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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Monster Takes Manhattan: A Cloverfield Review

In 1990, at the uninhibited age of 15, I did something I would probably never do again in my lifetime.  It was our school picnic at a local amusement park and I threw caution to the wind and rode The Rotor five times in a row.  To give you a brief idea of what this ride did, it spun.  You stood against the inside wall of this big drum, which spun fast enough that the floor could drop out from below you and you would stick to the wall.  For most people, one ride is enough to make you lose your funnel cake, but I had to do it multiple times to prove I was a man....because the girl I was with wanted to go that many times and I didn't want to appear weak.   It was the kind of ride that if you threw up, you could see a cool test of Newton’s laws conducted with a corn dog instead of an apple.  In the last 18 years I have developed a weak constitution when it comes to theme park rides, but I never thought I’d need Dramamine to watch a film.  For those of you living in a bunker in South Dakota, writing your manifesto, that film is Cloverfield

I've become a sort of fan of J.J. Abrams work.  I have been an avid fan of LOST since it aired in 2004.  Mysterious creatures toppling trees in the jungle, stoking the fires of your imagination to burn white hot with the worst possible image of what could be lurking behind the flora.  Strange devices and structures that seem to not be indigenous to a deserted island send the fan boys into a conspiracy theory tizzy on what they mean.  Basically, you are looking at a nondescript box, and J.J. teases you with clues as to what could be inside but never reveals it, wholly.  If Abrams was a seller on eBay, he'd be the king of the mystery box auction.   Here, the box is Manhattan and he slowly teases you with what is trying to rip through the box and gnaw off your face, but he never tells you.  That's for your mind to decide.  Sure, he gives you little glimpses of the beast, but never gives you an explanation for what it is or why it's tearing up Times Square.

That's the basic premise of Cloverfield.  The DOD recover a camera from the rubble of a bridge in Central Park that details the last hours of a group of friends in Manhattan during a going away party for Rob, who is leaving to start a new job in Japan.  His brother and friends host the party and use the camera to document it, unknowingly recording over Rob and his good friend/lover Beth sharing a "good day," starting from the bedroom of her father's apartment and ending at Coney Island.  Clips from that day are interspersed into the recording as the camera as the camera turns off from the present action.  During the party an unseen force attacks and begins to demolish the island forcing the main cast to flee the party and make plans for escape.  It's revealed in several shaky moments that a creature of unknown origin is doing the damage and efforts to escape the island become hindered.  As the creature and its little parasitic offspring kill off the characters during the attack, Hud, continues to document and speculate over the creature's origin and motives before eventually becoming a morning snack.  The military issue an endgame scenario called "hammerdown protocol" which will pretty much decimate most of New York City in an attempt to finally stop the monster.  Rob and Beth injured and out of time hole up under a bridge giving farewells and a final statement about the efficiency of the military's attack.  A garbled message, presumably from Rob, and recorded in reverse, probably from damage to the camera states, "It's still alive."  The camera ceases its recording of the attack and reverts back to a final scene from Coney Island, weeks before as a bookend. While seemingly unimportant, supposedly there is a clue here.  Knowing Abrams work, nothing is dismissed. 

Abrams assembled his production team from familiar faces in his past work. Drew Goddard, well known for his writing on LOST, Alias, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Angel, wrote the flick.  Director Matt Reeves, while relatively unknown in film with only two previous movie credits, helmed episodes of Felicity and the pilot episode of the great, yet underated Miracles.   The production takes the Godzilla recipe and throws it into a blender with a few other movie ingredients to make a nice batch of Slusho.  First we add a base of Jurassic Park to give us a foundation.  Our band of partygoers are faced with the task of making it from point "A" which is a party in Manhattan, to point "C" which is a rescue helicopter near Central Park, and along the way a giant monster continually chases them, causing destruction and providing them with architectural obstacles as they move through point "B", the leaning apartment of our hero's girlfriend.  We have one part from The Blair Witch Project to provide that shaky amateur cinematography feel.  Throw in a dash of Jaws, to give us that hint of monster which you see from obscured angles and shaky filming.  Add a hint of Miracle Mile to give us that essence of hindered progress and detoured directions with an aftertaste of doom and gloom.  Add to low heat for 15 minutes, bringing to a boil, slowly.  Garnish with motion sickness pills and serve.

First, I'll give you the good.  Cloverfield scores points with me for taking a genre of film or a style and taking it to a new level.  The "camcorder" or "handheld camera" film genre points back to Blair Witch as a source for inspiration.  Here, the concept is a going away party that is being documented when a disaster occurs.  Since, one of the characters was filming the party, already, it makes sense that he "documents" the attack.  The lack of importance with lighting and clear shots is a way to heighten the suspense as we never get a fully unobstructed shot of the monster.   It takes the viewer of a Godzilla movie and places them at street level.  The topography of Manhattan also serves to heighten tensions as we can't see what is causing destruction and we rely on others to fill in the gaps.  Listen closely to the early background dialogue as New Yorkers instantly feel that it is a terrorist attack.  The "handicam" approach also gives Abrams full permission to play on our imaginations, especially during one scene where Rob, Lilly, and Hud have to move Beth, who is impaled on a piece of rebar in her apartment.  The camera is set down just out of range of the action and the sounds and motion of Beth gave me my only reason for wanting to vomit as I imagined her sliding off of the bar.

I give Goddard credit in fleshing out the story in familiar Abrams fashion.  Abrams' previous works feature all sorts of elements such as bait and switch reveals, a snake in a mailbox, and manipulation of time through flashbacks to introduce important clues at just the right moment.  One of the biggest mysteries of Cloverfield is the origin of the monster.  Unfortunately, we have become a society of people who want to be spoiled, spoon fed answers to ambiguous ideas, and basically filmmakers' profit over marketing tie ins and fictional internet sites that piece together clues to what happens during the film.  I've seen arguments and theories over what the monster is and even an answer from Abrams and company fail to satisfy the audiences thirst for explanation.  Reeves has cleverly set up as an unintentional erasure of previous events on Rob's camera.  His daytrip with Beth to Coney Island gets copied over with the attack and only little bits of the previous footage remain, but offer a vital clue.  The last scene from the Coney Island footage reveals a large object falling from the sky splashing down into the water off shore.  Seeing as how the object is not as big as the monster we deduce that this object, possibly a satellite or space junk, has disturbed the creature's watery abode.   Just like a stampede of elephants spooked by a gunshot the behemoth makes its way out of the water and onto land like a bull in a china shop knocking over buildings and stepping on people.  Imagine an adolescent "Clovie" thrashing around at this unknown environment, trying to make sense of what woke it up.   Add military vehicles shooting at it and you've got a pissed off, disoriented leviathan, stumbling about Manhattan like a fawn on its first day of walking.

Now, let us look at the not so good.  Abrams' productions are fearfully treading into M. Night Shyamalan territory.  With Alias and Lost firmly planted in the lexicon of pop culture, he's starting to get a lot of exposure in the film industry.  While not directing or writing this movie, his footprint is all over it.  Mission: Impossible III was riddled with Abrams' style, apparent from the first scene. He's going on to do a reboot of the Star Trek franchise and just seeing Leonard Nimoy in the list confirmed cast members we can say with great certainty that there will be flashbacks and probably a twist that will be revealed by a flashback or some great piece of the puzzle will finally be put into place at the end of the movie.  Having this in mind, I understood what Abrams and company were trying to achieve with Cloverfield and they made it work for me.  But choices in style of filming and direction are beginning to get predictable.  By the time Shyamalan released The Village speculation and stolen production material had been leaked to the general public and soon everyone, including me, went into that film looking for a twist or a surprise ending instead of enjoying the film.  Unfortunately, geeks like me sometimes forget to take off the "analysis hat" and just enjoy a film.  I can't say that I had a problem with that during Independence Day, another Manhattan goes kablooey movie, but then again, I don't think ID4 is being taught in film analysis classes at USC or UCLA.  With Cloverfield the big mystery is the who, what, where, and why of the monster and I knew from the first cut, or "flashback" if you will, to the original Coney Island footage that this was a thematic device for displaying the mechanics of digital cameras as well as setting up the last scene depicting splashdown. Similarly, LOST has kept the origin of island's monster a mystery for four years only giving viewers an insight to what it looks like at the end of the first season.  With that in mind, I figured the mystery of Cloverfield's monster would be revealed in a like manner. 

One of the biggest complaints with Cloverfield among viewers has been the shaky cam filming.  I've never been one to complain about a movie experience causing me nausea.  Like I said, I challenged a "spin and puke" ride to a duel and Blair Witch didn't make me sick.  However, here I had to take several breaks to get the color back in my face.  Of course, I figured the best way to watch a movie shot in the style of a handheld camera is to watch it from the perspective of a handheld camera as I didn't see it in a theater or on DVD, I watched it online.  I figured it was meant to be watched in this manner as it was a film that serves to further illustrate our newfound obsession with viral video and digital media.  I don't believe that it enhanced or detracted from my viewing experience so I will assume that what I saw was the same film that everyone saw.   Another nauseating element was Hud's constant wisecracks.  I expect them in a film like ID4 or Ghostbusters but it was a bit jarring for him to be that ridiculous in some spots.  It seemed as if he was trying to force a Ryan Reynolds delivery in most of his jokes.  I expected more from Goddard who has written some of the smartest dialogue, full of sardonic wit, in his tenure with Mutant Enemy. 

I will say that I fully expect a sequel and probably welcome it, given early reports of story ideas.  If the creators are smart, they had additional footage of the cast going through the streets of New York City filmed with another digital camera being wielded by another amateur photographer and they can tell the same story events through the viewfinder of other New Yorkers awe struck by the attack.  Perhaps, now that we know what the creature looks like, we can get a nice shot of him doing his Honey Ryder impression coming out of the water off the coast of New York.  Just as long as it doesn't follow The Blair Witch sequel idea and totally depart from the original style.   That movie required more than just a couple of Dramamine.  I was reaching for the Pepto-Bismol by the end.  You know, if it wouldn’t be totally against the FDA to do so, Bad Robot could have struck a deal and had the DVD packaged with a small sample pack of motion sickness pills.  It would have been a clever nod to the audience as they like to do with some of their productions.  No!  Dumb idea, you say.  Fine, then where were you in 1990 when I spinning in circles waiting for my cheese fries to make an appearance?  I could have used your advice then.

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