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Cloverfield

January 27, 2008

Since it opened in theaters approximately a week ago, I have seen Cloverfield three times. The people who work at the theater must think I’m pretty weird, because having also seen There Will Be Blood, I have been to the theater four times in the past week. Such behavior is for me unheard of, considering the price of movie tickets nowadays. In fact, I have been seeing most movies in theaters twice lately (Juno, Sweeney Todd). But three times? The last time that happened was with The Lord of the Rings: Return of The King, which won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and was a movie event for the ages. Why, then, did I not have any problems dropping money on seeing a (comparatively) low budget monster movie not once, not twice, but three times? Either I really liked all the people I saw it with (an obvious truth), or this movie has had some kind of draw, some quality that I have never seen in a movie before.

The first thing you have to know about Cloverfield is it’s marketing campaign, which is among the most successful viral marketing campaigns ever unleashed. For around six months, the details of Cloverfield had been relatively unknown, all the way up until it’s release on January 18th. In fact, for over half of that time, the only thing that was known about it was what could have been inferred from a short, cryptic trailer. The movie was simply known by it’s release date, 1/18/08, and the title Cloverfield was not confirmed until a short time before release. All anyone knew was that it is about a group of people who originate from the same going away party for a guy in New York City named Rob, when a giant monster inexplicably decides to attack the city, and that the movie is directed by JJ Abrams. During those six months, marketing tie ins ran rampant, and information was slowly released about the film. What shocks me about it is that nothing significant leaked before the movie’s release. This is the nice thing about making a middle budget film. You have big time corporation backing so that you can’t be taken advantage of, but you are also working small and have the benefit of utilizing a creative campaign like this. Movie buffs and monster nerds anticipated the movies release, and the identity of the then unknown monster, until 1/18/08.

My initial assumption was that the final product would not meet the hype, but that didn’t stop me from being interested. I did lower my standards however, because I knew that it would be hard for a movie to match my inflated expectations, but little did I know that Cloverfield would rock my world. I’m not even sure that I quite knew how much I liked it until I saw it for the second and third times.

I walked into the theater expecting a monster flick. I’m a big fan of monster flicks. Old ones. It is a dying genre. The last monster movie I can remember seeing in the theater before Cloverfield is Godzilla 2000, and I don’t remember being impressed. But once we sit down and give ourselves in to Cloverfield, it flips everything we know about monster movies upside down and kicks them out the door. It is one of the most well written and well executed “flicks” I have ever seen, but it’s greatness is concealed, and it is either fortunately or unfortunately destined to be a cult hit.

The setup, as I previously mentioned, is simple and effective. The movie is filmed from the perspective of a handheld video camera, so we see what the characters see, and we know what the characters know. The trick is not new. The Blair Witch Project used it around the turn of the century, and it has been synonymous with that film ever since, but it is just as effective here. The screen is always shaky, and two of the people I have seen the movie with complained of mild motion sickness, but ultimately the shaky camera works, and we get a perspective on the film that is very realistic, and at street level. Cloverfield is not about the giant monster that is ravaging the city. It is about the people who are affected by it. And the characters are very realistic and believable. My father complained about how many scenes in the movie were not believable at all, but if you are looking for realism in a movie about a giant monster, you are fighting a losing battle. Most of the complaints were that even after the movie ends, the viewer knows very little about the monster or why it is destroying New York City. We are not supposed to know this. Ultimately, the only stock character in the movie is the monster itself, and it is very much a secondary character. Giant monsters don’t destroy New York or Tokyo for any particular reason, and if they do, it is stupid. I did not, however, hear any complaints from anyone about the characters themselves, except from a movie critic who said he was rooting for the monster by the time the movie ended. The only reason I can infer for this reasoning is to see more of the monster itself, but if you are even remotely paying attention during the movie, you will realize that this comment is utter bullshit.

The web of characters writer Drew Goddard creates is impressive to say the least. There is a small amount of cheese in the platter, but that is to be expected in a flick. But the character development is subtle, in fact almost unnoticeable, although anything but undeniable. The core of the movie is spent with six characters. Rob Hawkins, as we know him, is the representation of a youthful, passionate America. He may or may not be nonexistant, but in any case he is the direction of the film, as it progresses. His goal is to rescue the girl, which is a movie staple that we are more than familiar with. It is old, but it works. Also present are the dumb but loveable cameraman Hud, Rob’s brother Jason and his girlfriend Lily, and the apple of Hud’s eye Marlena. The final character is Rob’s love interest, Beth. The characters are set up with great precision at the party, and as the movie progresses, they show their true character, intentions, and flaws. Jason is among the most impressive. He is presented right away as a problem solver, a funny person, and a caring individual. He is the kind of person you would want to have with you should you ever need to escape from New York, and even within the first ten minutes of the movie, we come to love him. He is killed promptly. I don’t know if it was to tug at our heartstrings, to prove a point, or to leave our characters with something to be distraught about, but in any case we know that this is a natural part of the progression of the movie. We didn’t want him to die, but he did, not because he was an unfortunate victim of a roller coaster ride of a movie, but because he chose to lead the party to the Brooklyn Bridge. The only reason that the other characters were not killed is because Rob received a phone call from Beth, which he pulled aside to answer among the crowd of fleeing citizens. The other characters stay behind with him, trying to pull him along, when we see Jason perched atop a figure in the distance yelling, “WHY DID YOU STOP!?” At this very moment, a gigantic arm strikes the Brooklyn Bridge.

One of the most important scenes in the movie is when the party flees the bridge and is mourning Jason’s tragic, untimely death. We get a shot of Rob’s shocked, empty face in response to this. Michael Stahl-David plays his part wonderfully, and we see him break down, silently, before our eyes, after which he trudges off to an electronic store. Rob has realized that the reason he is still alive is because of Beth’s phone call, and if he doesn’t try to play the hero and rescue her, Jason’s death is in vain. So he walks away. His walking is key. For the rest of the movie, he walks in a delusional limp, and this is a very important detail.

But perhaps the most impressively executed (literally and figuratively executed) character in the movie is Marlena, “the bitch,” who the innocent, sweet Hud tries to hit on multiple times. We don’t like her. In fact, we want her to die, just because of how rude she is to Hud, who we love. Then, after she saves his life, she begins to crawl out of her stock character and turn into a person we love. And then she dies, almost immediately. Her last words, a yelp of desire for Hud, are genuine, brought to the surface only by her subsequent death. These characters are brilliantly written because they are natural and realistic, which is strange, because we don’t go to the movies to see realism. We go to the movies to see giant monsters. Camquarter documentations of tragic events don’t have good character development. And yet the character development in Cloverfield is good. Very good. By at least the second time I watched the film, I started to ask myself what I even wanted out of the movie in the first place.

Well, I wanted a flick. And I definitely got a flick. I got scared to the greatest degree that a movie could possibly scare me. This is a well made movie, but it is also a fright fest that reminds us of why King Kong and Godzilla entertain us. We do, in fact, get to see the monster, in several terrifying shots. We had to, because if we hadn’t Cloverfield would just be another Blair Witch ripoff. The evil needs to have a face. Cloverfield has some love, some heroism, and some terror, all woven within one another nearly seamlessly.

Why this movie is so scary, and why it left me shivering uncontrollably after the first viewing, is questionable. Some of my discussions with others about the movie have uncovered facts and opinions that I would have never thought of otherwise. When I asked myself, “why did this movie scare me?”, the only answer I had was, “because it was scary.” But it can be easily realized that Cloverfield is an indirect nod to 9/11. This movie scares us as the events of 9/11 did, or as much as a movie can in that respect. For seven years, America’s greatest fear is an unexpected situation like our characters in Cloverfield have to encounter and deal with. Widespread panic, mass hysteria, martial law. This fear has been relatively untapped in the film industry, except maybe for Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds.

Cloverfield scares the shit out of us because a low budget monster flick should not feel so realistic, or close to our fears. Later in the film, Rob holds the camera to his face and tells us that if we are watching this tape, we know more about the situation than him. What makes Cloverfield terrifying is that we really don’t know any more than him. In fact, we know EXACTLY as much as him, because we have been following him closely throughout the entire film. I would almost say that the main character in Cloverfield is the camera itself. The movie is a chain of events, but unlike those of most monster movies, it is a chain of events that we do not question. The fact that the movie is brilliantly written is obscured by the slew of highly memorable cinematic shots and realistic effects. It is well written, well acted (surprise), well filmed (bigger surprise), and it works on the interior and the exterior. An excellent movie experience.

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One comment

  1. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Aaron Wakling



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