after the monster attack.
“Still filming? / Hud: Yeah, people are gonna want to know how it all went down.”
Matt Reeves & Co. have applied real cleverness to the Found Footage illusion. We see a ‘bars & tone’ opening, constant date & time burn-ins and other details seen in an amateur videos, like how much battery power remains. The majority of the taping is done by Hud, who is technically the ‘auteur’ of most of what we see.
The filmmakers contrive to have Hud accidentally capture every important crisis. We indulge this, even if Hud’s camera instincts make him the luckiest cameraman in film history. Scriptwriter Drew Goddard ingeniously enlists the functions of the video camera to establish the key relationships. Necessary exposition is obtained when the partygoers give videotaped ‘testimonies.’
People who know how video cameras are used and abused will immediately understand what’s going on. Hud sneaks up on partygoers trying to conduct private conversations. He continues taping when he has promised not to. He zooms to gawk at a girl who catches his eye. The Cell Phone generation believes that nothing is real until it is recorded, and the act of recording is its own justification. Having a camera lens shoved in one’s face is now a common occurrence. In an early scene a girl finds herself being taped in a compromising situation, and she just laughs it off: “I hope this doesn’t show up on YouTube!”
“Did you change the tape? Because I had a tape in there… something important.”
The big monster attack occurs on May 22, which we can read right on screen. Hud doesn’t realize it at first, but he’s taping over a recording made by party-boy Rob Hawkins four weeks before, on April 27. The ‘present’ main horror action is periodically interrupted at places where Hud stops the tape, allowing bits of the old recording to peek through. It’s like scraping away at a painting by Vermeer, and finding a Rembrandt underneath. The video bits revealed from May 22 become ‘flashbacks’ to the secret romance between Rob and Beth. One moment Rob is among a terrified crowd in flight from a giant monster, and then he’s suddenly smiling and happy with Beth on sunny Coney Island, four weeks earlier.
The filmmakers made the most of the possibilities of hand-held camerawork. When the camera jerks around so violently, creating ‘invisible’ continuity cuts is relatively easy. The filmmakers laid down long takes, but this seamless joining of cuts enables several takes to flow like one longer unbroken take. After an initial section where ‘Hud’ makes mistakes, shoots a lot of trash video of the floor, etc., the first-person handheld style becomes more calculated. ‘Random’ camera-pointing just happens upon ideal two-shots. Hud is soon capturing relevant details and dramatic moments with a virtuosity that would be the envy of Frederick Wiseman: Perfect Coincidence Cinéma-Vérité.
Hud ‘s nimble camerawork expresses relationships within a scene, as when Rob and Beth are showcased on either side of the party. Not only is Hud a darn good movie director, he somehow telepathically intuits the connection between Rob and Beth before it becomes common knowledge. The camera is pointing at or almost at the perfect spot time and time again. The finish is grim, but the few survivors are still intent on recording good video. The audience doesn’t mind. After an hour of playing dodge ball with a jerking camera, we welcome this final clarity, consistent or not.
The only moment where my screening audience laughed is when Hud’s camera watches two people struggling to crawl across a rickety roof between two tilted and crumbling skyscrapers. After those two barely save themselves, the cameraman covers the same ground in three or four easy hops, like a mountain goat — and gets a good video record of it at the same time.
With all of its ingenuity Cloverfield is just as confected as any standard film with traditional cutaways and generic coverage. After 100 years of trying to make the camera invisible, this new style goes in the opposite direction to make camera-awareness the most important part of the cinematic equation. Jean-Luc Godard frequently violated standard rules to prove to the viewer that they were, after all, only watching a movie. Conventional audiences that want to be immersed in a story either rejected or didn’t comprehend Godard’s intellectual game. Cloverfield brings advanced Cinema 101 games down to the public playing field.
It also needs to be said that Cloverfield is augmented by an aggressive, nerve-pounding audio design. After one stops searching for dramatic depth in the uniformly young and attractive characters, it’s easy to accept them as terrified generic protagonists, arguing and crying and opting to stay together for emotional security. The movie confects a good reason for not crossing the Brooklyn Bridge to safety, and for running against the tide to Columbus Circle. They run through a darkened subway as rats flee under their feet. Those rats — they’re pretty darn scary in themselves.
I guess young Americans are just plain indestructible.
Like any fun monster movie, this one needs to be cut some slack. The instantaneous military response is a laugh, unless I’m misinformed and the National Guard maintains an anti-monster force ready to fight Manhattan Monsters at a moment’s notice. That’s no more a deal-killer than the impressive field hospital that is set up within a couple of hours of the first sighting. To add more detail to the monster threat, the filmmakers invent Alien -like mini-monsters with an ‘exploding’ body-horror angle. It’s a bit like the ‘babies’ in the 1998 Godzilla remake. That tangent seems hastily shoehorned-in. The hapless victim bitten by a mini-monster is able to function normally, even with horrendous open wounds on her body. Only a few seconds after a burst of blood ‘n’ guts, one of the witnesses is unaccountably making juvenile jokes about things in the dark.
Just as much a stretch is finding a major character impaled through the chest by a piece of rebar: the heroes just pull her off (Ooh, that’s gotta smart!). A few minutes later she’s also fairly functional, instead of laid out in shock. Young kids these days do indeed seem to be impervious to harm, but that’s a bit much.
Cloverfield may not be a major breakthrough or work of art, but it’s a great mental workout for film students, especially those of us that paid serious attention to flashback structures and other cinematic narrative distortions. It’s a fine monster show by smart filmmakers, an old-fashioned genre piece hyped with a gimmick that’s both fun and rewarding, within limits. As in Roger Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters each scene introduces a new thrill, and these days that’s saying a lot. Also like an old Corman film, Cloverfield hasn’t an ounce of fat. The entire picture is 84 minutes long. Subtract the end credits, and it’s only 74 minutes long. That gave theater owners half again as many showings per day.
Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment’s 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray + Digital Code of Cloverfield 4K is an interesting technical puzzle that needs to be explained a little.
The show was shot on a battery of good digital cameras, producing footage that was then manipulated, with very good digital effects added. But then the image was ‘scaled back down’ in resolution, if not all the way back to amateur video-cam level. We presume that a film negative was made for theatrical use, but were home video discs scanned from film elements, or were they generated by reaching back into digital files? It’s a safe bet to say that the show had to be up-rezzed to 4K.
I first saw Cloverfield on film at a studio screening, and remember it having a home video texture most of the time, especially early on when establishing its amateur cred as a found, supposedly unedited video. I imagine that as the show progressed, the images were allowed to ‘look better,’ just as Hud’s camerawork became more polished.
I recall that when I first saw this show on DVD, I thought ‘here’s one movie that won’t be helped by a boost to Blu-ray.’ Well, I was wrong about that, but I’m not so sure about the jump to 4K. Does 4K add anything? The movie still looks like itself, although I thought it more punchy for contrast and pixel sharpness. The bars ‘n’ tone up front look too good to be generated by a military digi-cam video output, but the illusion of home-video smearing and low contrast is maintained. As with all home video upgrades, the decision to buy is more personal than ‘essential.’ Starship Troopers on 4K is a big improvement. For Cloverfield it helps if you’re a committed fan.
Director Matt Reeves’ commentary is almost as fast as the film’s frantic editing style, yet he’s both clear and informative. The full list of extras is the same as on the 2008 Blu-ray: a stack of making-of featurettes, deleted scenes and gag odds and ends. Some of the extras reference the film’s clever online teasers, that even made a mystery of the title. We in Los Angeles guessed that a freeway offramp in Santa Monica had something to do with it. →
The effects-related featurettes are quite a revelation. Little was actually shot in New York. Bits of backlot main streets were filmed with greenscreen, backgrounds added later — many scenes are almost all CGI. The entire subway system scene was filmed in a large loading dock in San Pedro. The film still must have cost plenty, unless these beautifully integrated backgrounds of New York can be ordered up by the yard. A brief piece on the design of the monster itself yields only a few hints as to its nature, which in the film remains a stubborn mystery.
The deleted scenes are three short snippets of extra party material and interplay between Marlena and Lily. The alternate endings are barely different than the film’s satisfying coda back at Coney Island. The outtakes are a series of gag and blooper moments.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray + Digital Code rates:
Video: Excellent (upscaled to 4K)
Sound: Excellent English and six other languages
Audio Commentary by Matt Reeves
Special Investigation Mode
Document 01.18.08: The Making of Cloverfield
Cloverfield Visual Effects
I Saw It! It’s Alive! It’s Huge!
Deleted Scenes, alternate Endings.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only) and six other languages
Packaging: One 4K Ultra HD disc and one Blu-ray in Steelbox in plastic slip case
Reviewed: January 16, 2023
Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson