It’s hard out there for a pimp, especially if that pimp happens to be a monster movie with theatrical aspirations. Monster movies have long been the black sheep of the horror genre and though their fans are among the most loyal and vocal there’s still the stigma of the concept that makes it difficult for a film about a giant rampaging creature to be palatable for a theatrical crowd. Shame on us as a society for that but luckily for us J.J. Abrams, Matt Reeves, and Drew Goddard have found a way to sneak an honest to goodness monster movie through the system and onto theater screens in a way that just might remind audiences of the visceral joy of seeing something large and unstoppable having their way with all we hold dear.
Cloverfield is a lot of things. The title alone has become somewhat of a divisive and loaded word. Is it a marketing smokescreen, an inside joke by the folks at the Bad Robot [the production company manned by J.J. Abrams] offices, or the seed to some larger mystery to be revealed onscreen when the movie finally reaches its now salivating audience?
It’s nothing. And everything.
Cloverfield is the security blanket that protects the entire concept of the giant monster movie. It plants the seed, creating an inner doubt that what is to transpire onscreen might not even be a monster movie. For some reason we’re more apt to believe in an alien invasion, a super storm with a penchant for popular landmarks, or terrorism’s latest weapon over the gauche and simple idea of a large beast as the villain du jour. With a name like Monstrous, The Terror That Rose From Beneath With a Bad Attitude, or Big Ass People Smasher there’s still the possibility of the knee-jerk reaction of an audience member whose inner child has long since been supressed causing them to pony up for The Bucket List at that last moment in the decisionmaking process but in the grand scheme, a sappy feel-good dramedy probably is more harmful to the soul than the large force at the center of Cloverfield.
Thankfully the hype can now take a back seat, the mystery of the title can take a back seat, and my fear that the film would drop the ball can take a back seat to the reality of Cloverfield: it is an intense and wholly successful monster movie. No bullshit. This is a monster movie and it means to knock you on your ass.
The premise is that something has happened to New York City and the destruction is total. What has happened has been cobbled together from a variety of sources of evidence, one of which being a tape culled from the scene, a tape which makes up for 100% of the film. As a result, Cloverfield in its entirety is a handheld point-of-view movie. There’s no cutting away to other accounts, the subjects captured onscreen are not performing for the camera, and the monster itself isn’t the star of the film. It’s a high concept way to approach the idea, and it’s pretty much the main reason this film has such a chance of opening the floodgates to a new dawn of big screen monster mayhem. That said, the frame is shaky and there’s not a surplus of money shots so a good portion of the film’s thrills come from the idea of the world being ripped out from under the protagonists of the film rather than intimate confrontations with the large, formerly aquatic villain of the piece.
Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) is leaving New York City for a job abroad and his brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and his friends Lily (Jessica Lucas) and Hud (T.J. Miller) are giving him a proper send-off, recording the party and the build-up preceding it. Rob’s kind of a flake, running away from the woman (the simply gorgeous Odette Yustman) who he’s afraid to admit his true feelings to and ruining his chance at the party to patch things up lends the party a solemn vibe. That solemn vibe becomes an understatement when a tanker explodes in the harbor and something large starts tearing shit up as it makes its way right towards the apartment where Rob’s party is. Madness ensues and the film gets to its macabre business.
Much has been said by reviewers about how unlikable the human characters of Cloverfield are and while I certainly found them to be grating at times, this is not a tale of heroes. There’s no brilliant scientist at the core of this story trying to outwit the monster or find its weak spot. There’s no leader of men who takes charge and saves the day. These are kids, typically annoying and scatterbrained people in their early 20’s trying to figure out what to do with their lives let alone the kind of protagonists we’re used to seeing in a movie like this. Many see it as a weakness, but I’m of the mind that by focusing on these folks the film maintains its balance and comes across as a matter of fact rather than some neat idea shoehorned into a chassis that the PG-13 crowd is willing to buy tickets to. These kids make stupid decisions. They lose focus and it costs them. They’re led by their emotions rather than logic. For me it works fine and to my surprise I was actually moved when one of the main characters was dealt their ultimate comeuppance by the many dangers inherent in Cloverfield.
Another popular opinion is that director Matt Reeves (who does a really fantastic job, working from Drew Goddard’s script) has created yet another 9/11 allegory here and while that’s true to some extent due to the locale and the scenes that are very evocative of the terrorist attacks there’s also the reality that this kind of monster movie was originally born of the attacks on Japan of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Mankind’s tampering and warmongering is typically at the center of films in this subgenre and though no explanation is given here I think that 9/11 is the easiest and most obvious metaphor for this kind of destruction so close to home, but it’s important to remember that America is only the latest in a long line of cities which fell victim to wholesale destruction like this and a lot of popular culture has been seasoned by those wounds. Monster movies and cataclysmic real-life events go hand in hand and whatever gets a particular viewer through the day metaphorically is up to them.
The bottom line is that it works.
Cloverfield is intense, scary, and effective as a genre film as well as a disaster film, which is no easy feat. The monster is brutal and thankfully free of a particular agenda and there are more scenes involving the main creature or its smaller parasites than I expected. There’s no cheating, and though it seems the creature enjoys sticking close to our protagists [which is a little convenient at times], I found the monster lover in me quite satisfied both with the creature’s design and execution. The bulk of the special effects are quite good and there’s no shortage of onscreen destruction. It’s a PG-13 movie so there’s not a lot of actual gore and not the kind of frank profanity that would occur in a situation like this but the checks and balances teeter favorably towards the positive here. It’s easy to project what we want in a film like this onto the end result but the business of film and the hurdles it takes to get a theatrical movie made have to intersect at some point and I personally don’t need rivers of human blood to know that the creature is winning the fight.
That said, I want whatever camcorder Hud and friends used. It has an amazing battery life, effective night vision, and enough of a housing to survive great falls, helicopter crashes, and spurts of blood, sweat, and bile. It even has the ability to try to use autofocus after a monster attack. There’s a metaphor for you. Half a century after their own catastrophe led Godzilla to their shores, the Japanese have come back hard with a product perfect to capture America’s own big monster invasion!
It’s not a perfect movie and I wonder what the replay value will be since it’s an atypical narrative, but the bottom line is that Cloverfield is a success on nearly every front and a film I urge people to see in a theater opening weekend. It’s going to be a memorable event, though I feel for folks who have to sit in the front row. With all the hype and speculation behind us I’m proud to say that they pulled it off.
This is one hell of a ride.