Cloverfield is audacious. That’s a word I certainly didn’t think I would be using in conjunction with a movie that I have been sort of dreading, a movie wrapped in a nonsense blanket of mystery marketing. Here’s the answer to the mystery: Cloverfield is about a big monster who attacks New York City and the group of annoying, pretty yuppies who have to deal with it while filming it all. That’s it. There’s no Slusho, no conspiracy, no deeper meaning. There isn’t even a reveal of the monster’s origins, and it never gets a name. It’s actually surprisingly straightforward.
That’s one of the two big things that writer Drew Goddard and director Matt Reeves got right; the other is the monster mayhem, which is impressive in scale and presentation (if not always logical – the monster’s path through Manhattan makes no sense unless he is specifically pursuing our hapless and hated heroes). The monster is revealed in full, but the movie takes its time getting there, which is appreciated – especially since I wasn’t completely over the moon about the final shots of the beast, which are pretty much full frontal. The monster works incredibly well in bits and pieces, especially because its anatomy is so strange; trying to figure out how these disparate body parts fit together is kind of much of the fun. And the flashes of the beast – especially its first face shot during a pitched battle with the National Guard – only add to the nightmarish surreality of the film.
Sadly, Reeves and Goddard fuck other things up. There’s not a single character in this film to root for, and it’s not because they’re meant to be difficult characters to enjoy. They’re shallow, vapid, beautiful yuppies, the kind of people who, when they start showing up at your favorite dive bar, signal the end of that establishment as you knew it. The main character, Rob, has a huge apartment on the Lower East Side that boggles the mind; we’re talking about a space that costs millions in today’s market, or even a couple of years ago, if we’re assuming Rob bought it while the neighborhood was still ‘up and coming’*. None of this would be that big of a problem – after all, I could just revel in seeing these people in terror and pain – except for the fact the movie is structured in a way that indicates we’re supposed to care about these people and their relationships. In many ways it’s like Godzilla visiting Dawson’s Creek, except without the level of master thespianism that Katie Holmes and Joshua Jackson displayed.
What pushes the film’s narrative forward is the fact that Rob desperately wants to find Beth, a girl he loves but has treated poorly, to save her from the chaos visited on the city. The main characters skip an opportunity to leave Manhattan with the army** to go with Rob on an insane mission to find this girl in a city being torn apart by a massive beast that has risen from the sea and that has little monsters falling off of it, eating people. Watching the movie I found this outrageous – how stupid could these people be? – but talking this point over with Nick I came to a weird realization: I had once done the same thing. On the day that the Twin Towers fell I was home, having overslept. My office was three blocks from the Towers, and my best friend was there – she had actually gone into the city when she saw the first plane hit the Towers because her father worked there. My first reaction was to run as fast as I could to the Brooklyn Bridge to get into Manhattan to try and find my friend. This was a stupid reaction, and a futile reaction, but it was the first one I had, and it was primal and happened without thought. And yet I couldn’t buy Rob doing essentially a heightened version of the same thing, and I especially couldn’t buy his friends going with him. To me it’s a reflection of how little these characters resonated with me – even a reaction that I could identify with from experience feels alien coming from this phony person.
All of which leads to the 9/11 question. Horror films and monster movies exploit our current fears; looking at the history of the genre will show you the outlines of modern history, will reflect the world in which they were made. Cloverfield uses very specific 9/11 imagery – people covered in dust running up the street in terror, burnt papers slowly falling from the sky, sudden and incomprehensible carnage without any seeming provocation. In the tradition of the great monster movies, Cloverfield reflects the current state of fear back at us, and like those films it really has nothing to say about it. The filmmakers will tell you that it’s all about catharsis, about confronting these images and fears, but I think that’s mostly bullshit. United 93 was a movie that brought about catharsis. The basic truth is that we like being scared, and this is what scares us now; in fact they probably couldn’t have made this movie – remember when we all thought there would never be another film that visited destruction on New York City? – without there having already been a catharsis. There’s nothing wrong with that, although it would have been cool if the movie had something deeper to say about the 9/11 experience.
It also would have made me happier if the film had something to say about the modern world of hyperdocumentation. A clip that was released a few weeks ago showed the scene where the head of the Statue of Liberty ends up in front of Rob’s building and everyone starts taking cell phone pictures. I loved that bit, and hoped that the whole movie would be about that, about the reflexive need people have to document everything that happens to them in photos and blogs. Sadly, that moment was mostly a one-off gag, and the movie doesn’t even delve into YouTube culture; the character of Hud films everything that happens to him and his friends, but for no good reason. He’s not a cameraman by profession, and in fact he ended up with the camera that night because someone else shirked the duty of filming Rob’s going away party (it’s worth noting that Hud discovered his calling in life on this night. His camerawork is often excellent, with good framing and nice composition. Also, he manages to stand utterly still and really get good shots of the monster and other mayhem. He’s a natural born cameraman!). After a while it’s hard to ignore the fact that Hud’s life would be easier if he wasn’t running from a monster attack with one eye against a viewfinder. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, which also uses the same ‘last video’ gimmick as Cloverfield, at least makes that obsessive documentation a focus of the story. If Hud had been a news guy or even if he had once said, ‘I could sell this for a million bucks to CNN!’ I wouldn’t have minded so much. But because there’s no reason or meaning for the whole film to be shot by the characters, it becomes nothing but a novelty. To be honest, if you would take the way that Cloverfield was shot and constructed and grafted on Diary of the Dead‘s exploration of media saturated culture, I think you’d have a legitimately great film on your hands.
I could go on nitpicking Cloverfield, but this is a positive review. The movie is flawed, deeply, but it works while you’re sitting there in the theater, and with a movie like this, that’s the main goal. I don’t know if Cloverfield will hold up to repeat viewings or not – I suspect it won’t – but that first time is a blast. The action propels you along fast enough that you barely have time to raise the logical questions while you’re watching, and the set pieces are done with style and verve. The movie only has diagetic music until the end credits, which have a bombastic, monster movie theme by Michael Giacchino called ‘Roar!’; that theme belongs to the bigger picture movie that tells the full story of what happened in New York City that night, but I’m glad that Cloverfield focused on the small moments (well, as small as they get when the monster seems to be specifically chasing the characters in the film). In a lot of ways Cloverfield reminded me of the seminal graphic novel Marvels, which told the history of the Marvel superhero universe through the eyes of the man on the street. That perspective makes a moribund genre like the monster movie suddenly come roaring to life.
*Hilariously enough Rob’s million dollar space opens onto hallways slathered with graffiti tags. The only way that building is tagged so heavily is if his upstairs neighbor is a graffiti artist who makes a mint designing ‘street wear’ for a sneaker company.
**The monster seems to be a real snob, as he is also unwilling to leave Manhattan for any of the outer boros. Brooklyn’s cool enough to get stepped on, motherfucker!