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.