Paramount's 2008 monster movie "Cloverfield" is the kind of film whose reputation preceded it. First, there was an ad campaign that generated plenty of buzz in newspapers and on the Internet before the show ever opened. Second, there were the reviews, which ranged all over the place in terms of their positive and negative criticism. And, third, there was word of mouth. For instance, two friends who had seen the film before I did provided me with totally contradictory opinions, one person loving it and the other person positively hating it. Do we hear echoes of "The Blair Witch Project" here?
I think we can all agree, however, that it's an unusual movie, and now that Paramount's engineers have transferred it to Blu-ray disc, I suppose the controversy will just intensify as fans and foes argue about whether the high-definition picture and sound enhances the experience or makes a contradiction of it. I just tried to suspend my disbelief and go with the story. The improved sound alone was enough to make that easier than I thought it would be, and I enjoyed the movie the second time around far more than I did the first time.
Anyway, "Cloverfield" is a good example of style over substance. Indeed, the movie is all style and very little substance. Oh, there is a plot, but it's an intentionally familiar and simplistic one about a monster that attacks New York; and there are characters, but they are also familiar and almost the same as one another. So, mainly what we get is a gimmick, in this case that the characters in the film supposedly shot everything themselves with a handheld digital camera, which the Department of Defense found after the events of the story. How the footage got into the hands of Paramount Pictures for worldwide distribution is apparently irrelevant.
First, the plot: As I said, a monster attacks New York. That's the plot. Since on the commentary track the director suggests that he made the film as a homage to old monster movies of the fifties, he expects us to have seen practically everything in it, from "Godzilla" to "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" and from "It Came from Beneath the Sea" to dozens of others, including the more-recent Korean monster movie "The Host." So, how is this one different? Well, beyond the "documentary" gimmick, the filmmakers make little attempt to explain what the creature is, where it came from, what it wants, why we can't stop it, why it's impervious to all modern weaponry, and if it's intelligent, why it rampages around town so randomly. As a reader comment pointed out in my review of the standard-definition edition, there is a shot at the end of the movie that purports to explain how the creature got to Earth. But the shot is so fleeting and vague (you'll have to study it closely even to find it), it doesn't so much explain things as it does confuse them further and pose more questions; it seems like another contrivance the filmmakers threw in at the last minute to further stir the pot.
The characters are Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), a New Yorker who is about to go off to Japan (how cleverly appropriate) to live, his brother Jason (Mike Vogel), his girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman), his buddy Hud (T.J. Miller), and friends Lily (Jessica Lucas) and Marlena (Lizzy Caplan). All of them except Beth are at a going-away party in the city when the monster attacks, and Rob's only concern when the horror happens is to get across town to Beth and make sure she's OK, with the other friends in tow. Beyond that, there is not much story.
Now, about the main gimmick. The friend who told me he hated the film said he saw it with a fellow who got positively nauseous watching it. Why? Because in the movie the character Jason asks Hud to film Rob's party and document everything that happens. Hud takes this responsibility quite earnestly, and when the creature attacks, Hud follows every move he and his friends make. Well, if he didn't, we wouldn't have a movie. The problem is that he isn't a very good photographer; consequently, most of the film's footage jumps up and down, round and about, in and out, dipping and shaking constantly to the point of making your head spin. If you recall the handheld camera movements in "The Blair Witch Project," which this film hopes to emulate, they are nothing compared to the agitation this camera creates. A little of this kind of thing goes a long way, and after about ten or fifteen minutes of it, I was weary of the ploy. I also had to wonder why the character, Hud, couldn't ever seem to hold the camera steady. I know we're supposed to believe he was in a state of terror and panic, but if he had the presence of mind to continue filming everything around him, despite the illogic of his doing so, why didn't he also have the presence of mind to balance and stabilize his camera at least once in a while?
Yes, "Cloverfield" purposely borrows its ideas from other monster movies, and it uses a relatively small budget for such a big extravaganza, so it cuts corners wherever it can. For instance, we don't see the creature itself until well into the movie, and even then we see it only in brief glimpses. You'll remember that we didn't see the original King Kong until well into the picture, either, nor the shark in "Jaws" until the second half. However, once we did see Kong and the shark, we got pretty good views of them; yet in "Cloverfield" we never actually see very much of the monster at any given time. While this is good for creating tension (because what we don't see is usually more frightening than what we do see), it might be disappointing to some viewers who expect a bigger payoff.
Another cost-cutting measure is for the film not to star any really big names. This is a plus in that the film saves major money in salaries (without a Tom Cruise saving the world, the filmmakers save $100,000,000 right there), and it seems more authentic in dealing with real people rather than big-name stars.
On the negative side, it's hard to root for any of the characters because, as I mentioned, they all seem interchangeable. Their introduction is much too long, they're all young and beautiful, and you can't tell them apart. Moreover, it's hard to take the movie seriously because it plays on so many established monster-movie clichés: a cell phone goes dead at the exact moment a character needs it; the monster shows up wherever the characters go, as though it were omnipresent; and many sequences include dark, murky, shadowy places that often squander their spooky potential. If this were a parody, the clichés might have worked, but it's not a parody. Then there's that goofy handheld camera work I've pointed out.
Yet despite my reservations about the movie's use of the handicam, I liked the film's CGI graphics. After 9/11, films showing attacks on New York City are probably not in the best of taste, yet if it has to be, doing it as science fiction is probably the best route. The scenes of panic and destruction look impressive. The monster, what little we see of it, looks impressive. The smaller crab-like critters that drop off the monster look impressive. The shots in the subway system look impressive. And the shots on the rooftop look impressive. (One of them actually made me dizzy.)
The movie's drawback is in not making us care enough about what is happening with the shaky camera work. Even though there is much one can praise about cinema-vérité style, using it to tell an eighty-four-minute horror story with little meaningful story, dialogue, or character interaction probably isn't the best use of the technique. The fact is, once past the monster's initial attack on the city, "Cloverfield" isn't all that suspenseful or scary. The movie picks up a dash of excitement at the very end, but it can be a stretch getting there.
Still, for those viewers with the appropriate playback equipment, the improved BD picture and sound do increase one's enjoyment of the film. I know they did mine.
The filmmakers used various digital cameras to shoot "Cloverfield," most of them commercial-grade consumer camcorders with a maximum resolution of 1080. This resolution is technically "high definition" but nowhere near as good as what the best conventional print cameras offer. The filmmakers meant for this low-quality filming to better give the finished product the look and feel of a typical home movie. What that means is that they didn't want it to look super clear, sharp, or finely detailed.
The whole gimmick of the movie, as I've said, is for it to look as though it were shot on the spot during the monster attack on a comparatively cheap camera. So when you think about it, what's the point, really, of seeing it in high definition where it looks far better than any amateur photographer could possibly have captured it with a consumer-grade camera, especially in technical areas like lighting and depth of field?
Now, I'm not saying the BD doesn't look better than the SD version. It certainly does. But a cleaner picture also takes away in part from the movie's so-called realism. I suppose this is all beside the point, though, for viewers who want their cake and eat it, too. They want the roller-coaster feel of the documentary experience, but they also want a crystal-clear picture and rocking surround sound. The two "wants" seem at odds to me, and unless you can blot out the idea that this is supposed to be a real documentary, you'll have a tough time accepting the new, sharper format.
Be that as it may, Paramount now present the 1.85:1 ratio picture on Blu-ray disc using a VC-1/1080p encode. Although the results vary somewhat from scene to scene, the video quality is much better delineated than in standard def. The filmmakers meant for the color palette to look deliberately matter-of-fact, with large areas of the screen in constant darkness, so don't expect anything in this Blu-ray version to dazzle the eye; but do expect the video to look clearer, sharper, and better focused than on the SD version. There is much better shadow detail and color coordination as well. In fact, the whole HD experience in "Cloverfield" reminded me of the work of a very good professional photographer who knows exactly what he's doing but is pretending not to.
The biggest improvement in the Blu-ray edition is the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio, whose bass thunders more dramatically, more tautly, more strongly at the outset than ever before on disc, darn near ripping down the walls with its quietly escalating bass. And that's just a taste of what's to come, which includes an excellent stereo spread, excellent surround activity, and excellent midrange clarity. At the first entrance of the creature, the audio makes a scarier impact than anything else in the film. However, all of this seems more at odds than ever with the movie's supposedly having been made using a consumer-grade video camera. I mean, there is no way in the world anybody could capture this kind of sound outside a movie studio. Bombs, bullets, and bazookas blaze in all directions. But if you can forget for a few minutes the film's goofy documentary premise, you'll have a good time.
The bonus item that is exclusive to the Blu-ray disc is a "Special Investigation Mode" that allows you to watch the movie along with a GPS tracker that displays on a map of Manhattan the locations of the main characters, the military, and the creature, along with text notes, radar scans, and other fun stuff.
The rest of the extras duplicate those on the standard-definition edition, except that most of them are now in high definition. To begin, there is the mandatory audio commentary, this one by director Matt Reeves. After that is a series of documentaries and featurettes, the first of which is "The Making of Cloverfield," twenty-eight minutes and self-explanatory. The next is "Cloverfield Visual Effects," twenty-two minutes and also self-explanatory. The third is "I Saw It! It's Alive! It's Huge," six minutes on the creature design. And the final featurette is "Clover Fun," about four minutes of bloopers, although it's hard to tell since much of the film appears to have been improvised.
In addition, there are four deleted scenes titled "Congrats Rob," "When You're in Japan," "I Call That a Date," and "It's Going to Hurt," with optional director commentary and totalling a little over three minutes. In addition, there are two alternate endings, totalling a bit more than four minutes, also with optional commentary. Finally, Paramount's press site says they have included a number of Easter eggs hidden away on the disc, for which I cannot vouch.
Things wind down with sixteen scene selections but no chapter insert; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
I'd give the Blu-ray edition of "Cloverfield" an A for effort, a B for visuals, a C for content, and a C for photography, the latter, of course, being intentionally herky-jerky on the filmmakers' part. If you liked the movie in standard definition picture and sound, you'll love it in high-def, despite the contradictions the improvements bring to the movie's "documentary" concept.