Monday, January 21, 2008

Cloverfield: Man in Suit

On Saturday Jamie, Jason, Julia and me (breaking the chain of alliteration) went to the Alamo-ized Village Cinema to catch "Cloverfield".


Cloverfield is pretty much exactly (EXACTLY) what you think it is from the previews. It takes the concept of the big-budget monster movie and tells it from the pitiable angle of the person on the street, rather than from the angle of the sexy scientists and military folk who usually fill Godzilla movies. In some ways, its very similar to a zombie movie in that we're getting the perspective of the folks simply trying to not get killed, not the folks trying to bring the crisis to an end, which, really, brings us all the way back to the original novel of "War of the Worlds".

But the buzz hasn't been so much about the shake up in narrative, its been about the first-person perspective of the movie. As you probably already know, the movie is supposed to be found footage of a handi-cam which captures the desperate set of circumstances of the seven or eight hours around the attack of the monster, which I just call "Cloverfield" as, very intentionally, the movie never names, nor does it try to explain the monster. From the perspective of the characters, this makes complete sense, and, really, that's the point of the movie. This is a film about "what if you or I were minding our own business and found ourselves the screaming pedestrian in the rampaging monster film?" What I did not want to see was the scene in which our everyman heroes stumble upon a scientist who explains the entire situation. In so many ways, the movie relies upon the confusion of the characters to tell the story.

And, no, I have no idea why the movie was called Cloverfield. The movie never actually says why that was supposed to be the name at any time I saw (even in the opening minute of the movie). I probably missed something, so fill me in if you know.

In a world in which we've all seen endless footage of the WTC falling and modern military strikes on cable, the cinematographer of Cloverfield is the real hero. The scenes are captured well enough for the viewer to see what is going on without being lost in the herky-jerky camera movements, and only occasionally did I stop to think "gee, he was lucky to frame that exactly that way while running away in terror". We now know what it looks like when a huge building collapses, we understand what it looks like when missiles are flying from an armored military vehicle. All of this is brought to the screen in a manner that suggests You Are There.

A lot of folks are going to not necessarily dig the camera work, and that's a matter of both taste and whether or not you got vertigo when you saw Blair Witch.

This, in the end, is what the movie brings that "20 Million Miles to Earth", "King Kong", or any other rampaging monster-in-a-populated-area movie didn't bring. There will be the inevitable comparisons to The Blair Witch Project, and that's okay. But I don't think its fair to assume that a single movie should get the monopoly on first person genre films, especially in an era of YouTube, video cameras on phones and the everyman as creator of media. To say "Blair Witch already did this" is, to me, oversimplifying things a bit.

Some Leaguers are beholden to the whims and needs of the babies they've made and will not be able to go out to the local cinema to take in the spectacle. And I'd say that watching this on your TV will probably still get you into the experience. After all, subconsciously video shooters are thinking TV, not 40' movie screens. While the movie certainly doesn't always stick to the rule, seeing the conventions of the home video play out on your TV rather than at the movies may make for a satisfying experience.

What viewers will probably believe less than a twenty-story monster rampaging through Manhattan is the premise of the plot of the film. This is not, I say again, a movie about folks actually defeating the beastie. I think I, at age 32 or at age 15 would have a hard time buying the premise which to our film's subjects wandering through the firefight. Or that someone would feel safe walking around with a camera in their face through a disaster of cataclysmic proportions.

The leads are fairly typical young Hollywood, what producers assume I want to see when I go to the cinema (but is really intended to appeal to males, 13-25). The movie begins more or less with the beginning of the "found" tape. The first footage occurs before the disaster, capturing two young folks who are trying to decide if they're in love. A camcordery-cut later, Flash forward to the awkwardly scripted good-bye party where one of the leads is off to Japan for work, and a very high-school-like lovers' quarrel. The technique works in the narrative in a way that would have seemed ridiculous as flashbacks in any other movie, and uses the device (both plot and actual handi-cam device with its known technical quirks) to show what would otherwise have to make up for some really inappropriately timed exposition.

In all honesty, I wasn't sure I was supposed to feel deep empathy for the characters, or if that was a product of the usual poor characterization when style takes place over substance. I really didn't care about the B-plot of the movie, and I certainly didn't buy that the characters would have been knuckle-headed enough to walk back towards the danger as they did. Like a lot of zombie movies, I suppose, I was expecting our protagonists to get picked off, and was simply much more invested in the unfolding of action than what was happening to who, and who loved who. I mean... really. There's a 50-ton monster eating people. Who cares about yuppies in love?

I might also mention that the movie has no score or musical cues. You won't miss them, but if you hang around through the credits, you'll find the music over the credits sort of jarring when it does pop up.

Like Blair Witch, its unclear if its a good movie or a novelty, but I'm leaning toward a novelty that will inform future, perhaps better, efforts. It's a good popcorn flick, and it shows promise that perhaps the rampaging monster in an urban setting isn't totally gone from the world of genre movies.

But, as the Alamo pre-show reminded me, I was pretty happy with a classic Man in Suit movie. I'm not sure I really need a $150 million thrown at me to have a good time.


Anonymous said...

There is/was a whole "viral marketing" thing for the movie that sort of explains the back story If you read the movie's FAQ section on IMDB, it explains a lot of the backstory from said marketing campaign. Oh, and a sequel is (most likely) coming. As if you didn't guess already.

Did you also notice the falling object on the last scene at coney island?.

The League said...

I totally did NOT see the falling object. I was too full of cheese fries.

I didn't mind not knowing, but I guess its kind of cool that they explained it elsewhere. But I want my movie to be a self-contained experience. Luckily, this experience worked fine without me doing any research.