Saturday, January 19, 2008

Love Is a Battlefield

Director: Matt Reeves
Writer: Drew Goddard

*** Contains Spoilers ***

If I were running for my life, would I bother to continue videotaping the horrors all around me? That thought occurred to me about an hour into Cloverfield, the Matt Reeves directed monster film just unleashed from the very prolific stable of J.J Abrams (Lost and the upcoming Star Trek movie).

Of course, there are two very obvious responses to this quip.

One, why nitpick the technicalities of a movie about a GIANT MONSTER ATTACKING NEW YORK?

Secondly, if the person working the video camera did stop tape each time something bad happened, Cloverfield would basically be a series of jump cuts that all start with the characters saying "Whew, that was a close one!"

This update of the Godzilla story employs the same "home video" technique used in The Blair Witch Project and strikes a definite post 9/11 tone.

If Blair Witch ended up being about finding a lost map, Cloverfield is REALLY about finding love (yes, really). More on that later.

Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), is leaving New York for a new job in Japan. His brother, Jason (Mike Vogel) and Jason's girlfriend, Lily Ford (Jessica Lucas), throw Rob a surprise going away party. To "document" the event, Jason is recording it using Rob's video camera.

This is established right at the beginning in a very Michael Crichton-ish "play it straight" opening disclaimer:
Multiple sightings of case designate "Cloverfield" camera retrieve at incident site U.S. 447 area formerly known as "Central Park"
I've been a sucker for movies that employ a pseudo-documentary style to tell their story ever since I saw Orson Welles spoof "News on the March" in Citizen Kane.

The device ultimately broke down for me in The Blair Witch Project. After a promising first half, the filmmakers, like the characters, didn't have anywhere to go. Most of the time we see them firing f-bombs at each other while they complain about being lost (according to IMDB, the film used the word "fuck" 133 times).

I'm probably in the minority on this, but the payoff at the end (or lack thereof) where we NEVER see the Blair Witch was a stunning disappointment.

So, I went into Cloverfield slightly on guard. The high volume of viral marketing hype I saw leading up to movie's release didn't help.

To paraphrase Barry Goldwater: "exuberance in the promotion of a monster flick is no vice, and restraint in the use of viral marketing no virtue."

I was happy to discover that Cloverfield basically lived up to that hype. The home movie device worked just fine. The cinematographers mercifully kept things a bit smoother than their Blair Witch counterparts to help cut down on the motion sickness. At a relatively short eighty-four minutes, it's ends before the audience can grow tired of the hand held video cam gimmick.

Scenes are staged and edited to cleverly introduce and delineate each of the major characters, yet maintain the "shot as it's happening" illusion.

My original complaint is still somewhat valid. There are many points in Cloverfield where it just wouldn't make sense for someone to keep taping. Then again, that happens every week on The Office and we accept that breaking of the established rules for the sake of story telling efficiency.
We learn early on that by going to Japan, Rob is leaving behind his recently discovered soul mate, Beth McIntyre (Odette Yustman). The other couple, Jason and Lily, are clearly IN love and their relationship is portrayed in a mature and interesting manner (especially for a "big" film). To round off the cast, Hud Platt (T.J. Miller) is the dumb but lovable sidekick and Marlena Diamond (Lizzy Caplan) epitomizes the expression "always a bridesmaid, but never a bride."
After Rob and Beth seem to have parted on bad terms and will realize that they'll never to see each other again, all hell brakes loose.

Various theories are bandied about to explain exactly what the monster is. Alien, prehistoric creature, government creation are discussed throughout the film.

I'd argue on a symbolic level that the monster, like the ID creature from Forbidden Planet, was created in Rob's head as a bitter response to the city and the girl he's leaving behind. If he can't have her, no one can. What can be more analogous of this than the decapitation of the Statue of Liberty (a female) who's severed head lands conveniently in front of Rob's apartment. This happens immediately after the scene where he has figuratively taken Beth's head off with a malicious remark.

Of course, it doesn't really matter what the monster is. The story stands on it's own as a straight forward documentation of events or allows the viewer to look a bit deeper if they choose to.

While crossing the Brooklyn Bridge with other city refuges seeking safety, Rob takes a cellphone call from Beth. She's trapped in her apartment, helplessly pinned to the floor by wreckage (one could almost say she's stuck alone in city).

Cloverfield employs a really neat piece of exposition involving the video camera. Because Jason didn't change the tape, the events are being recorded over material previously shot by Rob. Throughout the film we see strategically placed bits of that previous footage showing Beth and Rob on a better day. Though lasting for only seconds at a time, these glimpses speak volumes and sketch out a nice backstory for their relationship.

Had Cloverfield been shot in a more conventional manner, the story might feel melodramatic. Certainly, MORE attention would be paid to the monster. While the filmmakers on Blair Witch decided to NEVER show the title character because (in THEIR opinion) this made her scarier, Cloverfield's monster is shown. But, like the creature in Alien, we never get a really GOOD look at it until the very end. And even then, I'm still not sure EXACTLY what the thing looked like.

I won't reveal TOO much more of the plot, but a story that's told through a video camera found at the scene of a major disaster can't end well.

Suffice to say, Cloverfield's cast each meets a fate that's slyly appropriate for their character. For instance, Marlene, who always seems to make bad decisions and often over-indulges, has an explosively tumescent death scene.

Just as the Brooklyn Bridge phone call started Rob on his quest for Beth, a Central Park bridge would seem to a fitting site for the end of it. I could conclude (with a slight groan) that this is an obvious warning against the dangers of burning one's bridges.

However, the film seems to leave some room for hope.

In fact, according to a Yahoo movie site:
...Director Matt Reeves has stated that if they do a sequel, it might take place during the same monster attack, but seen from another camera.
Of course, that could be more hype. But, I like hype when it works.

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