24 January 2008

Cloverfield

Full Credits from IMDb
Watch the Trailer

Directed by: Matt Reeves
Written by: Drew Goddard

Grade: A

Cloverfield looks, intentionally, like a home movie; the raw video that makes up the film is passed off as found footage a la The Blair Witch Project, an exhibition of tape recovered by the Defense Department from the “area formerly known as Central Park.” But, more than a mere retread of the Blair Witch approach to the filmmaking, Cloverfield is the first film to successfully use the internet’s dominant YouTube aesthetic and to reflect the “shoot first and let computers sort it out” ethos of today’s shutter-happy generation. Notice that not-exactly-hip critics like The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane are complaining that the shaky, amateur camerawork induces dizziness.

Cloverfield starts off as a camcorder document of Michael Stahl-David’s going away party and the ensuing WB-style drama between he and his hip, affluent (and white) New-York-yuppie friends. (Director Matt Reeves is credited with penning 64 episodes of Felicity and directing five.) But it soon takes a turn for the worse—it’s Stahl-David’s last night in New York, as he’s about to start a new job in Japan, but the film does him the dubious favor of bringing Japan to him, in the form of a Godzilla-esque, city-demolishing, run amok monster.

The party is interrupted—bummer, dude!—by the creature’s attack on the city, which, first things first, sends the Statue of Liberty’s head crashing down into the streets; the survivors gather-round with their cameraphones, natch, before they’re sent running for their lives. As a monster movie, Cloverfield is unique, a new breed perhaps—it doesn’t serve as an environmentalist and/or anti-nuclear allegory, like the original Godzilla or the more recent The Host (or plenty of other flicks in between), nor is it really even about the monster. If Cloverfield’s monster represents anything, by its rare appearances, resistance to the methods of modern warfare and anti-New York inclination, it’s Terrorism. (Notice the monster’s first victim is Lady Liberty, just as 9/11 robbed us not only of our right not to be killed but also of our right not to be wiretapped.) Exposition is handled perfunctorily, doled out via speculation by people on the street, quickly captured news broadcasts and brief encounters with the military; we hardly even see the monster at all.

But we do see its trail of destruction, as a few people from the party improbably make their way uptown to save a friend trapped in the rubble of what used to be her apartment. Cloverfield is about terrorism’s human effects, not its spectacle. (Unlike, say, Independnce Day, whose most, if not only, memorable moments were the obliterations of iconic American structures.) Of all its cinematic forefathers, Cloverfield owes its greatest debt to Children of Men (though that’s not to say it’s on par with it); above all, it’s an exercise in cinematic urgency, immediacy and naturalism, with the unbroken takes, the handheld, first-person camera and recognizable if not exactly likeable characters working to suture the viewer into the middle of the action. It exploits memories of 9/11, obviously, as well as provides a vicarious experience of the Iraq War when our heroes stumble upon the military in the midst of an urban, street-level firefight, but those are only jumping-off points; the film’s pleasures derive not from (re-)witnessing the leveling of New York landmarks but from sharing the emotional experience of the characters amid the carnage. Reeves & Co. keep the film compelling from end-to-end, balancing the grueling action and attacks, including a terrifying one by giant spiders (?) in the abandoned tunnels of the No. 6 train, by maintaining a sense of humor in the downtime with a running commentary from cameraman T.J. Miller. Despite the occasional levity, though, Cloverfield is relentlessly draining and depressing as a human story of surviving through, and bearing witness to, unimaginable destruction. It’s really about cinema’s capacity to deliver a vivid emotional experience—when asked why he’s kept the camera on, Miller responds, “people will want to know how it all went down.”

“You could just tell them.”
“No, that wouldn’t work,” he answers. “People will want to see this.”

3 comments:

random said...

Sorry, I have to disagree with you here.

Cloverfield has about 20-25 minutes worth of content spread over 72 minutes. The set-up takes entirely too long.

I really don't know these characters, therefore it's hard for me to identify and care for them.

I'm must in the "not-so" hip camp. I found the nausia-cam to be, well, nauseating.

And what motivates this party goer to carry and record with this camera the adventures of this night? He was reluctant to even tape the video well wishing, but in the face of cataclysmic dangers, he suddenly imbued with an altruistic sense of having the document "what does down." I don't buy it.

The marketing campaign is the true wonder of this movie.

Thumbs down from me.

H. Stewart said...

I guess my reaction to Cloverfield was particularly personal and doesn't quite transfer over to everyone else; if the characters seemed foreign to you, or you were unable to suspend your disbelief or get past the "nausea cam" I could see how the film would fail.

I think Cloverfield is a masterpiece of form, but I could see it as being sort of culturally dependent. I saw Rob Levine, a journalist, speak recently and he made a simple but keen observation while speaking about the film (which he hadn't seen): that when we see things on tv or on a movie screen we tend to view them as inherently artificial, but when we see something on-line we instinctually take it to be REAL. (Generally, of course.) And so Cloverfield works, in my opinion, by exploiting the YouTube aesthetic and its accompanying assumptions about reality to elicit its emotional response. (Of course, there's still, like with any monster movie, a bit of disbelief that needs to be suspended.)

But I imagine people whose exposure to the internet is limited might feel lost in the film.

Just a thought. Apologies to Mr. Levine if I misrepresented his thoughts.

Bloodhound said...

To random: That's the same thing people in the early nineties said about the beginning of digital technology in the hands of experienced moviemakers; oh, it's too unrealistic, too nauseating to see all these graphics, too long. Tell that to Bruce Willis, to everyone in Transformers, The Kingdom, Tears of the Sun, Harry Potter. These films and people made good ratings because the design was based on brilliance or a good story. If you don't approve of those, either, then I don't know what to tell you.

You say you don't know the characters; well, I don't know the guy who runs my coffee shop very well, but if he keeled over and died from a heart attack, does that stop me from caring about him? Aside from that, Cloverfiled wasn't really made for the kind of dramatic, tearful, Hollywood-hyped, elongated death-scene. This film portrays what happens often when people die in chaotic situations; the witnesses go into a sort of shock. Nobody can really react to deaths (esp. if there are hundreds of deaths), because so much is going into their minds. It's not made of the sad, melodramatic music and the slow-motion shots of the characters in theatrical despair; it brushes on reality more than most critics think. The drama comes after everything settles, and the shock drifts away. Psychology 101.

As for "what goes down", it's called bravado. In the worst of times, there are thousands upon thousands of reactions that can come from just a single human being. These reactions in turn effect his behavior; bravado is no exception. How do you think other people in the middle of war zones film live action on their cameras? And I'm not talking about scared reporters in Afghanistan. I'm talking about regular plant workers, train drivers or business executives in the Tokyo gas attack, in plane crashes over the Pacific, in earthquakes in California, in volcanic eruptions in Chile.

Some people just do strange things. Others cower, others are thinking of ways to escape, and yet others are fighting. I could make a neverending list of what people can possibly do in situations like that, and this blog would be overwhelmed by it. It would have to be the equivalent of the human mind.

These are new films, in a newer time. You gotta live the future, mate, and in this current era, the future is trying to make what we film more realistic.