From helping rejuvenate the found-footage film with “Cloverfield” to forging one of cinema’s great trilogies with “Planet of the Apes,” Matt Reeves has spent the last 14 years climbing the ladder to become one of the industry’s most sought-after blockbuster filmmakers, mastering sci-fi, horror and post-apocalyptic action along the way.
However, it’s his uncanny ability to bring humanity and tenderness to the forefront of these visceral and harrowing stories – even those centered on vampires and apes – that has brought him to the next level. It’s on this level where he now finds himself setting the foundations of Gotham City in which his definitive cinematic iteration of the Caped Crusader will live and evolve over the next decade.
While Reeves’ career didn’t begin with New York City under siege from an extraterrestrial kaiju, “Cloverfield” is where he got his big break as a feature director. But long before that as a film student at the University of Southern California, Reeves created a student film called “Mr. Petrified Forest.” The film would go on to become a segment of a larger anthology horror film released in 1994 called “Future Shock.” It was his first directing and writing credit in the industry, but it wasn’t until 1996’s “The Pallbearer” that he notched his first full feature as a writer-director. An off-kilter romantic comedy starring David Schwimmer and Gwyneth Paltrow, “The Pallbearer” is a film produced by none other than J.J. Abrams, Reeves’ childhood best friend and creative partner. The film premiered at Cannes, but was a critical and commercial flop, barely breaking even on its $5 million budget. As a result, Reeves worked in television for the next 12 years, with his chief success being the creation of “Felicity” with Abrams.
I have gone on record (more than once) saying “The Dark Knight” was a formative cinematic experience for me, revealing another side to the medium that I had yet to consider at the age of 11. I saw it four times in theaters during the summer of 2008, but the first film I ever saw multiple times in theaters was coincidentally Reeves’ “Cloverfield.”
My older brother took me to a Friday night showing on opening weekend, and I was completely immersed in its cinéma vérité style. The way it opened with the quiet morning moments shared between two lovers, followed by quick, documentarian cuts bridging the gaps between those moments and the going away party for our protagonist. Hud’s goofy, endearing personality exploding from behind the camera as he mingled and collected confessional-style goodbyes from party goers had my attention long before any monsters were in sight. But once they were, the sensation of being in the streets and alleys of Manhattan as chaos enveloped our everyday heroes was unlike anything I had seen before.
I grew up as a big Godzila fan, wearing out the VHS of the 1998 film, as well as the Japanese-produced “Godzilla 2000,” but I had never seen a monster movie driven by such a specific point-of-view. The fleeting moments we got of Clover busting through buildings and bearing the brunt of the U.S. military’s attack was awesome in the truest sense of the word. My brother and I walked out in a daze and agreed to go back the next night for another dose of first-person mayhem. Both times, and each time after at home on DVD, I was gutted by the deaths of Marlena, Hud and the unknown fates of our protagonist and his on-and-off girlfriend. For years, I hoped for some sort of sequel or spin-off to continue their story.
“Cloverfield” was a viral marketing phenomenon and a bonafide hit, grossing $172.4 million worldwide on a budget of just $25 million, showing just how much more Reeves could do with less. Afterward, Reeves was quickly enlisted to write and direct an English-language adaptation of “Let the Right One In,” a Swedish novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, which had been made into an acclaimed Swedish film in 2008. Reeves was skeptical about another film adaptation, but he embraced the idea after reading the novel. Reeves told Bloody Disgusting in 2010 that he was drawn to the story because of its personal connection to his childhood, not just because of its genre status.
Reeves also recently mentioned in a promotional interview for “The Batman” that bullies called him a girl as a child, and that his parents divorced when he was still a kid – both experiences directly reflected in the main character of his adaptation, “Let Me In.” It’s clear through listening to him talk and watching his work that Reeves won’t even bother approaching a project if he can’t find his own personal angle on the subject.
In “Let Me In,” this was also reflected in his voyeuristic, Hitchockian approach, amplified by his first collaboration with cinematographer Greig Fraser. Despite not being a first-person adventure like “Cloverfield,” Reeves and Fraser approached the visuals with the same goal of locking you into a character’s perspective and not letting you go, whether it’s the main character Owen telescoping into the apartments of his neighbors á la “Rear Window,” the jaw-dropping car crash long take, or the climactic pool sequence. Finally, despite the gory, horrifying innards of the film’s plot, Reeves maintains a crucial sense of tenderness, affection and even innocence through his writing and direction – especially of the two leads, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz. The film was a box-office disappointment, earning only $24 million on a $20 million budget, but it was a step up critically for Reeves from the 64 Metacritic rating of “Cloverfield” to the 79 of “Let Me In,” proving he was no one-hit wonder.
In 2011, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was released, rebooting the iconic franchise for the big screen and doing well enough to warrant a sequel. When the director, Rupert Wyatt, ultimately parted ways with the production, it was Matt Reeves who got the attention of producer Dylan Clark and took over with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” While the writing team already knew they were going to jump forward in time following the first film, heading deeper into the post-pandemic apocalypse, there were millions of directions the narrative could go in that setting.
Reeves – who amazed Clark with his knowledge of the franchise’s old television series – pitched the film as a way to completely realign with the perspective of Caesar and the apes. Where James Franco was the star of “Rise,” Reeves looked to make Andy Serkis the anchor of the franchise. The fresh point-of-view can be felt from the very first shot, literally staring into Caesar’s eyes and placing the audience in the center of the new ape civilization. I remember being utterly entranced throughout the entire opening sequence, quickly falling back into step with our favorite characters from the original film, like Rocket and Maurice. And while the apes might be at the forefront, Reeves didn’t slouch with the human characters, like he could have. Committed performances and subtle characterizations ensured that we would still give a damn about what is happening, even when Caesar and Koba aren’t on screen.
The level of technical craft, from the production design by James Chinlund to the textured cinematography of Michael Seresin, also took a notable leap forward. Finally, Reeves’ command of action set pieces – including one-on-one fight scenes and larger battles – was an element he’d never had tested before, and he passed with flying colors. For the first time since the conclusion of The Dark Knight trilogy over two years prior, I was compelled to return to the cinema and experience a film for a second time on the big screen.
While “Rise” had earned $481 million worldwide, “Dawn” managed to be a true summer blockbuster, earning $710.6 million and even outgrossing a new Spider-Man flick in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” It was also a critical and audience hit, receiving 90% Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, in addition to an 88% audience score. The universal success allowed Reeves to proceed with total creative freedom on “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the third entry in the franchise, alongside a $150 million budget. Writing the film with Mark Bomback, Reeves crafted a blockbuster unlike anything in recent history, combining elements of a biblical epic, revenge western and Vietnam-era war film. The 2-hour-and-22-minute conclusion to the trilogy follows Caesar’s journey into the heart of darkness after his family is slain by a military force led by humans and aided by traitorous apes. The formal elements are somehow improved further still, and Michael Giacchino delivers what is arguably his most-stunning work to date for a live-action film, invoking the spirit of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, as well as the franchise’s original score by Jerry Goldsmith.
Reeves’ approach to franchise filmmaking stands as an almost shining example in contrast to the catastrophes forged by J.J. Abrams. The former always maintains reverence and pays homage to the legacy cemented by what came before, but is never afraid to forge his own path and avoid writing and directing in a way that slavishly tries to appeal to fan expectations and crowd-pleasing standards. “War” is as grim as a blockbuster you will find, including graphic battles, torture sequences and some heart-wrenching dramatic beats. However, as with “Let Me In” and “Dawn,” Reeves continues to build out humorous and tender beats with new characters, such as Bad Ape and Nova, and concludes the saga on a bittersweet but ultimately hopeful note. Riding that fine line earned him the highest critical acclaim of his career, including an 82 on Metacritic and 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, as well as nearly $500 million at the global box office. That sustained success is what once again earned Reeves full creative control, this time on “The Batman,” as director, writer and producer, giving him the freedom to reboot the character with Robert Pattinson under the cowl and get a final cut verging on three hours.
My anticipation for “War” was sky high, and I was lucky enough to attend an advanced fan event where “Rise” and “Dawn” were shown before the first public screenings of “War.” I was so blown away that I couldn’t resist seeing the film again on opening weekend. The trilogy, for which Reeves is responsible for its two strongest entries, stands as one of the great cinematic trilogies and a beautiful audition for taking over one of the most storied and beloved fictional characters in “The Batman.”
With just a few weeks to go until we are all seated for what stands to be Reeves’ defining achievement, I can’t recommend enough taking a walk back down the path that led his career to this point. Whether you are discovering these works for the first time or paying them another visit, it’s a genre filmmaking foundation that will be revered for years and decades to come in the wake of “The Batman.”
“The Batman” releases in theaters on March 4, 2022.
Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been with Inside the Film Room since August 2019. He was named Senior Writer in January 2020 and co-hosts the Inside the Film Room podcast with Zach Goins. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."