Release Date(s)2008 (January 17, 2023)
Studio(s)Bad Robot/Cloverfield Productions (Paramount Pictures)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B+
Cloverfield was born after producer J.J. Abrams made a trip to Japan in 2006 to promote Mission: Impossible III. While visiting a toy store with his son, he was impressed by the massive amount of Godzilla merchandise on display. He decided that America needed an iconic giant monster of its own—and no, he hadn’t forgotten about King Kong, but for some unfathomable reason, Willis O’Brien’s indelible creation just wasn’t cool enough for Abrams. Considering how truly challenging that it can be to design a memorable movie monster, if that has been the sum total of Abrams’ ambitions, then Cloverfield might never have entered the popular consciousness the way that it did. No, the genuinely fateful decision that he made was to have it shot as a found footage film, turning what might have been an entertaining but otherwise generic giant monster movie into The Blair Kaiju Project. That morphed his new American monster into something else entirely, but it was just for starters.
Thanks to an effective marketing campaign, Cloverfield ended up landing squarely in the middle of the intersection between found footage storytelling and modern viral marketing. Of course, The Blair Witch Project had done the same thing, but what Blair Witch inaugurated in 1999, Cloverfield perfected in 2008. The key to both of them was that the majority of the viral marketing took place in-universe, meaning that it treated the fictional stories as authentic events. That’s an interesting way to expand the ambience of a film beyond the borders of the screen, since it makes the fabricated narrative seem to spill out into the real world. It worked well for Blair Witch, but it worked even better for Cloverfield thanks to the inherently conspiratorial nature of its story. The internet was built as a perfect medium for disseminating conspiracy theories, and the marketing campaign for Cloverfield provided plenty of fodder for fans to pore over with a fine-toothed comb, and then share their speculations with other fans online. Cloverfield became a hit long before it actually made it to the theatres in January of 2008, which is impressive considering that January tends to be a dismal month at the box office.
Fortunately, all of that wasn’t for naught, as the film itself ended up being an entertaining twist on a shopworn genre. The basic story as conceived by writer Drew Goddard didn’t do much to reinvent the wheel, but as executed by director Matt Reeves in effective found footage style, it ended up breathing new life into a stale template. Cloverfield follows a group of friends who’ve gotten together for a farewell party in New York City. When a mysterious monster appears and goes on the rampage, they’re forced to flee for their lives and try to escape the city. After one of them ends up trapped in the heart of the danger zone, the rest end up banding together to try and rescue her. It’s a race against time, since the military isn’t about to let the beast escape, regardless of the cost.
One of the keys to making the found footage concept work for Cloverfield was by having a cast of lesser-known actors in the leading roles, including Mike Vogel, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan, T.J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David, and Odette Annabele. While some of them may be far more recognizable today, they were all relatively unfamiliar faces in 2008. (The only real misstep there was by giving Chris Mulkey a cameo as an army officer, since he’s recognizable enough that it damages the verisimilitude of the scene.) The other key was to find a way to justify the fact that the characters keep filming everything despite any imminent peril. It’s the same question that’s been raised regarding most found footage films. Goddard handled that by providing a practical reason why the camera was there in the first place, and T.J. Miller plays the character of Hud in such a way that it’s believable that he would think that he couldn’t stop shooting no matter what was happening around him. Of course, the reality is that over the years since Cloverfield was released, it’s become increasingly obvious that many people will film anything regardless of personal risk, and plenty of them have died while doing so. The meme that shows passengers from the Titanic filming the wreck on their cell phones while they’re bobbing in the freezing water isn’t very far from the truth.
In keeping with the viral nature of Cloverfield, there are lots of clues, Easter eggs, and other references sprinkled throughout the film, including single-frame clips from classic monster movies like King Kong, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and Them!. There’s even a Lost reference to please the J.J. Abrams faithful, and to fuel hours of irrelevant speculation about whether or not the Cloverfield and Lost universes are interconnected. It’s plenty of material for internet sleuths to focus on, even if most of it is ultimately meaningless. In a way, that makes Cloverfield the perfect giant monster movie for the internet age: there’s simultaneously more and less to it than meets the eye. Cloverfield is about as much or as little as you want it to be, and while you’re certainly welcome to “do your research,” none of that will change what it means to anyone else.
Given Abrams’ inspirations, that’s an entirely appropriate legacy for the film. Ishirō Honda and producer Tomoyuki Tanaka may have intended the original Gojira to be a metaphor for the nuclear age, but the seventy-year history of the franchise has proven just how malleable that Big G can be. The mystery surrounding the unnamed kaiju in Cloverfield has left it simmering in the popular consciousness for fifteen years now despite the fact that there’s never been a direct sequel to the film—and recent news stories will attest to the fact that it never quite seems to fade away. Cloverfield did end up establishing a franchise of sorts, though not in the same way that Toho developed its own kaiju universe, since the other films in this series have followed completely different paths. As a result, the Cloverfield monster hasn’t changed over the years the way that Godzilla has, but the method by which it was revealed to the world has provided its own unique kind of longevity. Kong is still king, so it’s not necessarily the iconic American monster that Abrams originally wanted, but it is an iconic American success story.
Cinematographer Michael Bonvillain captured Cloverfield digitally at 1080p resolution in HDCAM SR and FilmStream formats using a variety of professional and consumer equipment. Most of the interiors and other non-effects material were shot on Panasonic AG-HVX200 cameras, with the opening flashback footage being captured on a Panasonic AG-HSC1U camcorder instead. The exteriors primarily used Sony CineAlta F23 cameras and Thompson Viper FilmStream cameras with Zeiss DigiPrime, DigiZoom, and Canon HD-EC lenses, due to the need for higher fidelity source imagery for the effects work. (The HVX200 was only capable of 8-bit color depth with 4:2:2 chroma subsampling, while both the Thompson and the Sony could handle 10-bit at 4:4:4.) Different LUTs (look-up tables) were applied on-set to the Sony and Thompson footage in order to better match the grading of the Panasonic material. The final Digital Intermediate was scanned back out to film for the theatrical release, which was framed at 1.85:1. (It’s generally been reframed at 1.78:1 for home video, as it is here.)
(As a side note, unlike The Blair Witch Project, the bulk of the footage in Cloverfield was shot by Bonvillain’s crew. The actors did operate the camcorder for the flashback sequences, but the Viper and the F23 were exclusively handled by professional camera operators. Yet Miller actually was allowed to operate the HVX200 for some of the non-effects shots, although it’s still a small percentage of the total.)
All of that means that there’s no way around the fact that Cloverfield has always been an odd choice to receive the full 4K Ultra HD treatment. Any way that you slice it, it’s 1080p material, not even full 2K, that’s been upscaled to 2160p. Whenever footage is captured at higher resolutions, downsampled for a 2K DI, and then upscaled again to 4K, it often does show an improvement in perceived detail, but with the 1080p source, there aren’t any such improvements to be seen here. Any aliasing, noise, or other artifacts in the original footage has been reproduced faithfully, with no smoothing of the rough edges. If increased resolution was the only thing that the UHD format had to offer, this would have been a meaningless upgrade. Thankfully, that’s not the case, because it’s the High Dynamic Range grade that makes all the difference. (Both Dolby Vision and HDR10 are included on the disc.)
On the surface, even that has its limitations. The HDCAM SR format was capable of recording at 10-bit color depth with the Sony and Thompson cameras, which could have allowed the Wide Color Gamut of HDR to offer some improvements over the 8-bit depth of SDR on Blu-ray, but in practice, any variations between the two are completely imperceptible. That could have been at least partly due to the LUTs that were applied to the footage during production. The overall color grade for Cloverfield has always been restrained, borderline monochromatic at times, and it’s no different here. No, the actual improvements from this HDR grade are due to just that: the dynamic range. The contrast has been strengthened, with deeper black levels. Most importantly, there’s now more detail visible within that range. At the darker end of the spectrum, there’s more detail within the shadows, with everything now looking less murky than it does on Blu-ray. Yet it’s the highlights that offer the most easily identifiable improvements. The brightest highlights always looked blown out on Blu-ray, and that clipped the fine detail within them. The highlights here aren’t necessarily any brighter, but they do now reveal much more of the detail. It’s most noticeable during the copious explosions in the film, with the flames and smoke now being better resolved. That’s immediately obvious during the initial attack, when the party’s attendees race to the rooftop to see what’s happening, only to find fireballs flying toward them. Those fireballs look like blurry globs of orange on Blu-ray, but now they actually look like flaming chunks of matter. Are any of these improvements drastic? No, they’re not, but anyone who thinks that a 4K UHD of Cloverfield is nothing more than a useless cash grab by Paramount isn’t quite being fair. Yes, any reissue is a cash grab of sorts, but in this case, there’s an advantage to be gained from the new format, however minuscule it may be.
Primary audio is offered in English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD. That’s the original theatrical mix, and while there certainly would have been plenty of opportunity to expand the soundstage via a Dolby Atmos remix, this has always been a fantastic 5.1 track, and it’s still fantastic. Surround activity tends to be reserved in anything other than the scenes of destruction (or their aftermath), but as fans of Cloverfield can readily attest, that’s a significant chunk of the film’s slim 85-minute running time. When things spring to life during those moments, it’s active life, with all channels energized by the sounds of flying debris (and worse). The bass is thunderous, especially during the opening attack, but also during the bridge collapse, and any other moments of mass destruction. Cloverfield famously has no musical score, but Michael Giacchino contributed a nifty fanfare for the closing credits that would have made Akira Ifukube proud. Again, it’s easy to imagine how an Atmos remix could have been a ton of fun, especially during the underground sequences, but as with any good 5.1 mix, this one upmixes beautifully.
Additional audio options include French (Canada), French (France), Spanish (Latin America), Portuguese, German, Japanese, and English Descriptive Audio 5.1 Dolby Digital. Subtitle options include English, English SDH, French (Canada), French (France), Spanish (Latin America), Portuguese, German, Japanese, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish.
Paramount’s 15th Anniversary 4K Ultra HD Steelbook release of Cloverfield is a two-disc set that includes a 1080p Blu-ray copy of the film—it’s the original disc, not a remastered copy, but this is one case where there was no good reason to remaster it in the first place. There’s also a Digital Code on a paper insert tucked inside. It comes with a clear plastic slipcover with additional artwork embossed on the front, so that the Steelbook shows either a pre-destruction or post-destruction view of New York City, depending on whether or not the cover is in place. Aside from the commentary track, all of the extras are confined to the Blu-ray only, and they’re all in HD:
DISC ONE: UHD
- Audio Commentary by Matt Reeves
DISC TWO: BD
- Audio Commentary by Matt Reeves
- Special Investigation Mode
- Document 01.18.08: The Making of Cloverfield (28:22)
- Cloverfield Visual Effects (22:32)
- I Saw It! It’s Alive! It’s Huge! (5:53)
- Clover Fun (3:56)
- Deleted Scenes (3:25, 4 in all)
- Alternate Endings (4:29, 2 in all)
In his commentary, Reeves covers the origins of the project, including the development of the script, and provides an abundance of technical information regarding how things were shot. It’s an interesting case of the confluence between technology and storytelling, because they both ended up influencing each other. The film went into production without a finished script, and the development of the technology to shoot it ended up affecting the way that the story turned out. Reeves points out some unplanned mistakes that ended up in the final cut, like Bonvillain taking a tumble while operating the camera himself after the bridge collapse. Miller was cast because his improvisational skills could help provide spontaneity on the set, but even the camera crew ended up having to improvise. Other sequences evolved out of happenstance, like when they were given access to tanks that they didn’t think they could possibly afford, and so the battle between the military and the monster became one of the biggest set pieces in the film. While there are a few gaps here and there, it’s still a valuable commentary for anyone who wants to get into the weeds of how Cloverfield was made.
The Special Investigation Mode is essentially a trivia track that’s been tarted up with an in-universe screen overlay—and most of the trivia is of the in-universe variety as well. The overlay means that the film itself is reduced to a small window framed by other graphical windows, making it difficult to see what the text is describing. Like most of the gimmicky viewing modes that studios offered in the early days of Blu-ray, it’s more annoying than useful. The good news is that it doesn’t lock out the commentary track, so the best way to watch it is while listening to the commentary at the same time.
Taken collectively, Document 01:18:08, Cloverfield Visual Effects, and I Saw It! It’s Alive! It’s Huge! form a fairly comprehensive look at the making of Cloverfield. As is often the case, they might have been even better if they had been cut together into a single extended documentary—and there’s some overlap between all of them, too, so that would have been the most efficient thing to do. Despite any repetition, there’s still a bit more depth here than the typical EPK fluff on most major studio releases, so they’re well worth a look.
The rest of the extras include Clover Fun, Deleted Scenes, and Alternate Endings. Clover Fun is a genuinely amusing outtake reel that shows how much fun that the actors had on set despite all of the challenges of the production. Watch for a moment in the middle that proves that Miller definitely wasn’t always operating the camera himself, even for the party sequence. The Deleted Scenes and the Alternate Endings can be played with or without optional commentary from Reeves. There’s nothing essential here, but it’s still interesting to see what kinds of material ended up being discarded as the final cut was shaped.
That’s all of the extras from the previous Blu-ray, because once again, it is the previous Blu-ray. It’s even got the exact same Easter eggs on it—too numerous to list here, but there are plenty of descriptions of them online (DVDCompare has a nicely detailed breakdown). The only new thing here is the Steelbook packaging. So, that raises the fair question of who the target audience for this release might be. If you already own the previous UHD, then there’s nothing to see here unless you really, really love Steelbooks. If you only have the Blu-ray, then the UHD is a marginal upgrade at best. If you aren’t a Steelbook collector, and you don’t feel compelled to own every incrementally improved version, however small that those improvements may be, then it’s probably not worth the money. On the other hand, if you don’t own Cloverfield in any form, then this Steelbook UHD release is a no-brainer. It is indeed the best-quality version of the film, and Paramount has been knocking it out of the park lately with their Steelbook designs. If Cloverfield isn’t already part of your collection, then this is undoubtedly the best way to add it.
- Stephen Bjork