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CloverfieldCloverfield on DVD

By Jim Bray

Wow!  Cloverfield is more than a sci-fi horror flick, it's an experience. And after I was finished watching it, I was wound so tightly a couple of scotches were appropriate. Alas, the bar was bare..

Cloverfield is a bird's eye (well, camcorder's eye) first person look at a group of ordinary people's experiences when their comfortable little world ends suddenly, thanks to an attack out of the blue by some huge monster whose origins we never really learn.

The movie starts simply enough, with an overly long introduction (though the subsequent sections more than make up for it) in which a guy named Hud (the mostly unseen T. J. Miller) is assigned to video a going away party and get goodbyes and words of advice from the bunch of young Manhattanites who show up.

Then there are a couple of bangs and these people's lives are changed (and/or ended) instantly. Explosions start, buildings collapse, panic ensues, and our intrepid heroes head into the streets, trying to find some safety and some answers.

Once in the street, all hell really starts breaking loose. The head of the Statue of Liberty flies through the air and bounces to earth, nearly at their feet, and the news channels visible through business windows start offering reports that something - God only knows what - is happening in New York City. Our heroes start moving toward the safety they think will be available off Manhattan but as they head across the Brooklyn bridge it starts collapsing in front of them - while hero Rob (Michael Stahl-David) gets a desperate phone message from ex-girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman), who's trapped in her Manhattan apartment, crying for his help.

The way ahead blocked, and a friend in dire need, Rob, accompanied by Hud (who's still recording everything that happens) and the requisite decorative females (Lizzy Caplan and Jessica Lucas) head back against the hordes of evacuees and the U.S. military swooping in to bring aid to the people and kill what quickly becomes obvious is a huge, Godzilla-like monster (though it also looks a bit like a gigantic Landstrider from "The Dark Crystal") wreaking havoc across the cityscape to attempt a daring rescue.

It may sound cliché, and it probably is, but this is such a fresh treatment that it really, really works.

Their journey back into Manhattan takes them through a fascinating series of adventures and dangers, all shown to us in the first person perspective of the camcorder -  a heckuva good camcorder that takes a licking and keeps on ticking no matter what happens to it.

I won't spoil it for you - it really must be watched to be appreciated and this jaded monster movie fan recommends it highly. A warning, though: the "camcorder" aspect of the movie means the shots are very jumpy and according to some reviews I've read could cause nausea in some viewers - which is refreshing in a way, because it's usually the screenplay or performances that cause nausea!

The camcorder as storyteller technique has been tried before, most famously in "The Blair Witch Project", a worthless exercise that had no scares and even less action - but Cloverfield is the real deal. Is it ever! I can't remember ending up wrapped so tightly after a film since the first time I saw George Romero's original, black and white "Night of the Living Dead" back in the 1960's.

I always consider Stanley Kubrick movies to be as much experiences as they are films but, while definitely not in the same league as a Kubrick film, Cloverfield is just as much an experience. When it ended, I felt almost as if I'd been there, and I was wound up tightly.

It was great!

Part of the reason is the special effects, which are superb. Another part is the screenplay, which eschews traditional storytelling and dialogue in favor of a "cinema verité" style that's believable and refreshing, letting us be flies on the wall of these young people's life-altering (in more ways than one!) experience.

Another reason for the realism is the use of a relatively unknown cast, which helps our suspension of disbelief in a way that no Brad Pitt could - not to disparage him as an actor, but to have someone well known in this movie would have destroyed the sense of realism, of being at a real event.

How good is Cloverfield? It's so good that I was willing to suspend my disbelief despite some lapses in logic, such as:

  1. women continuing in high heels despite ample opportunity to grab something a little more practical for those times when you're running for your life
  2. a recently-impaled woman healthy enough to run for her life
  3. a consumer camcorder with real, live military-grade night vision capability (which was used in an awesome way!). And, having used a low priced consumer camcorder recently, I know that electronic image stabilization would have taken a lot of the shake out of the picture

These are legitimate quibbles, but the movie wouldn't have worked as well if they'd all be taken into account, so I'll grant the filmmakers their occasional lapses.

And I loved how we never find out what happens. We never learn what the monster is, whether or not it lived (from what we see, it sure seems indestructible!), how far its swath of destruction is spread, how many lives are lost, etc. It's been said that the best horror on screen is that which you don't see and, though we get to see enough, it's the stuff outside the camcorder's limited range that helps keep our hair on end.

The DVD is disappointing, but only because no Blu-ray version is available yet, Paramount as of this writing not yet having wiped the HD DVD egg off its corporate face. To see this stuff unfolding in high definition, with the new audio formats engaged, could take this gut-wrenching experience to another level yet. I can't wait to review that version!

That said, it's a good DVD. I watched it up converted to "near HD" via Rotel's RDV-1093 DVD player outputting to Epson's PowerLite Pro Cinema 1080 and a 106 inch Da-Lite High Contrast Matte White Designer Cinema screen, a combination that makes for an extremely compelling home theater experience. The anamorphic widescreen picture (1.85:1 aspect ratio, according to Paramount, though it sure liked like 1.78:1 to me) is about all you can expect from such a source. Most of the movie is shot at night, in darkened streets and buildings, so there isn't a lot of color or contrast, but that actually works to help enhance the creepiness.

Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1 and it's excellent. There are plenty of explosions and crashes - and giant monster footsteps - and the low frequency channel gets a very nice workout. The surround channels get used well, too and the overall soundtrack is textured and deep - and the lack of a musical score (it doesn't begin until the closing credits are well under way) helps contribute to the realism.

Then there are the extras, from the standard director's commentary, deleted scenes and alternative ending, to outtakes and a series of featurettes and "making of" stuff.

In all, it's a pretty compelling package for an extremely compelling movie.

Cloverfield, from Paramount Home Entertainment
84 min., anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) , Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
Starring Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel
Produced by J. J. Abrams, Bryan Burk
Written by Drew Goddard, directed by Matt Reeves

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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