Saturday, January 19, 2008
Cloverfield Review (no spoilers)
The wonderfully understated title Cloverfield refers to the military designation for the creature that attacks New York City. The film claims to be recovered footage from "the area known as Central Park." A surprise party is being filmed for posterity when the creature attacks, and the guy with the camera continues to record the attempt of him and his friends to get from lower Manhattan to Midtown to save a girl our main character loves, but has treated badly. We see everything else mostly in glimpses along the way -- the military, the triage hospital in Bloomingdale's, the little crab like creatures that fall off of the big one. It is only 74 minutes long, but that is a virtue -- it taut and focused like Red Eye or Vacancy, and has none of the bloat you would get with a standard monster movie with an ensemble cast (e.g. the American Godzilla).
Cloverfield is a pretty amazing little movie, in large part because of the way it positions itself in relation to other movies. It is very much what it looks like: Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla. I think that the Blair Witch Project had few inheritors because the concept is such a gimmick -- recovered footage from amateur camera-work -- but it does not feel at all gimmicky here. In the years since Blair Witch so many people have cameras as part of their phones, and record so much and throw it up on the internet that it seems completely natural that someone would be filling a party and then keep filming when an attack starts. There are some wonderful moments -- before the attack and afterward -- in which the camera films not just people, but also people filming things on their camera-phones, and TV News coverage -- so that the first time you see the little crab creatures you are watching a guy with a camera film TV footage in an electronics store. That is something that the Blair Witch Project -- by design, and because of the time period -- could not capture, and it makes you feel that the concept is necessary, rather than a gimmick or a repetition.
Cloverfield also provides a narrative reason for the standard film procedure -- in large part derived from stuff like Alien -- of seeing the big monster only in glimpses until the big reveal. Here we don't feel the "director" is toying with us -- we see that he is merely doing his best. The creature us blocked by buildings most of the time, and that is not his fault. It is all very persuasive, and removes the feeling that the monster movie is just a game. The main virtue of the Blair Witch camera work is the immediacy. The "editing" of Cloverfield makes you feel like you are watching the "real" version of something you have seen faked for years, and, hauntingly, the "tape" being used for the camera already had something else on it before the monster attack, and you catch glimpses of the romantic story underneath that relates directly to the motivation to save the girl, and provides a nice level of irony that would otherwise be missing.
Cloverfield also picks up the "September 11th = Monster" equation from Spielberg's War of the Worlds, a movie very much in its sights. Spielberg's film goes for immediacy in the camera work, but the "recovered" footage gimmick trumps him, in part because footage from people on the street was how so much of 9-11 was captured. Helping tremendously is the fact that Cloverfield's actors are unknowns, which helps you believe they are real people and this is really happening. There was a lot to like about War of the Worlds, and I love Tom Cruise, but Cruise was horribly cast in War of the Worlds as a dock-worker -- the guy is the American equivalent of royalty, and will never convince me, with his perfect hair, teeth, and jaw that he is anything other than Tom Cruise. He was much better, for example, in Eyes Wide Shut, where you feel there is more of a connection to his real upper class life, with his real upper class wife, their marital problems, his ambiguous sexuality, and his shadowy Scientology meetings. In addition to beating War of the Worlds in terms of casting and immediacy, Cloverfield also swerves from Spielberg's very fake ending, in which everyone makes it alive and well to a perfect Boston house, with the leaves falling from the trees in the most idyllic way. This is not a spoiler since you know from the teaser trailer that this is "recovered," rather than "delivered," footage.
Cloverfield makes the monster movie feel believable again, and necessary.