21 January 2008

Movielog, Cloverfield

Cloverfield, 2008
Written by Drew Goddard
Directed by Matt Reeves
84 minutes

Part I: Why You Should Get Your Ass to Go See Cloverfield, if You Haven't Already Done So.

If you haven't seen the ads for Cloverfield (and if you haven't, you probably don't have an internet connection, so how are you reading this?), here's the quick summary: a bunch of rich twentysomethings in New York are hanging out at a party, doing the things that rich kids at a party do, when something happens. A rumble. Then the power flickers. An earthquake? Someone turns on CNN (isn't that what we'd all do?) and it turns out there's an overturned oil tanker in the harbor. Explosions happen outside, everyone rushes downstairs and...

Well, okay, it's a monster movie. Something giant, mean, and angry invades New York City, and we see the whole thing from the ground-level, through the eyes of a single videocamera found in Central Park.

Let me back up. The rich twentysomethings are all played by nobodies. The main character is Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who just got a job in Japan (!!!) and is the reason everybody's together in the first place is to give him a going-away party. There's also Beth (Odette Yustman), who's his maybe-girlfriend, his brother Jason (Mike Vogel), who's in love with Lily (Jessica Lucas), and Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), who just showed up at the party on the way to meet some other friends of hers. This is all established through the first-person perspective of Hud (T.J. Miller), who carries a videocamera at Lily's insistence to do "testimonials" at the party, and who seems to be a basic do-nothing layabout, but who is also Rob's best friend.

And those are the people who will be our protagonists through the film. When the monster hits, some of them will be killed, some will survive, and everything will be seen through Hud's camera. The conceit of the film is that the camera was discovered in the wreckage of Central Park, a fact which does not bode well for our heroes. The first rumblings occur at approximately eighteen minutes into the film, and for the rest of the eighty-four minute running time the film is terrifying, tightly-woven and desperately-paced. When this film works, it works, and there were quite a few moments in which I realized by fingers were numb, my body reacting as pure adrenaline coursed through me.

My body also unfortunatey reacted by getting nauseated, as the "shaky-cam" conceit began to wear on me after a while. It's a good thing this film is short, because while it is compelling throughout, around the hour-mark I was starting to check the time to make sure I could make it through the whole thing. I'm usually pretty sturdy, but this flick definitely made me wish for a bit of a steadier hand from the cameraman.

There were some rumors early on that you'd never get to see the monster in the flick, which isn't true. After an hour or so of destruction, you start to get clearer looks at the monster, and at the very end you get an actual clean, wide shot. "Lovecraftian" is one of the adjectives I've seen the describe it, and that's pretty apt. It's a nightmare, unlike anything else we've seen in this kind of movie, and very difficult to describe.

(Of course, the biologist in me pipes up to say that this kind of creature is also pretty much completely impossible, given the blood-flow requirements, but that's just a detail....)

The monster's path of destruction is impressive, and it even has smaller lice-like creatures that leave its body and scurry about causing even more havoc, but two of the best moments are quiet ones. In one scene about twenty minutes after the creature is sighted, the heroes are in a subway station, catching their breath and deciding on their next course of action. A cell ringtone is heard. It's Rob's. He picks it up, steps away from the camera... "Hey mom, yeah, I'm okay..." and then gives her the kind of news no son should ever have to give to his mother.

The other is more subtle, and may reflect my own perspective on seeing the film more than anything directly on screen. The "plot" of the film, besides the simple fact of the monster attack, is Rob's desire to go find Beth and get her to safety. She left the party early, the two of them were upset at each other, and she calls Rob sobbing, obviously in pain, dying. Rob has a choice -- he can either follow the crowd being led by the army out of the city and to safety, or he can go back into the area where the monster is and save the woman he loves.

The reason this was effective for me is the performance. Stahl-David somehow made me question whether Rob's desire to save Beth was for the stated reason, i.e. in the wake of disaster and tragedy seeing what was really important to him, or the flipside: in the wake of the terrifying reality of the monster, was he simply denying the reality of the situation and heading into certain doom out of abject terror? In short, was he realizing what was really important in his life, or was he denying the importance of his life in the pursuit of a fantasy of being the hero to someone who almost certainly wouldn't even be alive to be heroically rescued?

At this point I'm going to stop with this review. There's a lot more to say, but I'll put it up in another post tomorrow or the next day. It'll talk about some of the details of the structure of the film, where I think it stands in regards to other films, and will contain more spoilers than this review has. This is a very good film, and I think it should make plenty of money, but some of the execution deserves further comment, so I'll post some more tomorrow.

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