Saturday, January 26, 2008
Cloverfield: A Review
Is it a minor message movie or is it just big, dumb fun? The question has been bounced around a little, and I found myself wondering about it when I went, sans fiance who stayed home sick, to see Cloverfield tonight.
First, and more important, though, I wondered if it would even work as big, dumb fun. The trailers had left me cold: Blair Witch meets Godzilla wasn’t inspiring me to spend nine bucks on a ticket. The early reviews and advice of friends won the day, though, and I’m glad they did.
Ignoring any possible social messages, the Blair Witch hook works far better for Cloverfield than it did the earlier movie simply because the plot--what there is of it--holds together better as the movie continues. Not that the plot is much more--and, actually, is probably less than some--than your typical monster movie. The difference is that, once viewers got past the Blair Witch personal video camera conceit, the movie becomes tedious and the characters unlikable. Cloverfield builds tension and pace, draping the story over characters too hurried to actually build much in the way of personality, all the way until a bit of a weak ending that did less to wrap things up than indicate that the whole endeavor just suddenly ran out of steam.
Like Blair Witch, it also helps that most of the movie exists without blatant, in-your-face shots of the monster--and when the real reveal comes late in the film, you’ll probably be glad that they didn’t focus much on the baddie.
Cloverfield also works better than, say, the 1998 abomination, Godzilla. In fact, Cloverfield is far more a spiritual successor to the original, 1954 Godzilla than any of that film’s sequels, but it does it on a lesser level.
The original Godzilla was a monster created from an atomic explosion--and from a country that had recently lost a war. In fact, it came less than a decade after Japan faced the reality of being on the receiving end of atomic weapons. That’s a pretty raw wound to be scratching at, and it captured a mood and a moment beyond the hilarious fun of sumo wrestlers in monster costumes that the later Godzillas became. Cloverfield is much the same: it’s hard to imagine the same movie being made in the same way on before September 11, 2001, not only because the movie references the event, but because the movie is a reflection of the national mood.
“Do you think it’s another attack?” That’s the question a voice asks after an early part of the attack. It’s in the background, it comes from one faceless woman in a crowd, and it could be easy to miss. But like some of the other touches that elevate is ever so slightly above the typical monster movie, it moves through the movie whether you notice it or not. It’s nothing so blatant or pointed as Godzilla, but it’s definitely there.
The question is, though, what is the message? What is the reflected mood? The shock of watching the initial attacks, with white smoke rushing through the streets of New York comes from the visceral attachment that the viewers make to that brutal September day; seeing the head of the Stature of Liberty crashing through the city, coming to rest facing the camera of one of our heroes is undeniably a symbol of a greater attack on the soul of the United States than a mere monster wandering around and bumping into buildings in downtown New York. And the, watching onlookers gawking and taking pictures with their cell phones is just something short of offensive.
But what does it say?
Is it meant to symbolize the greater attack on America that spawned the “Global War on Terror"--and the consequences of the US counterattacks? Or is it just the moment making an impression on something with little meaning of its own as a sort of cinematic Rorschach test that allows viewers to see the things that drift through their own minds rather than the things that were in the writer’s mind?
That’s a tough question to answer especially inasmuch as, if it’s the latter, then by definition I am impressing my own thoughts on the movie but would be unlikely to be able to see past my own view of the thing. There are some hints, though, that it was meant as just more than a big, dumb, fun movie.
Obviously, bringing in visuals that are so obviously connected to 9/11--and that early question of whether it is “another attack"--forces at least some comparison. That the soldiers are painted as decent, hard-fighting even though over-manned, and doing their best to be helpful, also takes it outside the realm of typical contemporary movies. Contemporary film allows for good soldiers on an individual level, but rarely allows the military to be a force for good. Outgunned and facing a brutal enemy, the military here is peopled by decent people doing their damnedest to save the city and the people in it.
One of the things that stuck out most, though, was a quick swipe at conspiracy theorists.
At one point, the question of conspiracy is raised--clearly a nod to the truthers amongst us. Hud, who asks the questions, is portrayed as the dimmest of the bunch; when he asks the question, his companions look at him as if he’s a loon and ask if that’s really important now? His answer is that, of course, it’s important because what else does he have to talk about?
It’s a charitable view of the truthers--a view that leaves them less foolish and gullible than scared, confused, and desperately looking for something to explain the events. What it doesn’t do, though, allow the question to be anything other than what it is: stupid and small minded. I can’t imagine that it’s a mistake that the idiot of the group is the one to jump for a conspiracy theory while the US military is fighting a terrifying enemy.
There is a lot of room for critique: the characters are disposable (proven with regularity) and fairly shallow, the ending is a sort of emotional let-down, and it is amazing how spry one character becomes after having spent most of the movie impaled on a huge rod of metal. But, really, what’s a monster movie without gigantic plot holes and an impossible premise? And, honestly, if there is a message it has been mostly concealed beneath that monster movie exterior.
But it is big, dumb fun with a compelling filmmaking style and decent performances (or, at least, not noticeably bad performances). Just don’t expect to find much meaning here.