Saturday, January 19, 2008

In Theaters: Cloverfield

They were handing out motion sickness bags at the ticket counter when I went to see CLOVERFIELD, and I’m trying to figure out whether that was a response to legitimate concern or some kind of marketing gimmick. The film is a monster movie shot entirely on a hand-held camera, and the ShakeyCam work does border on the nauseatingly excessive at times (and the crap they serve at concession stands doesn’t help.) You may feel compelled to look away from the screen or shut your eyes at times, not because what is being shown is that horrific but because you need to remind yourself that you’re not actually in motion. If you can handle that, then CLOVERFIELD is worth seeing, though with the additional caveat that you’re not going to get much of an explanation for what you do see. Lack of closure is apparently the new black, and to be sure the unknown is pretty scary. Some people will no doubt be disappointed by this film after all of the hype, but it’s a solid monster movie which puts some nice twists on the genre. It has a couple of dramatic shortcomings, but it accomplishes its main goal of looking and feeling like an authentic firsthand account of an utterly fantastic event.

“Cloverfield” is the code name given to the top secret footage we’re seeing, all taken by a video camera on the night that a giant monster comes ashore on Manhattan Island and rapidly lays waste to the city. Our witnesses on the ground are a group of yuppies who have assembled for a going-away party for the protagonist, Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), who is headed to Japan. The party breaks up pretty quickly when the monster attacks (this is the footage you all saw in the trailers), and Rob, his brother Jason (Mike Vogel), Jason’s fiancee Lily (Jessica Lucas), videographer Hud (T. J. Miller), and friend-of-a-friend Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), on whom Hud has a crush, all try to get off the island. However, after the creature attacks the bridge and Rob gets a phone call, he heads back to midtown to find his psuedo-girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman), and his friends follow.

The most valuable asset of any monster movie is, of course, the monster. I was briefly worried that we wouldn’t get to see any of the monster beyond brief glimpses, in keeping with the “the less you know” approach, but it’s hard for something like this to hide from camera view. The creature pretty much looks like what you’d expect a modern movie monster to look like: gray, toothy, with spindly limbs and an odd walk. The proportions are interesting and there’s an awkwardness to it that’s effective, but it’s not as distinctive as it could be. We never find out what the creature really is or where it comes from, which is probably just as well. In the meantime the beastie also sheds a number of spidery parasites who menace our party a couple of times, though it seems done mostly to expand the running time and up the body count. The special effects are integrated rather seamlessly with the live-action footage, a bit of a challenge considering how shaky said live action is, but the cheapness of shooting the main material left a lot of money for digital wizardry.

One thing that keeps this film from being as good as it could be is the characterization. There are some fairly well-drawn, quirky, interesting people here, including the geeky and awkward Hud (whose name is a bit of a clever gag, I think), but the focus is really on Rob and, later, Beth, and to be quite honest, the problems of two yuppies in love don’t seem to amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. They’re the two blandest characters in the film, being the romantic leads apparently by virtue of sheer prettiness. Rob’s desire to find Beth and at least tell her how he really feels before this is all over provides the film with its dramatic structure, but I honestly think more could have been done with the other relationships we see in the film (Hud’s crush on the unreceptive Marlena, for one.) This seems to be a problem common to genre films, though you also see it in romantic comedies- the supporting cast is colorful and distinctive with clear relationships to each other, the leads are bland and attractive with a relationship defined by generic affection and generic complication. It’s as if we’re afraid to let the really interesting people take the spotlight. Or does the act of protagonization by nature reduce a character’s distinctiveness and place him or her in a more iconic realm? I’m going to have to do some research on this.

One thing I do appreciate about this film is its sense of humor. On the one hand, this is a very serious situation and the tone is generally grim, on the other, people do actually make jokes in life-or-death situations precisely to break that tension, and on still the other doing so in a film risks wrecking same tension. This film gets it right; the characters do say funny, even witty things, but we get that they’re doing this because their nerves are frayed, and at no time does the humor really overpower the situation. It simply makes the proceedings more endurable. The film does lose some dramatic tension near the end- it becomes a bit too obvious how things are going to turn out, and said resolution is milked for slightly more than it’s worth. It could be a lot tighter, which is weird considering we’re only talking about an 85 minute movie in the first place, but monster extravaganzas, even postmodern street-level ones, tend to move quickly.

What the film manages to accomplish in this time is impressive. It feels real throughout, creating a sense of immediacy that’s uncommon for the genre. Beneath the shaky camera work there’s a smart, well-constructed thriller with less backstory than most, and maybe a longer ending than necessary, but still a thriller that works. Just skip the concession stand going in.

Written by Drew Goddard
Directed by Matt Reeves
Grade: B

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