Candid Gamera

Cloverfield_posterI hope nobody else has used that title to talk about Cloverfield, because I’m inordinately proud of it.

This movie is definitely one that benefits from knowing as little as possible about it going in, so if you’re interested in it, I recommend seeing it soon and avoiding trailers and reviews. I’ll just say that it’s excellent, I was literally biting my nails and on the edge of my seat (seriously!) for most of it, and I’m already interested in seeing it again. And there is something at the end of the credits, but it’s not all that great, and probably not worth waiting for.

Now stop reading unless you’ve either already seen it, or are never going to.

I once read an interview with J.J. Abrams where he described “Alias” as “what would happen if ‘Felicity’ became a spy?” Cloverfield feels like what would happen if Felicity’s going-away party were interrupted by a late 50’s/early 60’s-style monster movie. I’d held off reading anything about the movie before I saw it, but an article in the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly makes the movie even more impressive — they intended to do a movie with the same sensibility as those old monster movies, and I think they nailed it. It completely delivers on the promise of the teaser trailer, and it turned out to be the movie I was hoping that The Host was going to be.

The end result is a movie that feels gleefully old-school, but told in a modern way. It hardly ever lets up, it focuses squarely on the action and horror, and most importantly, it never descends into camp or self-referential irony.

Because the movie’s based so heavily on a gimmick — all the footage is supposedly from the main character’s camcorder — it never really works as “cinéma-vérité”. You’re always made aware that this is a movie. It’s not found footage, and it’s not a self-important statement, either; it’s all about watching a monster tearing up a city and scaring the hell out of people.

You could pick several scenes out of Children of Men, for example, and say that it’s doing the same kind of thing as Cloverfield — long POV shots of characters in the midst of panic and destruction — but the end result is different. Children of Men is looking for meaning in what’s going on; Cloverfield is only about that carnival-ride feeling of tension and dread and horror.

That layer of artifice is important, because it strips away your desire to over-think the movie and encourages you to take it at face value. The scary moments are genuinely scary, and the moments of comic relief (surprisingly, there are several) are genuinely funny. The characters are real enough that you’re invested in what happens to them, but they’re also kept to their roles (the main guy, the girlfriend, the buddy, the brother, etc), staying just shy of completely realistic, so that the movie doesn’t come across as purely sadistic when they’re killed off. And in a monster movie, you have to kill off characters.

Yes, there are a couple of moments relatively early in Cloverfield that are uncomfortably jarring — a shot of a New York skyscraper collapsing in the distance, and a dust cloud barreling down a New York street, covering dazed people in ash and soot. And just as you’re in danger of being knocked back into reality, the movie pulls you back into its fiction, reminding you that this is a movie about fake people and that you know you’ve gotta see what happens next.

Stephanie Zacharek of Salon disagreed with that take. I usually agree with her reviews so much that it’s eerie, but I think she completely missed the point of Cloverfield. I disagree with just about every paragraph of her review, but in particular with her invoking the 9/11 sensitivity clause. She claims “I’m not saying those images should never be used dramatically in any way,” but that is exactly what she’s saying.

She asks, “If 1950s horror films were really about the communist threat, as we’re constantly and needlessly reminded by film scholars, then why can’t modern horror films mirror our own fears about real-life terrorism?” They can, but why should they be required to? What gives any reviewer the right to fault a movie for not taking it upon itself to be The Film That Will Cleanse the Horror of 9/11 From Our Souls?

Saying that 50s horror movies were about the threat of communism is something that people say when they have to justify spending so many years in school getting a cinema studies degree. It was an influence, sure, just as 9/11 was an influence on Cloverfield. But I will guarantee you that the people making the monster movies that inspired Cloverfield weren’t thinking about making sociopolitical culture statement, but making an audience scared witless. It’s all about the energy of suspense, that burst of adrenaline, that feeling that your entire body is clenched, all while knowing in the back of your mind that you’re completely safe.

When you see Godzilla stomp on an office building, you don’t stop to mourn all the workers who were trapped inside. And the purpose of Cloverfield is right there in its marketing material, and in the movie still at the top of Zacharek’s review: it’s the decapitated Statue of Liberty. This isn’t a statement, or some elegy on the loss of liberty or the nature of terrorism. This is a movie about a monster blowing shit up and scaring the hell out of you.

It’s a fine line to walk, between making something so crass and meaningless that it turns into the slasher films of the 1980s; or so cruel and sadistic that it turns into the torture porn movies of the 2000s. What’s amazing to me is that Cloverfield hits all the right notes, and delivers on what it promises: genuine excitement from a movie.

I’m also impressed with how much they accomplished while always staying true to the central gimmick. It’s difficult enough to conceive of a movie like this that never stops with the handheld camera, that still gives enough of a pay-off on the monster scenes, and doesn’t feel like an impossibly implausible cop-out. The fact that they did all that, and found a way to use flashbacks to develop an underlying storyline, is just genius.

The last thing I noticed about the movie is just how much and how well videogames have leaked into moviemaking. There were several moments where I wanted to scream at the characters to hit the QuickSave button, because they were about to do something dangerous. There were several more scenes that deliver on tension and immersion in a way I always thought only a first-person shooter could.

And I found this audio clip linked from a message board online; it’s got the bit that plays at the very end of the end credits.

5 thoughts on “Candid Gamera”

  1. There’s tons of talk about how Cloverfield is a return to 50s/60s monster movies, and that’s fair and good, but I think a more accurate (if equally played out) analogy would be HP Lovecraft’s short stories. There are enough parallels in presentation and structure between those old stories and Cloverfield that if Lovecraft was alive he would probably be suing (or collecting royalties). The classic monster movies of the 50s/60s almost always somehow managed to wedge in some scientists or government agents who could let you know what was happening, possibly study the monster and figure out its Achilles’ heel, phone the boys in Washington, or whatever. Even the ones which never cut away from the stories of a select few people generally try to explain something about what’s going on. Cloverfield was just a story of some guys who encounter some crazy wholly unexplained, exaggeratedly-out-of-context (and preferably tentacley) creature, which just boggles their mind and makes them run away wildly, and then ends. That’s basically any Lovecraft story, which only start to have some sort of cohesive explanation after a sizable handful of them, leaning on the later stories, are read. Lovecraft stories’ tendencies to add credibility to the world by including mentions or excerpts from science journals, alluding to vague past events which received “moderate coverage” in regional newspapers, etc, are nearly mirrored in the blips of media coverage we flash by in Cloverfield, and the “this is the modern way of documenting things and making people believe they’re credible” vibe is sort of slapped in your face with all the shots of people using their cell phones and digital cameras to snap shots of everything and each other throughout the first act. Also, Lovecraft short stories are nearly always presented as artifacts – an excerpt from someone’s personal journal, a collection of letters written to an associate, transcriptions read to someone as a last ditch effort to get the story out.

    I’m not going anywhere in particular with this… and as mentioned earlier, Lovecraft is pretty super-saturated, especially on the Internet, but the parallels between Cloverfield and Lovecraft’s short stories were so strong when I was watching the movie that it was kind of ridiculous. I hope (and generally assume) it was deliberate, as the tone and structure of the story, and even more specific stuff like the nature and (lack of) origin of the monster seem to have come straight off the page as much as (if more than) off the screen.

  2. Yeah that post definitely went nowhere, re-reading it (sorry about that), but it was all that was going through my head when watching the movie, and I needed to barf it out somewhere.

  3. No, I think the Lovecraft influence is most definitely there — they’ve got a massive tentacle taking out the Brooklyn Bridge, after all. But I think it’s not direct, but indirectly filtered through the last 70 years of pop culture.

    For one thing, the filmmakers have said explicitly that they were making their own version of a 50s monster movie. But one of the things I like so much about Cloverfield is that it’s not just a remake or an update or a “re-imagining,” but that they were going for the FEEL of those movies. As told by people who’d SEEN those movies and everything that’s happened in the years since.

    But those movies themselves were influenced by Lovecraft to some degree — which is how I think Cloverfield gets all the good bits of post-modernism without being all ironic and self-important. As you already said, Lovecraft’s stories were all about unspeakably horrible things that were OUT THERE and we were powerless to defeat them or even LOOK at them for too long. Monster movies took that aspect, and then filtered that through the optimism of the 50s — you get all the excitement and danger of the horrible monster, plus the promise that technology is going to find some way to beat it.

    Cloverfield has all those elements of the 50s monster movies: you’ve got a bland protagonist and love interest, not exactly likeable but not unlikeable, either. You’ve got the monster stomping on buildings. You’ve got the military’s ineffective initial response. And then they add elements of the later zombie movies, and the whole paranoia about the government and the suspicion that they know more than they’re letting on (“She’s been bitten!”).

    You’re totally right that the way it’s told (as a “found document”) feels like a Lovecraft story, but I think the psychology is completely different. It’s more a semi-jaded, self-absorbed 2000s take on it than anything else. When they’re describing the monster, they casually say something like “It’s something terrible” and then “Also terrible.” They don’t think in terms of a Lovecraft story, that sense of “what does this mean in terms of our existence in the black void?” but “This sucks, how do I get to my girlfriend?”

    And the ending might SEEM nihilistic and hopeless as a Lovecraft story, but I thought it was as “nice” as the cynicism of 2007 will let you get away with without screaming “cop-out!!!” It’s our equivalent of the two leads hugging each other as they look out on the burned out husk of the monster, contemplating where it could have come from. They found each other! And the last shots aren’t of her crying “why is this happening?!?” (which would be the last line of the Lovecraft story), but of her saying, “I had a good day.”

  4. Well, I haven’t used that title to talk about Cloverfield, but I suppose I don’t mind my online nickname being appropriated for a humorous title. 😉

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