It’s not often that a film can seemingly come out of nowhere and surprise you, and by nowhere, I mean exactly that; nowhere.
So it was in July of 2007, when audiences sat down to watch what would unfortunately be the first in a series of Transformers movies, a teaser trailer for some film bearing the name of JJ Abrams was shown, featuring a party attended by some very photogenic characters which is rudely interrupted by an explosion, followed by the head of the Statue of Liberty being thrown several blocks down the street causing it to land in front of them.
All we knew was it was stemming from “producer JJ Abrams” and it was to be released on 1-18-08. The only time a movie would come close to this level of surprise would be eight years later with another movie bearing the name Cloverfield.
A year and a half previous to the release of Cloverfield, JJ Abrams had made his directorial debut with Mission: Impossible 3, a weird thing to think about since his plethora of brilliant television work on Alias and Lost made it feel like he had been directing features for longer.
While Mission: Impossible 3 was a hugely enjoyable extension of the Tom Cruise starring franchise, Cloverfield felt like prime Abrams, taking his brand of “mystery box” entertainment to a big screen canvas; showing, but not telling, and concealing its secrets in a way while showing enough to make one want to watch it, with little knowledge beforehand.
When the film arrived in theatres, Abrams got a lot of the acclaim, but in actuality the credit for Cloverfield’s brilliance belonged to Matt Reeves. Nowadays it’s easy to think of Matt Reeves as a director of intelligent blockbusters, his additions to the Planet of the Apes series have become artistic triumphs that mixed blockbuster action with smart and beautiful storytelling on a level almost equal to that of a Christopher Nolan.
However, in 2008 Reeves was still best known as the co-creator of Felicity (another Abrams collaboration) and the director of The Pallbearer, a little seen David Schwimmer comedy-drama that pretty much went unnoticed. After that there was a co-writing credit on James Gray’s The Yards, but Reeves had never managed to hit the heights that his Felicity collaborator had.
That all changed with Cloverfield which was a launching pad to a better than expected remake of Let the Right One In (Let Me In) and his two Apes epics, which in turn has led to calling the shots on the future Batman movie.
It’s no surprise that Hollywood took immediate notice because Cloverfield is a ferocious, brilliant piece of work. A found footage movie, it does somewhat almost fall into the trap of making the audience ask why the hell this is still being filmed (a trait that affected The Blair Witch Project massively), but Cloverfield is so damn exciting and nail bitingly intense that one does not want to complain. Just go with it and the film is a superbly intense blockbuster where nobody is safe, the body count is high, and it takes the genre of the giant monster on the loose in the city that has been the staple of many a blockbuster from Hollywood and Japan and makes it personable and suspenseful.
Like many a project bearing Abrams name, the cast is incredibly good-looking, as in Lost or Alias, with nary an ugly person amongst the lead characters. But they are a very likeable bunch and their soap operatic plot lines feel like a lovely part and parcel of what one would expect from a blockbuster with a monster, but which plays along the same lines as a disaster movie.
With Odette Annable, Lizzy Caplan, Michael Stahl-David and Mike Vogel, we’re given characters that are easy to root for, but which are cannon fodder throughout. Nobody is safe and death is always around the corner. Characters that we come to care about are not safe and one character’s death in particular is violent and disturbing, more so because so much is left to the imagination (speculation has always been rife that the military are actually the ones responsible).
Filmed on a budget of $25 million, the film grossed $170 million and speculation of a sequel made for obvious talk. In the end, it would be a different beast, but one which felt like a natural extension in terms of atmosphere and discomfort. It would only be when it literally threw in some of the paraphernalia of this movie that it would fall apart, but that’s a story for another day.
Although the design of the monster is maybe not as imaginative as one would expect from a creature that was inspired by many a kaiju, the level of intensity and storytelling more than makes up for it, not to mention that it features one of the greatest jump scares to ever appear in a movie in recent memory.
After ten years, the movie still holds up, and shows how brilliantly surprising movies can be. It’s not often a movie can come along and surprise us. With the internet, social media and all manner of “spoilerific” news, that someone like Abrams still wants to promote surprise and secrecy is something to be applauded. As producer, he made Cloverfield a brilliant surprise. As director, Reeves made is work superbly.
If only all producers and directors would want to surprises us this brilliantly ten years on.