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Cloverfield (2008) Print E-mail
Friday, 18 January 2008
Paramount has handled the pre-release publicity for “Cloverfield” with such finesse that a tremendous must-see excitement has built up for the movie. Maybe. Time will tell if this worked, or if it’s another “Snakes on a Plane” situation. However, it’s likely “Cloverfield” will succeed where “Snakes” fizzled out.

This is a genuine giant-monster-attacking-a-city thriller, in content little different from “King Kong,” “Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” or the entire Godzilla franchise. Those films always feature hordes of terrified city folks fleeing the onslaught of the giant whatsis, but while other movies of this kind have focused on scientists, military figures, or other people involved directly in battling the monster, “Cloverfield” is set entirely among that horde of fleeing denizens of a city—in this case, THE city: New York. The movie is exciting, spectacular (lots of effects), fast-paced and, though the story is familiar, the approach is exceptionally original, almost unique.

The point of view is the big deal here, the element that genuinely sets “Cloverfield” apart from other giant monster movies—and it’s not just that we’re confined to this small group of terrified residents, it’s that it’s quite literally from their point of view: the entire movie is seen as though shot by the video camera one of the group is carrying. (You might wonder why he doesn’t just drop the damned camera and run faster, but never mind.) The limitations to this technique are overridden or dodged by extremely careful pre-planning (they used the “pre-viz” process Spielberg employed on “War of the Worlds”) and shrewd editing. There are some drawbacks—most of the time the guy carrying the camera is running, just trying to keep alive, so the POV is hand-held and jittery; it’s not easy to adjust to this nearly chaotic perspective—but on the other hand, the story overall is compelling enough that you can find yourself consciously making an effort to keep things straight. Most movies hand-feed you everything; not “Cloverfield”—you have to work on this one.

The handheld camcorder POV provides a surprisingly effective sense of urgency for most of the film; it runs out of steam a little before the end, out of sheer familiarity. On the other hand, familiarity enhances the movie in other regards: because of 9/11, we’ve seen many actual thick, heavy clouds of dust roiling down Manhattan streets, swirling around the edges of the sky scrapers with something even worse happening off in the clouded distance. The makers of “Cloverfield” knew exactly what they’re doing in evoking these disturbing memories—they lend the movie a strong sense of actuality, even while the romantic elements tend to undercut it. But the sense of reality ultimately wins out—and the connection to 9/11 never seems exploitative, because the menace here, though improbable, is unusually convincing for a giant monster movie. To a degree, the movie tips its hand regarding the ending in the very first shot; supposedly we’re watching a military report that’s in the form of this videotape found at the place that was “formerly called Central Park.”
The first scenes take place before the giant whatever-it-is attacks Manhattan (we never know what it is, why it’s in the city or where it came from, because the characters never know). Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) is showing his girlfriend Beth McIntyre (Odette Yustman) a good time; they wake up, then head for Coney Island—and suddenly we’re at a big farewell party for Rob, a month later. (Or maybe a year and a month later; the camera’s time-and-date stamp doesn’t include the year.) Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel) has given the camera to their pal Hud (T.J. Platt), to film “testimonials” to the departing Rob, who’s moving to Japan.

Hud is an amiable doofus; we see some of the farewell speeches, though he’s really more interested in the hip, cool Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), who barely knows the Hawkins brothers. The party is being staged by Lily (Jessica Lucas), Jason’s girlfriend. It soon becomes clear that Rob and Beth—who’s also at the party with a date—have had a falling out. Theirs is the core relationship in the movie, but unfortunately, writer Drew Goddard isn’t up to the level of the concept or Reeves’ direction: the characters are very much like those who turn up in the average slasher movie, and therefore, not much more interesting.

The party scene goes on almost but not quite too long; just as all the relationships have been established (and Beth has left the party), there’s a huge rumble, like an earthquake. Outside, the nighttime cityscape is beginning to explode here and there, and strange, deep sounds—could they be huge footsteps?—can be heard. But it’s not until a large shape crashes down onto the street, revealing itself to be the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty, that everyone realizes something very big and very different is happening.

The poor old Statue of Liberty has been battered by almost every big-scale science fiction movie set in New York; “Cloverfield” is just another example. But this shot of the plummeting head made a great teaser trailer, attached to the front of last year’s “Transformers,” setting off a possibly lucrative wave of excitement. It even does it in the movie—amusingly, no sooner has the head come to a halt than almost everyone nearby whips out a camera or a photo-phone and snaps shots of the head. But the movie doesn’t really make time for much of that sort of thing—it keeps going.

There’s a mass exodus on the Brooklyn Bridge—lots of extras, though probably many of them are CGI—that leads to tragedy when the largely unseen monster smashes its tail down onto the bridge’s causeway, collapsing it into the East River. Our heroes clamber their way back to the Manhattan side.

The movie keeps going, but even so, there are a few slow spots. Rob becomes determined to cross town to Beth’s apartment—he called her and found she’s in pain and trapped—so Hud, Marlena and Lily accompany him on his quest. Part of this takes them through now unused subway tunnels, and the picture does slow down at this juncture.

The filmmakers knew this, so they add another menace. The press notes explain that the monster scratches its back on the towers of the Brooklyn Bridge, tumbling creatures like collie-sized lice down on the human throng below. These fierce, carnivorous arthopods chase our heroes through the subway tunnels, so underground has become as unsafe as the surface.

Most of “Cloverfield” is exciting, and it even achieves a few pretty effective scares, not common in giant monster movies. It’s surprisingly gripping, but the grip falters near the climax; it’s likely many people will not be satisfied with the ending. The last twenty minutes are even more disjointed and chaotic than earlier scenes, and we tend to lose track of the few surviving members of our little group. On the other hand, it’s only fair to report that at the press screening, much of the audience burst into applause at the end.

The movie does raise some questions about realism. The hand-held, home-video camera quality of the movie’s style does create a greater sense of realism, and the characters are reasonably realistic—but precisely because of that, they’re less interesting than they might have been. Ordinary people in real life don’t talk in Dialogue, they just talk like regular people; sometimes they’re amusing, but mostly it’s just average, somewhat uninteresting talk. To large degree, that’s true here, too, though it must be admitted that once the Liberty head crashes to the street, there’s not a lot of conversation.

If we really found real-life people as compelling as those in better movies and TV shows, documentaries and reality shows would be much more popular than dramas and comedies, and clearly they’re not. A major difference is that care has been taken to write interesting dialogue that delineates character, underscores themes. In movies, we mostly DON’T want people to sound completely real; instead, we want “realism”—which is actually a form of stylization. That is, it sounds like reality only much better; “Cloverfield” sounds like reality—without the enhancement. This tends to make moments that are more like regular dramas or melodramas look peculiar, as when Beth and Rob kiss while that big monster lumbers by not far away.

In a sense, it’s not only difficult to judge performances in a movie made this way, it’s largely pointless—everyone is hustling along so fast that they don’t have sustained moments of characterization. Still, even with that limitation, Lizzy Caplan makes a strong impression as the outsider Marlena. And T.J. Miller is amusing and likeable as Hud, even though his role as the photographer means that he simply cannot be seen very much. The dialogue Goddard wrote for him is a shade better, a shade more comic, than for the other characters, and Miller delivers it like a pro.

Although actor T.J. Miller as Hud did shoot some of this footage himself, mostly it was done by cinematographer Michael Bonvillain and/or his staff. Similarly, editor Kevin Stitt’s work is even more invisible than editing usually is—and regular filmgoers hardly ever sing the praises of editors, because they rarely notice that work—though of course, they respond to it. But here, even Bonvillain’s work is invisible, because we do buy the idea that it’s Hud who’s filming almost everything. I suspect the pre-production planning of this film was intense and intricate; a lot of it is necessarily told in unbroken takes, which always require a lot of planning. But this time, they’re also full of effects and action. Technically, “Cloverfield” is pretty much a ring-tailed wonder.

Then there’s the monster, created by the now-requisite army of technicans. Producer J.J. Abrams chose artist Neville Page to design the creature, and the Tippett Studio to realize it in CGI animation. Unlike most city-destroying monsters, the creature here (it was called “Clover” by the crew) goes about on all fours, thought it does rear up on its hind legs at times. It’s gray, it has short back legs and long front legs, like bat wings with the membranes removed. The monster and the buildings it destroys are very well realized; this team did great work. There isn’t a good chance to see the monster all at once, though there’s an aerial shot near the end where it’s entirely visible, although it’s moving so swiftly it’s hard to “read.” I suppose we can all buy the model that will probably come along in due course.

Because of the first-person, it’s-all-happening-right-now POV, there’s no score, though there’s an excellent symphonic piece for the end credits, written by Michael Giacchino, who did the great score for “Ratatouille,” and is scoring Abrams’ new “Star Trek” movie, now in production.

As drama, “Cloverfield” is uneven; the characters aren’t very interesting or, for the most part, clearly realized; this is part of the approach, of course, but even within it, there should have been more. The connections to 9/11 are cleverly done without any sense of the movie trading directly on that disaster. The pacing is erratic, and even those working hardest to pay attention might find themselves adrift occasionally, because of this POV technique. It’s hard not to view this as something of a stunt; there have been stunt movies before—Hitchcock’s “Rope,” for example, told in a handful of unbroken takes, or “The Thief,” a Ray Milland movie without a word of dialogue. There was also the Philip Marlowe yarn, “The Lady in the Lake,” which was seen entirely from the point of view of the central character, played by Robert Montgomery. So “Cloverfield” isn’t quite unique, but it’s certainly unusual.

The relationship between Beth and Rob, supposedly central, isn’t involving in the action at hand (and you might wonder why, after being skewered by a rebar, she’s able to gallop down Manhattan streets like a marathon champ), but, oddly enough, is more involving in other scenes. The tape Hud is using was previously used by Rob for that trip to Coney Island; occasionally, when Hud stops taping, there are brief snippets of that happy trip; one of them is both ironic and poignant, a difficult combination to manage, but it works here.

At the end, I still did have one question. The characters here live in the same world as we do (only with a monster added), so why doesn’t anyone ever say the word ANY American would be likely to say under these conditions: Godzilla…?

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