Thursday, April 24, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Cloverfield (2008)

A radical and highly-entertaining re-invention of an old genre, Cloverfield is a twenty-first century "monster movie" (think Godzilla...) shot from street level. The film's central conceit is that Manhattan is attacked one lovely May evening by a giant monster from the sea (!) and that a cadre of twenty-something party goers - who happen to have a video camera on hand - "document" the attack and their escape attempts as best they can, while simultaneously recording their own hysteria and panic.

Thus the entire film is lensed from the ostensibly "on the fly" point-of-view of the video camera; a player in the events as much as the characters. So...if you've ever wondered what it must be like to live in Tokyo when Rodan or Godzilla make landfall and begin to stomp citizenry and destroy property, this movie is for you. No giant monster movie before has been vetted in this fashion, and this flashy, highly-imaginative perspective is actually more than enough to ignite new interest in the genre. The film certainly captured my fancy. It grabs a hold of you at the start and doesn't let go. Even when it's over, it lingers in the mind.

I adore and respect the Godzilla films (and Kong films, and Gamera films...) of old, but I also realize two things about these predominantly Japanese films. One: I'm from a generation that demanded less "effects" realism in my entertainment. And two: the trend in cinema history is irrevocably away from artificiality/theatricality towards naturalism/realism. The inherent fakeness of the monster suits in old Godzilla or Gamera films never bothered me a lick. In fact...I loved the costumes. They represent an artistry all their own, even if they weren't "realistic" in the purest sense. Plus, I always felt those films offered powerful and artistic sub-text (about the atomic age, about pollution, etc.). So their historical and aesthetic value, in my book, remains undisputed. Not everyone, however, feels that way. Those who didn't grow up with these monster mashes will look at them and laugh. You know you are.
You either "get" War of the Gargantuas, or you don't.

But - and at the risk of offending the purists - it is fair to state that Cloverfield corrects at least one aspect of the "old" monster movie that has always made it a widely ridiculed and under-appreciated form. And that aspect is this: the camera (third person camera, not first-person camera, as here...) is often positioned relatively high in the Toho films, so that as Godzilla (just for example) stomps through a gorgeous, carefully constructed miniature of Tokyo, our eyes correct and synthesize the image in terms of our human scope: we realize the buildings are miniatures (even if glorious miniatures...) and that the monster is a man waddling about in a suit. Of course, there are also low-angle shots to be found in Japanese monster films, but by an abundance, we're right there at torso level with the monster and that's the reason (not bad suits...) we don't quite believe what we're seeing. It's not so much the fault of anything so much as how our "eye" reads and sees these images.

I love the Godzilla vs. Other Monster smack downs - don't get me wrong - but what I'm trying to say is that there's a mental adjustment you must be willing to make to take them seriously. (It's akin to watching old Doctor Who or Blakes 7 - great stories, great actors - but you have to look past the fact you are looking at cardboard sets and floppy monsters...). Again, some viewers have practice with this increasingly lost skill; some don't.

Again - this commentary isn't meant to bash the "old," I'm a huge fan. Only to establish that Cloverfield, with its immediacy-provoking, first-person shaky cam and "street level" perspective, removes the remaining impediments to believing - with your own eyes - in a giant monster. Here, we catch glimpses of the monster from a distance, from street level (and from a helicopter aerial view). All of these shots - I might add - are rather impressive. The monster isn't merely huge, it's actually terrifying. The inevitable result: this is a scary movie. I hasten to add, I believe that this is what the giant monster movie has always strove for, but rarely achieved. I can think of two occasions, perhaps, where terror was achieved: King Kong (1933) when stop-motion animation was a new and unfamiliar form, and Godzilla: King of Monsters (1956), which in searing, atomic-laced, stark, black-and-white felt like a burning, grim testament to the real possibility of apocalypse.

So kudos to Cloverfield for updating the genre so well that it makes the idea of a giant monster pummeling New York not ludicrous, but frightening and seemingly immediate. You never "don't believe" in this movie, and that's actually a remarkable achievement. I do contrast this with the approach of Transformers, wherein characters didn't react consistently with the menace they were facing (giant robots). I mean, what's the difference between Cloverfield and the final assault of Transformers? In both situations - if you were an observer on the street - you would be terrified that giant things were knocking buildings down all around you. But where Transformers went for cheekiness and shmaltz, Cloverfield wallows in the Apocalypse mentality we all live with now, on a regular basis. Don't mistake it for hipster post/911-ism. I mean, this is the age not just of 9/11, but of Hurricane Katrina, and global warming. We're see the specter of food shortages, water shortages, and oil shortages all around. Greenland is melting, political candidates want to "totally obliterate" our enemies and stay in Iraq for "a 100 years." We're indisputably in one of those "end of day" modes usually reserved for the end of a millennium, not the beginning. Cloverfield strongly taps into this Zeitgeist by dramatizing how - in a heartbeat - normality can be shattered.

Visually, the film constantly reminds us of this idea (normalcy destroyed) with a brilliant technique: flash cuts and brief interludes of "old" footage that has been taped over to make room for events of the monster stomp. This taped-over footage, which we see glimpses of only periodically, shows us two lovers (Rob and Beth) waking up early one morning and frolicking, and later taking a trip together to Coney Island, riding the Ferris Wheel. The video of the monster - of the horror - then "overwrites" this more pleasant reality, just as the present always overwrites the past. Yet it is this conceit that makes the film more than just a chase through New York with monsters nipping at young adults' heels. This old "home movie" footage, in pointed contrast to the monster footage, is the human connection we need to the main characters. It is also - once more - the kind of thing that was wholly lacking in Transformers. The timing and events of a crisis (monster attacks...) doesn't exactly leave time for a whole lot of character development and meaningful conversation, but these periodic flashes of a life now lost resonate because they show us that these people are just like us. We understand what they stand to lose (and do lose.)

Matt Reeves, the film's director has done something rather amazing here: he's found a difficult but inventive conceit for a tired genre (the first-person camera perspective) and utilized it throughout the film without cheating. Not once. There's no movie bullshit, no jump-cuts - nothing - to compromise the vision, the belief that this is being recorded by a video camera. And in that framework - with the taped-over footage peeking into the monstrous present - he's even been able to add resonant layers to his would-be-shallow dramatis personae. It's a fine achievement, and Cloverfield is a very, very good genre film.

However, Cloverfield is not a great, deeply-layered horror classic the way that The Blair Witch Project is. I know that many fans will quibble with this assessment, but the biggest complaint I always hear about The Blair Witch Project from horror fans is that "you don't see anything," "you don't see the witch." Indeed. In The Blair Witch Project, the medium IS the message, and the film concerns three students who chase their tails, literally and metaphorically, and we never even know if they are facing a witch or a monster or their imaginations. They possess all these "devices" (camcorders, old-school film cameras) to see, and yet they are lost and see absolutely nothing. Then, they hide behind their comfortable camera viewfinders when they are too scared of "reality." By contrast, Cloverfield is a mass entertainment, and it obligingly provides audiences with the money shots everybody wants: you see the monsters in all their glory. You are not denied the pleasure of "seeing" the Evil Beasties and thus knowing "this is all real." I rather prefer the imaginative, artistic ambiguity of The Blair Witch Project in which you get no respite, no closure, no sense of "certainty." I believe with all my heart that The Blair Witch Project is much scarier, and much closer to the real human experience (in that we are often denied answers about the things which frighten us.)

Also, the main characters in Cloverfield are plainly and competently drawn in endearing and realistic terms (think Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween), yet the movie does paint them in a positive slant that is occasionally a bit much. They are innately and perhaps unrealistically heroic. Rob goes back to save Beth, when by all rights he should assume she is dead. Marlena saves the camera-man, Hud, from the leaping parasites in the sewers, when - again - in this situation, you might think about saving your skin. She didn't even know Hud a few hours before. This heroism is nice to see, but again, it's rather mainstream, speaking to the "finer" angels of human nature, even in catastrophes. Yet again I prefer the shades-of-gray characters in The Blair Witch Project. They got lost, had to stop to take a piss, argued, grumbled, laughed and cried and seemed more fully three-dimensional than the characters of Cloverfield. They still tried to help each other, but it wasn't "kumbaya."

Bottom line: Cloverfield is very, very good. The Blair Witch Project remains the better, more challenging, and more intriguing film of a similar type. Cloverfield is a little bit like The Blair Witch Project Made Palatable For Wide Audiences. There's nothing wrong with that, just that for all of its ingenuity, Cloverfield probably shouldn't be championed at the expense of an earlier film that pioneered the same approach and was inherently more daring and dangerous. I guess what I'm saying is that Cloverfield undeniably moves the monster movie forward a notch with its ultra-realism, but I'm not sure that it breaks any new ground in the horror genre (and there is - I submit - a distinction there). When the cinematic history of the 1990s-2000s is written, it is The Blair Witch Project that will be seen as the classic, the revolutionary; Cloverfield as a highly-accomplished and diverting footnote.


  1. Jake Lockley1:48 PM

    I enjoyed Cloverfield very much but hands down can say The Blair Witch Project was a scarier movie. Cloverfield plays out like a recurring nightmare where there's a giant monster or some kind of impending doom in our sub/unconscious that we must flee or hold up in some bunker to see if we can survive. Whether it's a creature, an environmental disaster, military or terrorist attack, Cloverfield reminds me of my own actual nightmares that wakes me from a restless sleep in a cold sweat from as an adult. For that I applaud it and welcome it.
    However, after hearing JJ Abrams' description of the what and why he wanted to make it - included in the supplemental material on the DVD and the films marketing before it was released - I have to say it failed miserably. He stated that he wanted to a create an American version of the Japanese icon, a monster that still after all these years was a prevalent icon found in every toy store and had meaning to their culture. The Cloverfield monster just does not (to me) accomplish that. It's not an iconic monster, it's not the monster that sticks with you or sinks into our culture. Moreso I would argue it's the idea of escaping disaster with those you love that does.
    The monster at best is a giant bat without wings. Unlike Godzilla, whose movies give the creature personality and even turn it into an anti-hero. Godzilla was almost a character in the films, the Cloverfield bat is just a monster or force which must be fled at all costs. It might as well be a terrorist attack, fire, or environmental catastrophe of the Irwin Allen nature or a situation of war where it's nothing more than death and destruction being fled. In Cloverfield the heart in the movie comes from the characters and the quest of one young man to save his love. In the Godzilla movies the monster is much more of a symbol, in Cloverfield it's just a force. Like I said, I really enjoyed the movie but think they failed to deliver an American version of Godzilla in lieu of creating a 9-11 scenario that was apolitical and simplified to be an escape from a scary anonymous impending doom. I don't think you'll be seeing the Cloverfield bat in toy stores 50 years from now or acting as a cultural icon for Americans. I don't even see it becoming a pop culture reference like The Blair Witch Project.

  2. hello john..i'm coming in way late to your blog. sorry. i'm now an avid reader tho. i also have a few of your books and love them.

    you had mentioned me on here in 2007 when i did a post on my blog about nightmare on elm street 2 and used stills i made with what you had written about it in your book horror films of the 1980s. you were so dead on.i'm a total horror
    are you thinking of doing horror films of the 1990's or the 60's even?

    anyways, just wanted to say hey and keep on doing what you it.


  3. Anonymous1:48 AM

    ... piece of shit...

  4. joey_bishop_jr.4:28 AM

    Fair disclosure: I LOVED this movie! And lee and I totally bought into the whole viral marketing strategy. We spent literally hours discussing this movie. What did the monster look like? What was it, and where did it come from? What did Tagruato have to do with the whole thing? I literally took time off from work to drive to Hampton Roads so Lee and I could be there opening day and fanboy out together…

    Anyways, I somewhat agree about the distinction Between Cloverfield and Blair Witch Project (hereafter referred to as Clover and BWP respectively). I think that a big part of why BWP seems scarier is the intimacy of the threat. We are all pretty comfortable with the idea that most likely a 350 foot tall monster will never appear and begin to wreck shop on the US of A. however, the concept of the supernatural hits most people in a different spot…what I like to call the “what if” spot. Most people don’t buy the idea of witchcraft, ghosts, or demons as real. But…what if? Our earliest bedtime stories from childhood are formed from these very concepts, and I truly believe that they leave a deep impression. Add to that, very few of us have been in a firefight surrounded by military personnel. However, who hasn’t gone to the park, or gone camping, and thought that things looked just a bit…off… the sun began to set. BWP did a brilliant job of exploiting that setting- in fact, having never been a woodsy type person to start with, it would’ve taken a team of draft horses to even get me near the woods for many a year after seeing BWP. The bright lights and familiar settings of New York also hurt the ability of the film to build an air of horror.

    In addition, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the obvious 9/11 component to the film. I don’t think that anyone over about 16 years old didn’t get a chill after Clover’s first appearance when that wall of smoke and ash rolled down the street. Just a bit too close to that newsreel footage, no? I must admit that after I heard the plot I was shocked. I honestly figured that New York would be almost sacred, and I never expected to see mass destruction there again. In retrospect tho, it makes sense, and I do see the cathartic value in the film. And the overheard conversations at the party asking about if the terrorists were back provided just an extra touch of dread.

    As far as Rob’s motivations, look at the totality of facts and circumstances: he had always loved Beth. After he had gotten the girl of his dreams, he botched the situation dreadfully. His last words to her were wishing her date good luck that night. Then the world went to hell in a handbasket, and his brother gets killed in front of him.

    Then he gets a call from Beth, stating that she needs help and can’t move.

    I submit that IT DIDN”T MATTER if he believed Beth was dead or not- he was going back for her. I felt his actions totally believable given his situation. Not to be to cornaball, but he was going back for the woman he loved. That’s not unrealistically heroic. It’s a man trying to make his last chance count by fixing what he can with someone he loves.

    The only thing I didn’t like were the parasites. They seemed unnecessary and tacked on to me. They actually seemed to somehow lessen the threat from my perspective. The other kaiju never needed underlings!

    Still have no idea about the bat statement tho…

  5. I like Cloverfield a lot. My bottom line: it is an extraordinary and inventive monster movie; and a very scary horror movie, but not in the terrain of "classic" horror movie like BWP. No shame there. It does what it does very well. I just felt I had to comment that everything (down to the viral marketing campaign) seemed inspired by BWP.

    I thought the parasites were scary, but I too wonder if they were necessary. Filmmakers have been hedging their bets with "little" monsters in Giant Monster Movies of late. Think about it, Godzilla (1998) had baby lizards in a stadium or something, Jurassic Park (1993, 1997, 2001) developed the most scares out of the tiny velociraptors, and now Cloverfield offers scares with the crabby parasites. I wonder why filmmakers have lost faith in the "big bad" and have been going for the "little" bad in these movies...

  6. Hey acolyte13 ---

    I loved your post on Freddy's Revenge. I must have read it six times. You did a great job illustrating the points of my review. Thanks for the praise, and yes...I'm now contracted to write Horror Films of the 1990s!! Have 191 nineties horrors in the queue at Netflix...

  7. John, be sure you watch and review DUST DEVIL (dir. Richard Stanley) in the next book. I find it to be gripping and largely unlike a lot of the other movies of that decade.

    As for CLOVERFIELD. I quite liked it, though it felt like a Busch Garden's ride for parts. I saw it with a friend of mine who also studies film, and when we walked out of the theater, we basically turned to each other and both said something to the effect of "Well, that ought to keep film scholars busy for a while..." I'm really glad I got to see it in the theater though, I'm sure it will all be diminished when I watch it at home , though its a curious mix of big-screen spectacle and deliberate lo-fi technology. Not looking forward to a sequel, but a similarly-premised movie in a different city and culture could work (with a different monster, of course).

  8. Kevin:

    I love "Dust Devil!" It's a great horror movie from the 1990s. I saw it when it first came out on video, years and years ago, and then, later, the restored cut. (I am also one of those two people who saw the director's first film - HARDWARE - in the theater. Kathryn was the other...)

  9. CLOVERFIELD is the most overrated film so far this year.

    full response as follows:

  10. awesome! i can't wait for the 90's then. speaking of, stanley's hardware is one of my favorites ever. i watch it every plus the soundtrack is amazing. it's the only place i have been able to find that version of rossini's stabat mater.

  11. opps..i meant christmas.i should read it again before i post next time.

  12. One thing that cannot be taken away from this film is that it lived up to and beyond all the hype. 90% of the complaints (from talkback sites and reviewers) about the film was that they couldn't watch the shaky camera effect. Fair enough. Not everyone has "sea legs" and to the untrained eye, it CAN be disconcerting. As far as comparisons to "The Blair Witch Project" go...the only reason it gets the props that it gets is not so much how it was shot but that most people (maybe on this comments page) thought it REALLY happened. The filmmakers never let on it was fake until 2-3 weeks after it was released. I'm mad that this film got all the credit when "The Last Broadcast" (though shot like a documentary with found footage) pre-dated BWP by over a year, and a much more scarier film.

    As far as the characters acting "unrealistically heroic", some people don't remember all the footage of total and complete strangers helping one another look for survivors along with police, fire, rescue, military, without any concern of being in any sort of danger. If I got a call for help from someone I thought was killed during the initial attack or bombing, you bet your ass I'd go after them. The charcters in this film were not strangers to each other. Rob and Jason were brothers. Lili was Jason's girlfriend. Marlena was Lili's best friend. Hud was Rob's best friend. You think anyone would have left their friends behind? I'd try to get thru to everyone I know on the phone if such a thing happened here. If one of those were a cry for help, then I would get a rescue posse started to go after them. My family is important but so are my friends. That is what was displayed on 9/11 in all the after attack footage. People seeking people out, knowing or not-knowing who they were.

    There is talking, not officially, about a sequel done as found footage again. Maybe a news-crew or military-unit. I think different perspectives on what happened are more pieces to the puzzle of what happened on 5/22-23.

    In other news, the third season of "The Venture Brothers" starts on June 1st.

  13. I differ with you about BWP. It received great reviews because it is freakin' brilliant, original, exciting and terrifying. Critics certainly knew it wasn't real. It had a lot more going for it than just the belief of some uneducated viewers that it was real.

    By contrast, The Last Broadcast was really, really atrocious. The performances were awful and the film wasn't scary in the slightest. I remember renting it to see if it lived up to the post Blair Witch hype it tried to build a second life on, and saw that it was really, really poor. Blair Witch perfected this format. Cloverfield is very, very good, but ultimately not in the same class.

  14. I am truly baffled by the comparison between this briliant film and that BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (which, IMO, wasn't scary at all, but that's another matter).

    As another poster mentioned above, the threats in the movies are so different from one another in scale that it seems clear to me the emotions they ellicit are totally different. Of course, the narrative style is basically the same, but having seen CLOVERFIELD one year ago this is the first time BLAIR ever crossed my mind.

  15. I also agree with Gustavo, I too, fail to see the connection between this film and 'BWP'. Yet 'BWP' is mentioned no less than 9 times in your review. Outside of the 1st person cam aspect, these films could not be less similar. I don't get it.

    That being said, great film. I wish there was more interplay with the creatures in the tunnel, and yes, I thought that they were trying to be too noble in their attempts to save people. All in all, the movie lived up to the hype.