Friday, January 18, 2008

Review of CLOVERFIELD

Let the word go forth: as of January 18th, in the year of our Lord Two Thousand and Eight, America finally has a cinematic mega-monster to call its very own.

Which is exactly what J.J. Abrams, the creator of Alias and Lost and the director of the upcoming Star Trek movie (and I also got to see a beautiful teaser for that before this started playing) intended when he set out to make Cloverfield. It was while in Japan that Abrams realized that his own country didn’t have a classic movie monster anything close to iconic as Godzilla is over there. And King Kong was too "adorable" as Abrams put it. He wanted a horrific force of nature that couldn't possibly be tamed, only confronted in the hopes that it could be destroyed. So Abrams hooked up with longtime collaborators Drew Goddard and Matt Reeves and told them his plan...

And now that Cloverfield has finally been released after months of crazy speculation, ever since that cryptic teaser in front of last summer’s Transformers, it must be asked: is Abrams's beastie on par with Godzilla as a mythic menace?

Yeah, I think it is. But I'll know for certain as soon as I can figure out just what the hell it is that I was looking at when I saw Cloverfield earlier today.

I'd wanted to catch Cloverfield last night at a midnight showing with my comrade-in-arms Phillip. Alas! The winter storm yesterday morning had turned the roads between here and Guilford County a bleak sheet of black ice. So Phillip went ahead and saw it. When he came back he was raving like mad about how good it is both in e-mail and in the review he wrote for his blog (and he says some things about Cloverfield a lot better than I probably could...). And then another friend told me that I had to see this as soon as possible. That settled it: after doing some errands I headed over to the Carousel Grande in Greensboro. And on the ride down U.S. 29, to kinda set the mood I played the Wallflowers's cover of "Heroes" from the 1998 Godzilla soundtrack on my new iPod. I know: bringing that particular movie up is baaaaaaad...

I have to agree with Phillip: Cloverfield is the first movie in recent memory that not only does not fail to live up to obscene hype, it wildly surpasses it. And I may have to see it again this weekend (provided we don't get the 3-4 inches of snow that the weather forecasters are now calling for tomorrow).

If you watched the teaser (which broke rules by itself in that it was the first teaser for a major motion picture that didn't reveal the title of the movie that it was advertising) then you already know much about how Cloverfield starts out. A group of friends in New York City is throwing a surprise party for Robert Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), who's about to leave for Japan to take on a job as a vice-president of some big company there. And then, about twenty minutes into Cloverfield, all hell breaks loose. If the capsized oil tanker and massive explosion on the other side of town aren't enough to signify that Manhattan is in trouble, then the spectacle of watching the head of the Statue of Liberty crash out of the sky and onto the street will doubtless impress everyone with the severity of the situation.

Here's where Cloverfield differentiates itself from perhaps any other "big monster" movie that's been made: until the ground first starts shaking, I was so immersed in the story of Rob and his estranged girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman) and their friends, that I completely forgot that I was watching a big-budget creature presentation. This is not a movie about a giant monster per se. The monster serves as the disaster in which we see these regular people go through the worst day of their lives and how we see them do some extraordinary things as a result. And instead of seeing it as a standard narrative, Cloverfield is told through the perspective of Rob's video camera, operated for most of the movie by Rob's friend Hud (a great character played by T.J. Miller, who brings both gravity and at times much-needed and well-delivered humor to the role).

Obviously, this choice of story conveyance brings a lot of comparisons between Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project. But I think that Cloverfield might have pulled the trick off even better than the 1999 horror sensation did (and I say that as someone who has always liked The Blair Witch Project). The scene that really "does it" with Cloverfield is when we see Rob and his three friends taking shelter inside a subway station, and Rob has to share some heartbreaking news with someone on his cell phone. It's a scene that genuinely hurts the viewer to witness these friends have to share this tragic experience. It's not the monster itself that makes Cloverfield compelling viewing, but what happens to these characters as a result of the monster's wrecking havoc.

Don't be led to think that this means we get short-changed when it comes to actually seeing the monster in Cloverfield, because we do indeed get to view the creature up close. But this is not like the 1998 remake of Godzilla, where we hardly saw the title threat at all except for toward the end of the movie. The monster in Cloverfield is all over the place, even though Hud just barely misses catching the entire beast in his camera. Be kind to the man: he's shooting the footage while running for his life. It's a quite effective technique however, because we get lots of tantalizing glimpses of the monster (the creepiest might be when Hud is watching a news broadcast of the army fighting it and the thing starts dropping "dandruff" on the ground) that up the "wanna see" factor without over-doing it.

But as for the monster itself: I still have no idea what this thing is supposed to look like exactly. The various depictions made by artistically-inclined folk who have seen Cloverfield tend to suggest the general shape of the monster. But I've yet to see a single drawing or painting that completely nails it. The closest I can come up with in describing what the Cloverfield monster looks like, is to ask you to imagine the Kraken from Clash of the Titans with reverse-jointed legs so that it can walk on land. I can't even figure out whether the monster is supposed to be reptilian or amphibian, or something else entirely different. The one very good shot of the monster that we see is going to be in my nightmares for the next few nights, no doubt about it. The thing looks unnatural and unholy, as if it's a form of life that in a saner world would have no right to exist to begin with.

Where did the monster in Cloverfield originate? We aren't told at all, and there's no scientist who comes out in a white coat to explain to us where the creature came from or what it wants or how to get rid of it. But enough tantalizing info is spread here and there for the viewer to take a guess, albeit without knowing for sure whether that guess is anywhere close to being reasonably accurate. If you want to know what I think about it, here’s my theory...

SPOILER – highlight to read: The monster was in the "oil tanker", much like the 1976 King Kong remake. It had been found elsewhere - maybe near the offshore drilling station that's been talked about in the viral media promoting Cloverfield - and capturer: either by the Japanese corporation or the U.S. government. I think it was inside the ship and as it approached the terminal in New York City's harbor, it got loose. Why else would something like that turn up in New York City? It kinda makes sense when you think about it... END SPOILER

And so far as motive goes: there is no reason for why this monster is causing so much destruction. It's a natural calamity that cannot be reasoned with but only endured, in the hope that you’ll live to see tomorrow.

So much else that I could say about Cloverfield here. I am... extremely... overwhelmed by this movie and how it turned out. This is the movie that the 1998 Godzilla could have been and should have been. And I've come to realize that it was wrong to have even attempted to co-opt another country's classic monster character like that. With Cloverfield, American filmmaking has finally owned-up to that mistake.

And I also believe that film-makers would be wise to take note: Cloverfield represents, at last, the maturing of special effects as a true story-telling tool. A year ago Alfonso CuarĂ³n did much the same with Children of Men, which was a much more serious story. With Cloverfield, J.J. Abrams and his crew at Bad Robot have proven that it can be applied just as effectively to a blockbuster tent-pole motion picture event. For thirty years now most escapist film fare has relied on eye candy to deliver the goods and bring an audience to the box office. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I think it's safe to say after the past several years of relative stagnancy that audiences are no longer impressed with being visually wowed as much as they expect deeper storytelling. The Bad Robot team has wildly succeeded in that endeavor with Lost on television, and now with Cloverfield they have demonstrated that it can – and should – be sought in feature films, also. I for one will certainly be examining Cloverfield closely, because there is a great deal of good that I believe can be learned from it.

How harsh a movie is Cloverfield? If you're prone to motion-sickness, you might wanna take a Dramamine before going in to see this film, because the camera is quite shaky, as has been widely reported. But after a short while I was pretty comfortable with it. And visually there are a lot of images that you won't easily shake-off, including something very nasty that happens to one of the main characters later on in the movie that was one of the ugliest and most unexpected things that I've seen in a monster movie. But I didn't see anything that was as big a gross-out as, say, Kane's death in Alien. Cloverfield definitely qualifies as PG-13 material, even if it does edge perilously close to a hard-earned R on several occasions.

Cloverfield runs for an hour and a half. And if you're trying to figure out how all that footage could fit on one tape in a camcorder, paying attention to the very first moments of the movie will reveal that this is all being pulled from a flash-based memory card (maybe Rob's camcorder is one of the models that debuted at last week's Consumer Electronics Show?). It's just the right length of running time for this story, although I'm also eager to see any deleted scenes when the DVD comes out.

By the way, see that graphic of the Cloverfield one-sheet poster? I received a real copy of that when I attended Butt-Numb-A-Thon 9 last month in Austin, Texas. It's been in a cardboard tube ever since, just waiting to see if this movie was worth having it framed and hung up in my video production suite. After what I saw earlier today, I can say that I'll have no problem putting it on the wall tomorrow morning.

Cloverfield might be the best take I've ever seen on the "giant monster" movie genre. And this is an absolutely amazing film to get 2008 – which promises to be a spectacular year at the movies – off and running with. If at all possible, try to see this movie this weekend or sometime very soon.

By the way, so far as music goes there is no orchestral score for the movie itself at all. But Michael Giacchino has composed a majestic overture called "Roar!" that plays during the end credits. It's well worth sticking around to enjoy listening to, and I hope that it'll turn up on iTunes soon 'cuz I will gladly buy it to put on my iPod!

I'll give Cloverfield a score of 9 out of 10. And will also say that this merits buying on DVD the very first day that it comes out. And hopefully sometime soon I'll be able to buy an action figure of the monster to pose atop my computer, too.

1 comments:

Anonymous said...

In case you are wondering where the monster came from in the closing scene where it is one month previous and they are at the beach if you look out over the ocean in the distance an object (presumably the monster) falls from the sky and right as it hits the water the camera turns to beths face. This is the only hint that the director said he put in there as to where the monster/creature came from. If you are going to see it again this weekend look for that in the final scenes.