Cloverfield – DVD Review

Cloverfield DVD cover
Available at Amazon.com

Marketing is a major factor in helping a motion picture reach its box office potential. Take a theatrical trailer. After two-and-a-half minutes if your senses aren’t titillated, then the advertisers have failed. More than any other piece of advertising – posters, print ads, radio spots, even reviews – the trailer is the ultimate hook, the catalyst in making you fork over eight or ten dollars to see the latest new release or potential summer blockbuster.

When The Blair Witch Project was ushered into theaters during the summer of 1999, it was one of the first films to utilize viral marketing. This type of marketing campaign is spread over the Internet and through word-of-mouth. The filmmakers generated a mythology website of the Blair Witch. The homepage had journal entries, photographs, basically anything to generate buzz of what inevitably turned out to be a fake documentary. The campaign worked; the film would gross more than 245 million worldwide.

Flash forward to the summer of 2007. Transformers, Paramount Pictures’ big summer blockbuster that year, had a mysterious trailer, a teaser really, attached to most of its film prints around the country. The teaser showed panic in the streets of the Big Apple. Men and women were running for their lives, the military gung-ho trying to stop something. The film’s title was not revealed, only a date: 1-18-08. In the weeks and months that followed the teaser, the Net was a haven for news, rumors, and misinformation about the film’s plot, and even the title, which was revealed in the second trailer as Cloverfield. Producer J.J. Abrams (TV’s Lost) and company even went as far as to create fictitious company websites as well as upload MySpace profiles for the characters of the film.

This stratagem was a creative one, ultimately fueling anticipation for a January release – a month that is typically a dead period for good new releases. And the numbers don’t lie. Cloverfield struck a cord with audiences. It was something new, something different. It is a modern interpretation of the monster movies from cinema’s old days. Taking cues from Godzilla and Them!, director Matt Reeves takes his time, introducing the main characters before letting loose the monster in waiting.

At the opening, color bars and tone precede some secret DoD case file designated “Cloverfield.” The scenes that follow, as it is explained, are from a video camera retrieved at incident site “US-447” area formerly known as “Central Park.” The clips are embedded with date and time code, giving us a frame of reference. The opening act is uninteresting. It is a going away party, the objective being to act as an introduction to the film’s characters. Central is Robert Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), for whom the party is for, his brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and Jason’s girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas). Recording final goodbyes from the partygoers is Robert’s best friend Hudson (T.J. Miller), “Hud” for short. With camera in hand, Hud guides us through the party. But when the apartment suffers a blackout and small tremor, and the local news reveals that an oil tanker has capsized in the bay off Lower Manhattan, many of the guests, including Hud, head to the roof.

A minute later, an explosion rocks Lower Manhattan hurling fiery hot projectiles miles through the air, like miniature asteroid fragments. Now the real movie begins.

The next hour is pure hell. Not in a this-movie-is-so-putrid sort of hell, but hell as in hellacious. Shot in a nauseating shaky-cam style, Cloverfield can be too much for some viewers. But you can’t overlook the painstaking work that went into creating a big-time movie on a medium size budget. Impressive visuals like the head of the Statue of Liberty careening down a New York City street; a military platoon, guns blazing, trying to kill the beast; Bloomingdales becoming a military command center and triage facility. The creepy-crawly visual effects and CGI by Double Negative and Tippett Studio are convincing enough. It helps that it seen through the lens of a digital camera and not something shot on 35mm.

Paramount Pictures took a gamble when it unleashed a viral marketing campaign for Cloverfield. With no major stars, it was probably the best decision. And, as it turns out, the movie isn’t bad. A nice, refreshing take on the monster movies we grew up watching. The escape from New York – where’s Snake Plissken when you need him? – was a suspenseful, sweat-drenching ride. Much more so than seeing the monster destroy most of New York City for sixty minutes. It was bold move that inevitably made this a more ominous film and one of the early cinematic surprises of 2008.

Cloverfield is presented in a 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio that is enhanced for 16×9 displays. The picture looks excellent given the source. Solid blacks with some digital imperfections. Most of the imperfections are on purpose, but there is some edge enhancement. A very good visual presentation, overall.

Interesting, if we are to believe that the entire film was captured in consumer-grade camera, then no way could the sound live up to the picture, right? Well, we get a dynamic Dolby Digital 5.1 sound track (with available French and Spanish mixes) that immerses us in the action. Dialogue is clear, even with the cacophony of yelling and screaming. For the main feature and some extras we also get optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.

When you unwrap the plastic wrap, there is classified security strip that runs along the side of DVD keep case. Removing the strip and opening the case, the disc is the typical metallic gray with sliver print that we have come to expect from Paramount. But it also has some fake scratches giving it a “top secret document that’s been tampered with” effect. Again, this adds to the allure and mystery of Cloverfield.

The back cover of the DVD packaging does not do the extras justice. It’s what you come to expect. There is a commentary, featurettes and deleted scenes. But the featurettes are pretty informative, not straight-up EPK fluff. First off is feature-length audio commentary with director Matt Reeves. Now Reeves previously worked with producer J.J. Abrams in creating the television drama Felicity. He is very enthusiastic and has much to say about the film’s production. From the short shooting schedule (a little over a month) on sets built on the lots of Paramount and Warner Bros. to how the seamless edits were achieved, Reeves commentary is a revealing look at shooting a feature film that is both live-action and obtained with the use of blue- and green-screen backgrounds.

To visualize what Reeves is talking about, there’s Document 1.18.08: The Making of Cloverfield. This 28-minute feature is an up-close look at the film’s production. We are flies on the wall, watching how the actors had to improvise hitting make-believe bugs that would be created in post-production. The top-secret nature of production is explained in joking fashion by actor T.J. Miller (Hud) who admits that all the clothes have to be burned at the end of each production day. Also chiming in is Reeves, producer J.J. Abrams, co-producer Bryan Burk, and some of the cast.

The making-of is expounded upon in a pair of featurettes, beginning with Cloverfield Visual Effects (22:29). This extra goes more into the computer side of the production, mainly the use of green screens and designing the creature. The team adds subtle changes to the picture, to the extent of adding visual effects to scenes that, on paper, wouldn’t call for them. A shorter piece, I Saw It! It’s Alive! It’s Huge!, focuses on the primo baddie, dubbed “Clover” by the designers. To create the monster the team uses 3-D models and puppet designs to sharpen the look. A good piece for those interested in visual effects and computer models.

Past these highpoints, the DVD starts to wind down with selections of unused footage. Clover Fun (3:57) is a short reel of outtakes and flubs, most of which occurs at the going-away party. Next are four deleted scenes with optional director’s commentary. The four scenes are less than four minutes combined and don’t add much to the final cut of Cloverfield. Two are lighter scenes that seem out of place when put into the context of the film, especially one long minute-and-a-half testimonial from the going-away party. The rest are extended takes that don’t add much. There’s also a pair of alternate endings with optional commentary from Reeves. Both are substandard and disappointing. At most, a few seconds of the “flashback footage” are altered.

Aside from previews of the upcoming theatrical releases of Star Trek and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the remaining Cloverfield extra is something you have to work to unlock. On the special features page there’s a www.cloverfieldfiles.com website address. Logging on, the address takes you to a page containing fifteen video windows, all of which are locked. To open each video you must first solve a puzzle. Just another viral campaign that takes you deeper into the film’s production.

Sadly, neither the teaser trailer nor theatrical trailer is included with this DVD release.

With an impressive marketing campaign, Cloverfield became an “event” movie in a season where Hollywood unloads its less-than-stellar material. Aside from the first fifteen minutes, which only helps to introduce the characters, the remaining hour is a complete spectacle that is both suspenseful and chilling. The direction by Matt Reeves, and everything that went into the production, shows that you don’t need super-inflated budgets or big-name stars to make a movie an event. Marketing is key, and at the moment the wizard is J.J. Abrams. As for the DVD, it is impressive visually and audibly. The extras have their good and bad points. Special credit goes to the inclusion of the fifteen online videos that you have to work for if you want to see. Definitely recommended for those looking for a good monster movie.

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Paramount Pictures presents Cloverfield. Directed by Matt Reeves. Starring Michael Stahl-David, Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, and Mike Vogel. Written by Drew Goodard. Running time: 84 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for violence, terror, and disturbing images). Released on DVD: April 22, 2008. Available at Amazon.com.

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