Friday, June 20, 2008

Cloverfield (2008)

Warning: Long review ahead. Wear protective gear.

After months of anticipation, rumors, and one of the single-most effective viral marketing campaigns ever, all secrets can be laid aside. 01-18-08 has finally come. We have a name. We have a monster. And we have what, after a day's reflections and recuperation from the shaky-cam induced motion sickness, turns out to be an thoroughly effective Monster movie. Make no mistake. The "M" in Monster is capitalized for a reason. Because CLOVERFIELD is firmly in the Monster genre - not Horror, not Science Fiction, not anything else. J.J Abrams, director Matt Reeves and writer Drew Goddard have taken all the elements of classics like GODZILLA, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and other "Giant Monster Attacks City" films and turned in an impressive if silly film that manages to both comment on 9/11 and also make a joke about hobos on fire.

For the 13 people out there not infected by the hundreds of websites and news articles speculating on the film: something very mysterious and very LARGE has come to rip Manhattan to pieces. The film is told BLAIR WITCH style though a camera being used to record a going away party for Rob, a CW adult just promoted in his company and moving to the home offices in Japan. While recording testimonials and other party moments the destruction commences, and the film follows Rob and his 4 friends as they travel across the city to rescue his true love and reach one of the escape points.

So what works? Lots of things, mostly having to do with the technical aspects of the film. The shaky-cam thing isn't new, but I think this is the most effective it's ever been in a movie. Warning: there is a definite roller coaster pit of your stomach thing going on. I remember sitting in the front row for BLAIR WITCH and only feeling mildly uncomfortable. After CLOVERFIELD my head ached, my stomach lurched, and only a good night's sleep took care of things. That being said, the lighting, camera work, and sheer scope of what you're seeing is incredible. The film cost roughly 30 million but easily looks twice that, despite the intentional video feel. A lot has been said of the parallels to 9/11 (coincidence the film was called "01-18-08" for so long?) and during the opening scenes of destruction there is a substantial sense of dread people stumble in a daze while all around is smoke and falling ash.

One scene in particular stands out in the beginning. Everyone by now has seen the clip in the trailer of the Statue of Liberty's head shooting across the sky to land in the street. What you don't see is the hordes of people immediately taking pictures with their camera phones as soon as it lands. It was chilling to watch and, perhaps more than the falling buildings made me think of our mixed response of horror and morbid fascination to the events of 9/11.

There are plenty of genuine scares and creep-out moments, and the camera shtick keeps you throughly involved in the plights of the protagonists as they make their way through the devastation. Another clever way of getting us to care about the cast is the presence of an old video that is being taped over for the events in CLOVERFIELD. Every once in a while the recording will stop and we're presented with old footage of lead Rob and the object of his affection Beth as they spend the day at Coney Island. The trick works well, and if you watch carefully at the end you'll see a little something that may in part explain the genesis of what's going on.

And the monster? HUGE. I think this is the best representation of anything close to "Lovecraftian" we've ever come in film. I was happy to see that NONE of the pictures circulating around the Internet before the film's release were even close to what was eventually on screen. And as long as the aura of mystery lasts, the beast is terrific. With the exception of one shot near the end of the film, you don't get any prolonged close-ups. Instead you get impressions, shades, ideas of what this thing is. It's fantastic. And not explaining its origins (except for the one or two hints) or its intent makes everything work to the film's advantage. I don't want these things explained. Sometimes shit just happens, and the point is to get through it rather than know what it is you're getting through.

Okay, so what doesn't work? The entire beginning that introduces the characters and sets up the camera things is, in a word, boring. Likewise our characters. With the exception of Hud the camera dude (get it, HUD?) no one is really all that likable when things begin to happen. One big complaint from views regards Rob's decision not to leave Manhattan without Beth, who he's in love with and is trapped in a building in Midtown, Ground Zero for the attack. I can sort of understand the complaint - the reason he goes back to rescue Beth is so that we can have a movie. No one in their right mind would go back into something like that, right?

I don't know. I thought about that, and I think if my wife and son were trapped in Midtown you can bet I'd be going back in, too. The fact is we can never really understand the motivations of anyone, so you have to relax on this point and just go with it. Otherwise the movie would have been over in about 30 minutes.

There's also in my mind one too many endings in CLOVERFIELD. Without spoiling it, there's one point where I went "Holy Crap! That was insane!" and then the film continued on for about another 7 minutes. The last seven minutes also made a really good ending, but I can't shake the feeling that it felt like a second ending.

So don't look too deep into things. Everything that happens happens because it needs to in order to move the film along. Don't look into how the camera's battery can last for what seems to be almost 8 hours. Don't focus too much on the obvious product placement (Nokia, anyone?) . And don't expect CLOVERFIELD to live up to it's hype. No film could do that. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA couldn't live up to this hype.

And that's perfectly okay. So take some Dramamine, and go and enjoy a good old-fashioned monster movie the likes of which we haven't seen in years, unless you count the excellent THE HOST from Korea. That kicked all kinds of ass. And be sure to stay through the credits - although there's no music in the film, the credits have an AWESOME orchestral score called "ROAR!" courtesy of Michael Giacchino. There's also some quick audio at the end that may or may not have implications for later films. You be the judge...I'll wait for DVD.

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