I think I know what Cloverfield is.
It’s a marketing gimmick for a genre movie that would be otherwise unceremoniously dropped in the middle of January.
And whatever it is, it’s winning.
Yes, of course I’d be the first person to say it’s a lot better than Emmerich’s “Godzilla” (of course I’m likely the first person to say genocide is better than Emmerich’s “Godzilla”) but the fact that so many people out there seem to think this movie is anything more than
a semi-successful, slump-season, advertising stunt (the secret identity of its title character having been kept a mystery on the level we haven’t seen since advertising mavens asked a nation “Who Is Harry Crumb?”) is stunning to me.
The only problem therefore is how do you write a spoiler-free criticism on a movie whose sole existence is to be one, giant, $12.00 spoiler.
So I am going take the easy odds that anyone remotely interested in reading about this movie has either already seen it, made it, or
knows damn well Cloverfield is about a giant monster (as opposed to identical twin magicians or the completely made-up fantasy of a homicidal french lesbian) who spontaneously emerges from the Hudson
to attack NYC.
Yes, once again, JJ Abrams follows a pack of hipsters lost on an island. Only this time it’s Manhattan.
That’s pretty much sums up the whole thing. That’s the story. But then again, Cloverfield’s raison d’etre was never going to be about the story as much as how it would going to be told.
Done more or less in real time, like a $35 million dollar Cannibal Holocaust (and can you imagine if Monsters got that in HD!), Cloverfield’s continuous “handheld” POV camera will likely make many nauseous. Personally, I had about 5 shots before the movie so it kind of evened out for me. But in theory, it is annoying. Plus, I’ve
never understood why this technique is supposed to make anything more believable. I’ll take the well-storyboarded, meticulously-crafted T- Rex scene from Jurassic Park over any of this. Seriously, pick any classic movie from history you like and ask yourself if unfocused swish-pans would have made it better (I’ve never heard anyone criticize”The Godfather 2” saying Michael’s kiss would’ve been so
much more believable if only the camera had haphazardly zoomed in and out of Fredo more). If anything, I think the faux-documentary style can make things feel even more artificed and stylized, taking me out of the story.
But my problem is not so much the POV of the camera but that the POV is from a character more suitable for Mike Judge’s’ “Idiocracy”. For the majority of the film, we are literally stuck in the perspective
of a complete doofus. Then again, I don’t believe his character is always filming. During the moments where you think he’d most be running for his life (as opposed to manually focusing), the action is strikingly coherent, whereas scenes where his character would
possibly be shooting well, everything is so crooked, he seems to have passed the camera off to David Hasselhoff’s kid (unsurprisingly, he somehow always manages to get the “Mountain Dew” and “Sephora”
product placements perfectly composed).
Then there’s the shameless similarity to 9/11. But OK, here’s one thing I will kind of defend Cloverfield on. I live in NYC. I love NYC. And the day a genre movie can’t blow it to pieces for cheap, escapist effect is a day we’ve lost something worse than the freedom to travel with an unlimited quantity of liquids or gels. If that
were true, then we could never have an action/ horror/ sci fi movie ever set in NYC again (although, if that can keep the remake of “Escape From New York” from happening, then maybe we shouldn’t).
I personally have no problem seeing my favorite city in the world
back to being center stage for big budget genre movies. That said. if Cloverfield were to invoke 9/11 any more, it would be married three times and cross dress. I can particularly see the how dust cloud scene could especially rub people the wrong way. But in its defense, I don’t think there’s anything more sensitive here than already exploited in Spielberg’s “War Of The Worlds” (which I’ve previously said to friends referenced just about everything 9/11 except for us invading the wrong planet in retaliation).
What did bother me is why the monster is destroying New York. There is no reason. What the hell is this monster doing? It’s not eating people. Or fighting Megalon. It’s just breaking shit. It reminds me of my friend Allan in college when he’d get drunk, pissed off at a girl and throw orange traffic pylons in to the street. If I were some giant monster from the the oceanic depths, my first, primordial urge would not be to vandalize a civic statue. It’s acting less like
a ferocious, carnivorous evil and more like a drunk soccer hooligan whose team just lost. He’s not terrifying. He’s an asshole.
Plus, ok and this paragraph has a “spoiler alert”– I think it looks
a lot like that half-human bastard child of Ripley from Alien 4 with untreated Scoliosis (or the continuing reminder of an awkward
morning between “Pumpkinhead” and “The Relic”). I also don’t get the facehugger mites. Are they supposed to be his parasites? So basically, we’re being attacked by something that’s come from
overseas with a really bad case of the crabs. Moreover, if that’s what they are, and they are close to being our size, it seriously throws the scale of the monster into question. Why would it care about, much less notice, people? (Sidenote: Although it would probably make for a stupid looking monster, can you imagine a movie about a giant anteater? At least that would make sense). In some scenes it has apparently towered over skyscrapers but in others it will zero in on some dork with a camera from about 10 city blocks away. I swear Cloverfield changes its size more often than Kristie Alley.
The only, other main thing that doesn’t ring true about this monster attacking the city, besides the monster, is the city.
It’s NYC. Where are all the people? There’s no old people. No
kids. No pets. No undocumented resident aliens. I mean, wouldn’t there be people hanging out of every window? Cars jamming the
streets (even when there aren’t giant monsters attacking, there are cars jamming the streets). Trust me, if a giant monster ever really attacked the city it it would be about 10 minutes before every street corner would be full of people selling souvenirs. Yeah, I know the filmmakers try to explain that people are evacuating but as the movie shows us, people can only leave in military helicopters in what appears to be no more than groups of two (you have no idea how much I was hoping one would crash in to the copter carrying Will Smith’s family from “I AM LEGEND”).
There would just be sooooo many more people. And each and every one
… would have cameras. Cameras. Cameras.
Christ, there’d be people on the street with Lumacranes. Yet, this
guy seems to be the only person filming. Which is too bad as I think the filmmakers missed out on a legitimate structural opportunity. Imagine if this movie was the composited collection of several
cameras found. So you’d get different perspectives, multiple characters and pieces of a puzzle that form a whole, the Roshomon of Blair Witch Projects, if you will.
I seriously think that could be scarier– when one camera goes out (its holder presumably dead or realistically fled), there’s a mysterious gap in the story that leaves you it to your imagination until later footage from someone else fills in the gap. For example, imagine footage of a crowded avenue filled with terrified, awestruck citizens. It goes black. Next scene picks up an hour or so later from another shooter. The streets are empty. All the people are
gone. Where did they go? Did they escape, hide… or did something else happen which whisked them away…
Ironically, in Cloverfield, the one instance where I think someone wouldn’t be videotaping would be when the government takes over the city but alas, our boy can. Do you really think our government would let some frat guy continue to film their innermost workings under a siege of martial law? I had a harder time getting a camera into the screening of Cloverfield.
All my petty criticisms aside, I will say Cloverfield is not boring, and at least mercilessly short (I have calculated I could
successfully sit through Cloverfield four times in the span of enduring one sitting of P.T. Andersons “There Will Be Blood”). I am also just happy to see giant monster movie again and the core idea of doing it “doc style”, while problematic, ‘tis a noble experiment. I just hope for the sequel, next time, the monster can attack someone with a Stedicam.