Thursday, January 24, 2008


The premise of Cloverfield is ingenious. The film is a mash-up of The Blair Witch Project and 1998's shameful remake of Godzilla, interpreted through the visual grammar of September 11th. Playing off this cultural landmark, the hoary cliches of the giant monster movie suddenly gain relevance. Every collapsing structure stands in for the Twin Towers, and every moment of heroism is a chance for the viewer to feel like one of the firefighters who risked their lives. A few reviews of Cloverfield have wondered if it's inappropriate or exploitative for this monster movie to call such specific echoes to a real-life tragedy. I don't think so, because every frame of Cloverfield indicates that this is the point. Like Spielberg's War of the Worlds, this is 9/11 porn. It zeros in on a mysterious, scary world (in this case, the irrevocable destruction of the American way of life), and, through objectification, allows the viewer to control the uncontrollable. Viewed this way, Cloverfield is hot.

As Cloverfield begins, viewers of the movie are informed, ostensibly by the military, that the footage they are about to see comes from a video camera found in a location formerly known as "Central Park." From there, the movie is composed entirely of video recorded by a group of young people (and their companions). The cameraman is an oblivious, obnoxious doofus named Hud. He's been tasked with videotaping a going-away party for his much more successful best friend, Rob. When a Godzilla-sized monster attacks New York, ending the party and forcing the youngsters to flee for their lives, Hud continues shooting, documenting the confusion, the chaos, and the destruction. "People are gonna want to know, you know, how it all went down," he boasts. That you can almost hear the cash register going off in Hud's mind is a credit to T.J. Miller's performance.

Blair Witch and its imitators all had a moment where you wanted the person holding the camera to put it down and do something rather than observe it. Cloverfield is not immune to this problem, but, because of the 9/11 echoes, most of Hud's footage actually feels important enough that recording it is doing something. What's more, the movie is the first of its ilk to make the footage accurately reflect the character holding the camera. I became enamored with Hud's dumb, well-meaning POV. He's so committed to his new identity as a documentarian, that he even records the newscasts on the television. As things grow more dire, Hud uses the camera to distance himself from the experience, shielding himself from the horror. And he's not alone. The movie glibly shows others on the street, taking pictures and video of the carnage with their cellphones.

Cloverfield never makes a comment about this behavior, but that's just as well. It's a keen observation about the way Americans experience things in this age of audio/visual gizmos, and bogging the movie down with some didactic message would only cheapen the verisimilitude with which it captures the times. Besides, the movie itself is a self-contained message about the Videodrome-like way we've begun to see reality. In 1999, Blair Witch ended with its characters storming a haunted house, their cameras aimed in front of them like weapons that could ward off the evil spirits through objective documentation. Almost ten years later, Cloverfield ends with its characters pointing the camera at themselves. Having lost their very notion of themselves in this hostile landscape, they use the camera to tell the world that they are. It's a fascinating representation of America's anxiety about its identity and this weird, ever-growing tendency to document and preserve American culture in the face of its downfall (why else would we keep seeing the release of shitty TV shows on DVD while the multiplex churns with post-apocalyptic dread?).

But cultural, shmultural. One can point to any number of terrible films to make the same points. Cloverfield is also a terrific thrill-ride. As buildings quake and infrastructure starts exploding, the young partiers are forced screaming into the streets with the rest of the city and from there, the peril doesn't let up. The plot unfolds quickly, but intelligibly. There's just enough time to register an important event before matters of survival force Hud and the viewer elsewhere. The movie continually raises the stakes and every time it seems the danger is understandable, there's something new up the movie's sleeve; you're never certain what fresh horrors await the protagonists. Since the POV is so limited, the viewer is as trapped and helpless as the characters, and the mystery at the heart of the film becomes both compelling and scary. I began obsessively scanning every frame for clues about the monster's appearance or its origin, half-wishing I could rewind it for a better look.

Cloverfield's not without some problems,[1] particularly with its main characters. They never quite gel as a believable group of people, and Michael Stahl-David, as Rob, doesn't have the charisma or the cockiness the role requires. But these issues are minute compared to the film's accomplishments. After seeing Cloverfield, telling a story through real-time footage recorded by one of its characters seems less a gimmick (as it did in Blair Witch) than a legitimate style of filmmaking in its own right. One wonders what a master of pacing and slow character studies like Polanski could do with this technique.[2] Cloverfield manages to push this exciting, emerging form of cinematic storytelling forward and make the giant monster movie new and exciting again.[3] The former accomplishment, with its observations about how we interact with media technology, makes it an important film. The latter makes it a thrilling, slight experience, unlike, say, the morning of September 11th.

[1]Complaints that Hud's camera has a longer battery life or can withstand more damage than any camcorder known to man are valid, but seem churlish; it's like complaining about how the sound effects in Star Wars shouldn't be there because there's no sound in space.

[2] I have yet to see De Palma's Redacted or Romero's Diary of the Dead which both reportedly use this same technique, but, despite liking some of their work, I hesitate to call either of these directors "masters."

[3] Michael Giacchino's end credits music suite, Roar!, makes it worth staying through the closing credits. This piece of music belies the film's true inspiration.

1 comment:

Cloverfield 2008 said...

It is very nice film to watch. You are able to see many effects added in this movie. The effects look great and realistic. All in all, a fantastic time at the movies.