Cloverfield

Like a lot of Americans under the spell of a wildly creative and successful viral marketing campaign, Emily and I went to see Cloverfield this weekend. I'm going to present my thoughts on the movie here without giving too much away, but if you know you're going to see it and you want to remain "unspoiled," you might want to just scroll down to some of the more significant blog posts below this one-- you know, the stuff about politics and war and things that probably matter just a little bit more than my feelings regarding a monster movie.

'Cause that's what Cloverfield is, make no mistake. There's been a lot of online speculation about this movie, and much of the excitement is just a tad overboard. If you're going to see one movie in 2008, find a movie theater that's still showing No Country For Old Men from 2007. If you're hoping for a serious meditation on love and relationships and the impact violence can have, go see Atonement. If you want gore, Sweeney Todd's the film for you.

Still, I highly recommend Cloverfield. It's not going to win any awards, and it doesn't deserve to. But it's a taut, suspenseful Hollywood blockbuster movie that's genuinely scary and doesn't insult its audience's intelligence. Furthemore, it directly addresses a lot of our current cultural anxieties, which makes it stand out when compared to most other horror movies produced in the past ten or fifteen years (in fact, I can't really think of any mainstream horror movies since Alien 3-- which was kinda sorta supposed to be about AIDS-- that had any real subtext whatsoever). So that's cool.

As many of you probably know, this movie owes a lot to 1999's The Blair Witch Project. Both employed a clever viral marketing campaign involving the Internet (Blair Witch had fake websites purporting that this footage had been "found," and that the story was true-- by the time the movie came out, most people knew that this wasn't the case, but for a few weeks I recall some people seriously being taken in by the ruse; Cloverfield has several fake websites with videos and photos found throughout, as well as a mysterious trailer that appeared to just be someone's home video footage of a party until a loud explosion interrupted the celebration and the Statue of Liberty's head came rolling down the street). Of course, the big difference between the two films, from a marketing standpoint, is that Blair Witch revealed the movie's story and conclusion pretty much in the promotional material-- the hook seemed to be "Listen to this crazy story, then go see how it all played out." Meanwhile, Cloverfield's promotion centered more on raising questions and creating mystery surrounding the movie's plot-- going in, you have some idea about what you're going to see, but the movie's important plot points remain undisclosed by the marketing.

(Although there are a few allusions-- which I'll get to in a moment-- that actually tell us everything we need to know about what's going to happen in the next 84 minutes).

The other big similarity between the two movies is, of course, the use of handheld cameras by characters in the movie to document what happens from a first person point-of-view (well, Blair Witch had three people alternating filming duties, but you know what I mean). The movie is told through the camera's lens, by people who are most likely no older than 25. This is kind of important.

One major difference between the two movies is that Cloverfield doesn't suck. Actually, to be fair, Blair Witch didn't absolutely suck-- it just reached a point where none of it made a lick of sense, mostly because the whole thing was more of an improvisation exercise than a real film The actors were sent into the woods, and the filmmakers did stuff to scare them without warning in order to capture "real" fear. The problem is, the natural response to finding out a cannibal witch is after you is to throw the damn camera to the ground and run like the wind-- and in fact, two of the performers in Blair Witch suggest doing just that, leaving the third to try to come up with a compelling reason not to. Which she can't do. Shortly before the film's climax, one character asks the other, "Why are we still filming?" and she rather weakly and unconvincingly replies, "Because it's all I've got left." Can't really blame the actors for that one-- usually, someone else writes better lines for them.

Cloverfield avoids this problem, in large part because the story takes place almost ten years later and our culture has changed significantly. In 1999, young people did not habitually use video technology to record their lives-- even aspiring independent filmmakers like the ones in Blair Witch expected to turn the cameras off at some point. Not so today, really. Now, our cameras are built into the phones we carry with us at all times. Digital technology has created lightweight, easily-portable cameras. As a result, it's not surprising at all when someone asks another character, Hud, to record the party at the beginning of the movie. And it's not too contrived to discover that Hud is recording over a video that our protagonist, Rob, made of the one perfect day he spent with his best friend and true love, Beth, before his anxieties about their relationship forced him to run away from her.

Furthermore, once the scary stuff starts going down, it makes sense that Hud doesn't turn the camera off. This is indicated to us in that early scene, where Lady Liberty's head comes to rest right outside Rob's apartment building-- even while a lot of people are screaming and crying and running for shelter, several others are standing in front of the statue's head, phones out, arms extended, flashes flashing. This type of record is important, and the generation behind me understands that completely, is what this sequence indicates-- and if that's too subtle for you, Hud later says words to that effect when Rob asks him why he's still filming.

Cloverfield also succeeds where Blair Witch fails because it's not trying to fool anyone-- we all know going in that a giant monster didn't really attack New York. Thus, I think the filmmakers can be allowed a little leniency when it comes to certain plot elements. As I mentioned before, Hud is recording over Rob's video of his day with Beth. When Hud drops the camera, or stops recording, we get little glimpses of their past, and get to know Rob's character outside of the crisis that's occuping most of our attention. Okay, so it's a little too convenient-- as is the fact that Hud keeps getting these awesome, perfectly-framed shots of key moments in the film (though these moments happen so rarely that they don't draw a lot of attention to themselves). But Blair Witch wound up sacrificing its own story to its narrative conceit, whereas Cloverfield take great care to not let the conceit overwhelm or detract from the story. I think that's the smarter of the two options with this type of film.

That story, of course, involves a giant monster taking apart New York. It's a movie we've seen before, but never from this point-of-view. We're used to seeing the monster climbing the building and the jets shooting at the monster while military men and scientists advise the president. Here, we have people running from buildings as they fall. We get the human reaction to the devastation. We see dazed, soot-covered people wandering through the streets, trying to figure out what's happened to them.

And this is the most intelligent and controversial part of Cloverfield-- this movie is clearly drawing upon the same anxieties that manifested themselves in America on September 11th, 2001 and that, it turns out, remain with us today. Manohla Dargis in the New York Times calls the allusions "tacky", saying that they "may make you think of the attack, and you may curse the filmmakers for their vulgarity, insensitivity or lack of imagination..." But I don't quite see how a horror movie drawing on what terrifies us necessarily qualifies as "vulgar" or "insensitive." In fact, it seems to me that Godzilla, who made his first appearance in 1954, is born out of the Japanese anxiety about America's nuclear weaponry-- Godzilla was awakened by nuclear testing, then goes on to demolish cities on a scale not seen since August 9, 1945. If we make fun of Godzilla, it's because of the cheap special effects and over-the-top acting style, not because it seems to exploit a real-world tragedy that was, I'm sorry to say, much more devastating than the events that happened on September 11th. It seems to me that the Japanese were, perhaps, a bit more honest about owning and confronting that which scared them, while in America we've been content to allow rightwing politicians to tell us what the "acceptable" ways of talking about (or, in the case of Bush and Giuliani, really exploiting) the fears created by the attack on our country.

(And have you noticed that it's only September 11th that people get this upset about? There wasn't a public outcry against the aforementioned AIDS subtext in Alien 3. Nobody complained that the holocaust attempted by the aliens in Independence Day belittled the very real genocides that exist in our world. It's just this one event. Is it that it still feels too soon, I wonder? And if so, when will enough time have passed that filmmakers can attempt to comment on it?)

Anyway... what else can I tell you about Cloverfield? I liked it, obviously. So did Emily, and she's not as into monster movies as I am. If you go to see it, sit way in the back-- that shaky handheld camera thing is kinda hard to follow, and has apparently caused some people to become nauseated. The monster's pretty bad-ass. The actors are all young, bland, yuppie-types, but I think that kind of works for this movie, because that's what they're supposed to be.

Okay. Some spoilers:




[Seriously, don't read this if you really want to be surprised. Although the stuff I'm about to reveal will probably seem obvious once you've seen the film]






Okay, at the very beginning, text appears on the screen instructing the audience that we're about to see footage discovered at the site of Project: Cloverfield in what used to be known as Central Park. Right there, it should be clear to us that none of our heroes are going to survive-- they didn't hand over or sell their video, it was just found. In what used to be Central Park. So we know something terrible happened. But when we do get to the end, it's not the monster that kills our two surviving heroes, it's the U.S. military bombing the shit out of New York in an attempt to destroy the monster-- our heroes are "collateral damage", victims of "friendly fire," which-- again-- speak to our uniquely early 21st century concerns. And, as Emily pointed out to me as we left the theater, that particular ending is actually telegraphed by the movie's title; while some online reviewers and film geeks have hypothesized that Project: Cloverfield is the name of some military project that created this monter, Emily noted that clover-- a particularly tough little plant-- is typically the only plant that can grow after a massive, massive bombing campaign. So what was once Central Park was turned into Cloverfield by the U.S. military's bombs.

Anyway. I recommend this movie to anyone who likes monster movies, isn't squeamish about the use of imagery inspired by September 11th, and doesn't suffer from motion sickness.

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