Friday, January 18, 2008

Cloverfield

The hotly-anticipated Cloverfield is not the fun monster movie I expected after seeing that cryptic trailer before Transformers. The now-famous shot of the Statue of Liberty's severed head careening down a Manhattan street recalls the White House explosion from Independence Day, one of the most openly, even proudly, brainless popcorn films ever made. But Cloverfield is not a goofy one-off; its premise and style may encourage comparisons to Godzilla and Blair Witch, but it doesn't feel like watching either of those light entertainments.

Matt Reeves' and JJ Abrams' first-person disaster film is pretty plainly about the 9/11 attack on New York (among other things). I'd go so far as to say it's the best, most provocative mainstream film I've seen dealign with 9/11, repurposing the imagery of that day in a context abstract enough to feel appropriate, not cheap or exploitative. Movies like United 93, recreating actual incidents from 9/11 cinematically, can't ever explore terror as a topic and remain respectful to the fallen. Cloverfield, by removing all the historical and geopolitical context and just keeping the sensibility, can get away with actually making us think about how we experience tragedy, and how technology both immerses us in and shields us from our surroundings.



The film we're seeing is allegedly the property of the United States Government, a homemade chronicle of a monster attack on New York City found in "the area formerly known as Central Park." The attack has actually been taped over footage from an earlier date, in which Rob (Michael Stahl-David) and Beth (Odette Yustman) share a beautiful day together at Coney Island. Both joy and terror inspired someone to turn on the camera, and though the sad memories eventually overwhelm the happier ones, they're never completely erased.

On the night of the attack, Rob's brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and Jason's girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) are throwing him a going-away party. He's headed for Japan to take a new, high-powered executive job. That is, he was headed for Japan, until a massive creature decides to wreck havoc on the streets of his home town.

The bulk of the film is "shot" by a different character, Rob's friend Hud (T.J. Miller) who was manning the video camera at the party. It's a testament to the strength of Drew Goddard's writing that Hud comes to feel like a relatable character with a clear, recognizable personality. He's represented entirely through brief scripted asides and Miller's voice acting - he's maybe on screen for a total of 2 minutes. There's not a whole lot of talking in Cloverfield at all, aside from the expected screaming and barking orders ("run!"), but what dialogue there is in the film is extremely crisp, realistic (as it would have to be for a film resembling a home movie) and occasionally even funny.

What follows, in terms of plot, is an entirely routine monster film. The heroes attempt to escape Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge, but can't make it across before it collapses. Rob becomes obsessed with rescuing Beth from her collapsing high-rise apartment building. The military tries to clear out civilians so it can wage an increasingly futile battle against the unknown menace. But because we're seeing all this (or hearing about it in some cases) from the perspective of a few scared individuals not directly involved with the main action, everything feels more real and disturbing than a movie this goofy has any right to feel.

From a filmmaking standpoint, director Matt Reeves' work here is significantly impressive. Cloverfield is a large-scale action-effects film composed of a lot of long takes shot on a single handheld camera. Some of them, such as the scene on the Brooklyn Bridge or a chase sequence in an abandoned New York subway tunnel, use the limited and intimate perspective of the handheld camera expertly to build suspense.

In many ways, the film is about the technology with which it was made, about the way Americans spend their entire lives interacting with media. Cloverfield constantly draws attention to its camera; the action, we're reminded repeatedly, is not unfolding in the present moment, but only exists for us in the audience because Hud kept that camera on. His life is being lived and recorded simultaneously. (He states outright at a few points that people in the future will need to see how this all went down.)

At times, the camera seems to make events more real and immediate for him - he uses the light to guide his way in the subway, and night vision to find enemies lurking in the shadows, and gets his first good look at the monster by rewinding his own tape. But at other times, he seems distanced from the horrors swirling all around him because he's viewing that world through a small lens. Would he be bold enough to rescue Beth without the camera? Could Hud bear to look the monster in the eye if he didn't need to point a camera there for posterity? And isn't what he's doing, watching a tragedy through the viewfinder, pretty similar to what we are doing in the audience, looking at a horrifying event via technology that makes it less present and scary?

It's worth noting that Reeves and Abrams remain 100% faithful to their elaborate concept the entire time: If they need to give you extra information or show an establishing shot, the characters will pass by a television set turned to the local news. I appreciated how nothing is ever explained; no one has time for expository monologues because they're too busy running for their lives.

Which, of course, brings me back to 9/11. Anyone who recalls seeing the footage streaming in from New York that day will recognize aspects of Cloverfield's visual palette. Collapsed buildings coat busy streets and hundreds of pedestrians in a fine, gray dust. Mobs of stunned New Yorkers trudge slowly across bridges, desperate to find any kind of safety and shelter. These images can't help but make any American feel vulnerable - we're threatened, in this scenario, not only by an external danger but by the very structures we've build up around us to make us feel safe and comfortable, like our cars and our planes and our apartment complexes.

Though it's not always pleasant to watch this movie and relive the shock and chaos of 9/11 (an opinion expressed thoughtfully by Stephanie Zacharek in Salon), it's cathartic to feel vulnerable safely, within the confines of a monster movie. Just as the original Godzilla reflected the Japanese people's suffering and lingering fear after the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Cloverfield speaks to Americans who are still just starting to deal with the trauma of being attacked on our home soil. Perhaps this effort really does, as Zacharek opines, treat 9/11 carelessly and without respect, but I don't think so. Like all horror films, it must first access our phobias before it can exploit them, and Cloverfield very potently speaks to our collective fear of rampant, unstoppable urban decimation.

9 comments:

Juan said...

Maybe I should wait until I actually see the movie before I praise your review, but what the hell: very insightful review!

I posted a link to your a forum I share with my friends... you should come by, I think it would be right up your alley. We have a Cloverfield thread that's just getting started.

Lest you think I'm trying to spam you, I'll give you the link when I see you later. In any case, impressive review. I look forward to discussing the film after I've seen it.

Nelson said...

Hey, I'm one of Juan's friends. Nice review

Anonymous said...

Awesome .. I’ve been looking up reviews and info for this film, and it seems to be getting pretty solid ratings. And it’s really interesting that they’re promoting the film with the fallen Statue of Liberty..it definitely sets an undertone of the America being attacked..Maxim actually did a little bit on it.
http://www.maxim.com/Entertainment/MoviesThatMangletheStatueofLiberty/slideshow/673.aspx?src=dx18:mtd

drummer510 said...

another fine review. Have you sent any of your reviews to a magazine or newspaper for syndication, or are you totally against selling your soul. Anywho, good stuff I'm excited to see it.

Matthew Wayne Selznick said...

While there are images that recall 9-11 -- in particular, a street full of people running from a roiling cloud of dust and debris -- to say it's "pretty plainly about the 9/11 attack on New York (among other things..." is, as far as I know, an interpretation.

I'd love to hear from the film-makers to see if they really were setting out to make a film about 9/11 in the same way that "Gojira" was a deliberate effort to make a film about Hiroshima. Could it be they wanted to make a monster movie with a street-level, ordinary guy love story at its heart?

Lons said...

Matt -

I don't disagree with you that the film is a street-level ordinary guy love story. That's absolutely a level on which the movie is working, and I enjoyed the rather ingenious way Reeves and Abrams develop the romance between Beth and Rob. Hence the "among other things" qualifier there.

But I do think there's some very intentional 9/11 allegorical stuff going on here as well. As Adam pointed out to me yesterday, even the initial marketing, hyping the movie by the release date "01-18-08," in some ways recalls 9/11. I, too, would be curious to hear Goddard, Reeves and Abrams take on all of this.

asymmetricblog said...

the question should be:

Is there a way to attack New York that won't remind people of 9/11?

Any message is very subtle indeed.

Lons said...

It's not particularly subtle. The footage is shot on a handheld camera, just like all the footage we saw on TV on 9/11. The first sign of an attack is the destruction of a familiar NY landmark. Buildings collapse in the distance covering the streets and people with ash and dust. We get a lot of shots of a mass of people walking out of the city across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Changing any one of these aspects of the film would minimize the comparison. "Cloverfield" is a movie about a disaster that is caught on video by those on the scene...Why is it so hard to imagine it might intentionally recall the MOST FAMOUS disaster in recent American history, which was memorably caught on video by those on the scene?

Nelson said...

It was influenced by 9/11, but it's not really saying anything about 9/11 other than disasters look like that when they're filmed by amateurs