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Monday 21 January 2008

Review of Cloverfield

by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Directed by Matt Reeves

Written by Drew Goddard

Starring Michael Stahl-David, Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman

Both: Split decision on Cloverfield, AKA The Blair Witch Godzilla. Howard thinks it's a noble failure. Despite reservations going in, Lawrence thinks it's one of the most effective, and terrifying, monster movies of recent memory.

Lawrence Person: When I first heard about Cloverfield, I was pretty lukewarm about the whole idea. After all, a great deal of the fun of a monster movie is seeing the monster. The other problem was the nature of the protagonists: When it comes to monsters eating club-hoping 20-something yuppie Manhattanites, right off the bat I'm rooting for the monster.

In truth, I never was emotional invested in the characters, but once the monster attacks, it didn't matter. The sheer visceral horror of being down in the streets as it happens, and the magnitude of the event, keep you riveted to what's happening on the screen.

It many ways it's surprising that it took Hollywood this long to assimilate what it was that made The Blair Witch Project a success. By removing the music cues and camera angles that announce to the audience "a scary scene is coming up, please pay attention," the framing device actually removes the internal intellectual frame of reference audiences bring to a nominally scary movie. As much as I thought the handheld camera idea would be a gimmick going in, here it's a gimmick that works. The chaotic camera work reflects the chaotic nature of the situation, one that is inherently more dramatic and compressed than the events in Blair Witch ("Hey look, we're still lost in the forest!"). This movie truly makes you feel like what it would be like to be in the middle of a large city when Godzilla attacked.

Howard Waldrop: As we reported here last year: The Korean-made The Host had a lot of things to teach American filmmakers. As I said, it was a monster movie from the point of view of a normal Joe (or Pak) in that case a family that runs a squid shop in Seoul. The analogy; it were as if Them had been narrated by the two kids stuck in the storm drains, after their father's arm had been torn off by giant ants out of nowhere.

In this case we have a not-so brainy guy filming a goodbye-party for another guy leaving for a job in Japan (this is in Manhattan). He continues to film the rest of the movie. And — important plot device — he's recording over a tape of a day on Coney Island a month before, of the guy who's leaving for Japan and a lady-friend. All this is found by the DoD sometime after whatever happened happened.

There's some swell stuff in here, and hearing a Godzilla-type honk about 45 minutes in is not reassuring. Along with the big menace, there are some man-sized ones, quite nasty, and a fight with them in a subway tunnel and an apartment seen by camera-light are well-done.

As other reviewers have pointed out, there are times when you want to grab the cameraman and hold him still. And the necessity for going back to pick up the camera — instead of running screaming for their fucking lives — keeps reminding you of the artificiality of the concept. (That camera has some battery.)

LP: There are a couple of occasions when the characters make foolish choices, but they're: A) At least set up in motivation earlier in the film, and B) No stupider than the choices characters make in even good monster movies. However, most of the time the characters are simply screwed by fate (the nominal protagonist's brother is taking the bridge out when the monster takes the bridge out). Sometimes you make the most logical decisions in the world and a big, nasty chunk of randomness still comes down to squish you.

The subtext of the movie is 9/11. No character ever mentions it, and they don't have to. The location and magnitude of the event make the parallels inescapable to all but the most literal-minded viewer. An event so large simply overwhelms your ability to cope.

Some smallish spoilers appear in the next paragraph.

It's interesting to compare Cloverfield to The Mist. The overall plot, of normal people trapped by an unexplained, inexplicable and horrific event far beyond their comprehension is similar. The somewhat insectile nature of (some) of the monsters is similar. And the very nasty scene in the drug store has a gruesome counterpart here. Objectively, The Mist is a much better film; the acting is better, and I actually cared about the characters. But emotionally, Cloverfield is simply a much scarier movie.

Some giant honking, skyscraper-sized spoilers appear in the next paragraph.

And what about the monster? The old 12-year-old's rule of monster movies, that you have to see the monster at least once, is fulfilled here, a few scenes before the end. And the best way to describe the monster is freaky. It's sort of like a cross between a truly giant mantis and Johnny the Skeletal Torso.

Here endeth the spoilers.

As for the things that bothered me about the film, besides the aforementioned, was that this is another case where the film ends three times. They could have ended it before our final close-up of the monster and it would have been fine. The frame itself tells us what's going to happen to the characters; there's no need to belabor the point for five minutes.

HW: I'll make this as short as I can. This is a noble failure, with some swell stuff in it. If you're looking for ways filmmakers are using what The Host taught us, and trying to make something different, for a change, go see this. If you're looking for a really scary monster movie, this ain't it. You'll have to use your brain too much — more than the characters ever will. It's like all these New Yorkers in 2008 never heard of 9/11, if you get my drift. And no one, after they've heard it, ever refers to a Godzilla-type sound, which is the first thing that comes to a culture-literate person's mind. Nice try, guys. I especially liked the coda, though I saw it coming 10 minutes in.

LP: Despite my reservations going in, both about the nature of the film and the teaser viral campaign of not showing the monster, the film itself won me over. I've had to keep myself from using the word visceral a half-dozen times in this review, since the visceral tension and fear of the situation are what kept me riveted throughout. Only a couple of times did I think I knew exactly what was going to happen next (the subway tunnel walk, and on the building near the end), and unlike, say, The Descent, I didn't feel like the movie insulted my intelligence.

If you like monster movies, see it.

© 2008 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.