Monday, January 21, 2008

"Cloverfield" Review

WARNING: SPOILERS (spoilage factor: about the same as a package of sliced ham left in the back of your meat tray a few days too long until it develops a nice coating of slime)

Just got home from watching “Cloverfield”. Still waiting for my stomach to settle down.

Overall, “Cloverfield” was a good movie. Not a great film. But a good movie.

The story has us riding along second person (bordering on first person perspective) with a group of New York yuppies, who are partying it up, bidding farewell to their buddy Rob who’s about to leave for a job in Japan, when suddenly all hell breaks loose. We see things from the perspective of the video camera being held by Hud, Rob’s buddy who’s amiable, a Chatty Kathy and kind of an idiot. There are explosions, the power flickers, and the statue of Liberty’s head does a pinball impression down their street, sending our partygoers and other residents stampeding out of Manhattan. There’s something in the city, but it sure ain’t sex. After tragedy strikes the group at the Brooklyn Bridge, Rob gets a call from his sometime lover Beth, who’s trapped in her building, and against all logic, he goes back in after her, followed by faithful Hud, Lily and Marlena, as the city collapses around them and the military wage a losing battle against a giant rampaging beast.

I’ll get my bias out of the way right off the top here: I’m a fan of giant monster movies. Not an uber-fan with every episode of the Godzilla franchise on DVD, mind you, but I enjoy watching the old city-stompers once in a while (and have been greatly appreciative of CBC running the Godzilla movies late on Saturday nights for the past couple of weeks) and I’m always interested when they evolve along different lines. I’m probably one of the few people who will admit to finding the late 90’s Godzilla remake with Matthew Broderick somewhat entertaining (Jean Renaud stole the show). And the recent Korean film “The Host” was absolute genius. So, when “Cloverfield” came along, redefining the monster movie by showing us not the big picture that we’d get with wide shots of a monster running amok through a city with cutaways to scientists and military guys to explain everything (in fact, the best we get in terms of explanations are the babbled theories of Hud on the run – guessing everything from prehistoric deep sea leviathan to alien invader to government experiment gone wrong), rather, we saw it as the average citizens would live through it (or not) on the ground. Which, in many ways, made it all the more absorbing and frightening. In some ways it reminded me vaguely of a short story I read a while ago (the title and author’s name escape me, and it’s too late at night to be combing through all of the short story anthologies and issues of On Spec on my shelves) about a man in a tour group chartering a tour through a city’s ground zero during a giant monster attack.

At any rate, using the home video style of shooting the movie (like “The Blair Witch Project”) was an excellent device to really put the audience into the shoes of the characters. It did a great job (with one or two exceptions) of drawing me in as Rob , Hud, Lily, Marlena (and later, Beth) tried to survive amidst the devastation. The thunder of the tank-fire, the rampaging monster and the falling buildings weren’t something you could watch in a detached way as it was happening all around you. I normally don’t have much patience with first or immediate second person styles of shooting (that old episode of MASH where you see the entire episode through the eyes of a patient annoyed me after about 10 minutes), but this time, in “Cloverfield”, it really worked for some reason.

The down side, as many have pointed out, was that the earthquakey jerking of the camera did make me feel a little nauseous. And that’s no small feat! I’ve got a pretty strong stomach to begin with. Rollercoasters don’t tend to phase me. As a former broadcaster, I’ve had to sit through plenty of shakey amateur footage (some of which was my own, back in school) to look for details. And as a reporter on Vancouver Island, I once covered the annual SARTech (Search And Rescue Technician) games, where I rode along with a crew aboard a Hercules aircraft for a 3 hour, low-level, competition flight where the plane was constantly rising, diving and banking over the rough terrain and bucking in the air currents like a surly bronco – I made it through most of that experience before my stomach finally had enough. But, despite my gastro-intestinal hardiness, “Cloverdale” and its earthquake-prone shooting had my stomach doing flips after about 30 or 45 minutes. I kept control by looking at the seatback in front of me when the scenes were just running in the dark with not much to see, but I was glad I didn’t get my usual bucket of popcorn for this flick. Gladder still that my wife didn’t come, because she has a tendency to get really, really motion sick.

Another aspect of this movie that impressed me was its level of humanity. I knew a bit about the plot before I went in, and I wasn’t expecting to feel much sympathy for these people – I don’t have the same lifestyle they do, they’re not the sort of people I usually associate with on a personal basis or through work, and they live in a different city and country than I do. And some of the personalities are ones that I wouldn’t get along with in real life. This is an important note, because we are presented with diverse personalities, some of which are easier to like and identify with than others, and yet, as in any disaster, we have to put up with them regardless of whether we like them or not, because everyone’s in the same boat of trying to get through the experience alive. And, as the movie progressed, I did feel myself becoming concerned for these characters and fearing for their safety – even Marlena, who I found to be fairly cold and unpleasant. Marlena’s half-seen and rather gruesome end was upsetting, not merely because the other characters who I did like were upset, but because she was part of the group that I, as a member of the audience experiencing this at their level, was also a member of. There wasn’t much in the writing that made these characters as real as they were – part of the credit goes to the actors for being able to find real faces and resisting the urge to make this into a comic book, and part of the credit, again, goes to that in-your-face, street level, right-over-your-shoulder second person home camcorder style of presenting the movie.

The monster itself was different than what we’re used to. No giant lizard or insect this. This critter was pretty hard to identify (on the few occasions where we got to see the full thing) and was definitely scary. I will break from the pack of other reviewers though, and say it’s look was not unique. As a moviegoer, I’ve seen monsters similar to this one before – just not on a titanic scale. At first, coming out of the theatre, I thought it was vaguely reminiscent of Pumpkinhead. Then I thought it reminded me a bit of the hybrid alien (the Ripley clone’s sort-of grandchild) in “Alien: Resurrection”. Finally I was able to put my finger on it: this monster looks a whole lot like that weird ghost thing at the top of the stairs at the end of “Poltergeist” that tries to take a bite of the mother when she tries to free the kids who are trapped in the bedroom/hellmouth. It looked a lot like that ghost/demon. A whole lot. Except really big and grey. And of course, this beasty had friends – creepy little spidery-monkeyish lice (or were they offspring?) things that dropped off it periodically to change the tone of the film from people avoiding large-scale disaster to people fleeing from ravenous monsters. The monster worked as well as it did by the old Spielberg trick of concealing it through most of the movie, but also because the special effects were grade-A. Kudos for great sound engineering too – very important in a film with no soundtrack.

I also thought the periodic cut-aways to the bleed-through of Coney Island footage worked well. It helped to underscore the relationship between Rob and Beth, cementing their humanity and bring emotions to the forefront to an audience at risk of becoming desensitized amidst the extensive destruction. It also helped shift the movie’s gears downward too, giving us a short level to recover from the heart-pounding action before cutting back to the attack and another drop down the roller-coaster’s track. And, of course, if you pay attention to the final Coney Island bit that provides the end bracket to the film, as much as it’s out of place with “the perfect day”, there’s an oh-so-quick shot that gives you some hint at the monster’s origin.

Which brings us to the end (super spoiler territory here). Where after witnessing abrupt endings to many lives of people in the disaster, both those who we don’t know, and those we do (like Marlena and Jason), we experience the footage being cut-off as the lives of our characters get cut-off both by man and the beast. After managing to survive the hell of the night, after managing to rescue Beth from impossible odds, after surviving a helicopter crash, Rob, Hud and Beth step into a sunny morning in Central Park only to have Hud come face to face with the creature and get killed, and Rob & Beth huddle under a bridge to say their goodbyes until the military attach against the monster brings the structure down on top of them. Their deaths are sudden, shocking and sad. Their deaths were typical of the ending of lives in disaster. And thus their endings were real and all the more powerful. They didn’t get a happy ending (aside from Rob & Beth getting to say goodbye to one-another). They didn’t get any answers. And they didn’t get any tribute (at least none that we, the audience are privy to) beyond being entered into a military records archive. It’s questionable as to whether they got any dignity. In seeing their lives get cut-off abruptly in the closeness and the darkness and the noise and the fear, in failing to see the bigger picture, we too, as an audience got cut off (perhaps there’s even the possibility we’re meant to think we too got killed in the bridge collapse – somewhat like one theory about the recent end to “The Sopranos” that the sudden cut to a black screen meant the audience was whacked after a series which saw pretty much everyone else get bumped off) – at the mercy of larger and more powerful forces, like the little people we are. In doing so, this movie made a bigger impression on me than other disaster films where we see the wrap-up, where we see the monster go down in gouts of flame and blood, or the flood waters recede or the asteroid get blowed-up-real-good. This ending, for having the courage to be so abrupt, was perfect.

Despite liking “Cloverfield” as much as I did, I’m only recommending it for video purchase. The super-shakey shooting was just too much on my stomach and I think I would have enjoyed it even more watching it at home on TV where it wouldn’t be in my face quite as much. But then, maybe I’ll be missing out on what was possibly very much intended to be part of the experience – experiencing it on a more extensive, and literally gut-wrenching level than merely viewing it could give.

Check out former “Star Trek – The Next Generation” star Will Wheaton’s review (courtesy of a link through SF Signal) for some interesting thoughts on “Cloverfield”.
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