The Theory of Chaos

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW - Cloverfield

Full review behind the jump


: Matt Reeves
: Drew Goddard
: J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk
: Michael Stahl-David, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman, T.J. Miller

understands sensation as well as any movie I’ve seen recently. And it has to, since that is the alpha and the omega of what it has to offer. It is a parade of the primal – shock, terror, dread, confusion, dizzying heights, noises in the dark, and the awe of a threat so massive it obliterates one of the two options in the fight-or-flight response. And in that carnival spook-house way it is a triumph.

It is also a rather brilliantly-conceived technical stunt, marrying the low-grade aesthetic of
The Blair Witch Project’s meta-camerawork with the modern ability of digital effects to live in plain sight. We do live in an era where shaky home movies have captured sights beyond anything we would have imagined seeing in the real world, and in exploiting this familiarity with grainy footage of cataclysm, the filmmakers clearly know which buttons to press.

But is there any idea this all is in service of beyond a street-level re-imagining of some very old movie concepts? Could
Cloverfield do more than it does? Is it cause to fault it that it could, but doesn’t?

It is all-but-assured by now that you have a general idea of what is wreaking havoc in New York City in this picture, but I’ll try to be artful about it nonetheless, since the movie’s way of teasing you with progressive revelations of detail is one of its strongest thrusts. It’s presented a single piece of catalogued evidence – the contents of a camcorder memory chip found by the U.S. Army “in the area formerly known as Central Park”. That’s a pretty fair sign that Rob’s going-away party isn’t going to end well.

Rob (Michael Stahl-David) is – well, I wish I could tell you more about who Rob is, but he and the other main characters are painted in colors so primary that it scarcely matters they have names. He is a handsome modern urban dweller of the young and scruffy variety, he is on his way to Japan for work, he is pining over his long-time platonic girl-mate Beth (Odette Yustman), who recently cancelled their platonicism. He has a brother (Mike Vogel), the brother has a girlfriend (Jessica Lucas), they have an exasperating goofball buddy named Hud (T.J. Miller) filming the party, and Hud is flirting awkwardly with approachable oddball Marlena (Lizzy Caplan).

That is all ye know about these characters, and all ye need know. When catastrophe strikes, Hud dutifully keeps the camera off himself and on his prettier co-stars as they dash from one terror to the next in the night streets; Rob leading them in a quest to rescue Beth from her battered high-rise. I care about this couple only so much as they both seem attractive, clean, and decent. No matter – Rob’s determination to get to her, and his willingness to put his friends’ lives in peril by letting them tag along on a cross-town hike through a war zone, is what gets us into the action, and that’s what we are here to see.

What we do see is impressively realized; able to produce both creeping disgust in a darkened tunnel (just what is that terrible, chattering sound?) as well as the large-scale disasters like the frequently-marketed image of the decapitated Statue of Liberty. The movie’s cleverest touch shows the New Yorkers, within moments of Lady Liberty’s giant head skidding down their block, shuffling dazedly towards it with their cell phone cameras held in front of them like talismans. In a movie that so thoroughly amalgamates the contemporary visual vocabulary of our real-life mass traumas then does little more than play a game of “I Spy” with them between running and screaming, it is the closest feint towards a statement about our transformation into dulled and desensitized consumers of strife.

Much of the time what hobbles Cloverfield is not its stylistic daring, but its absolutely mechanical approach to everything else. The image may feign rough immediacy but it’s just a façade, behind it this movie is as squared-off as Eastern Bloc architecture. After a few behavior-based laugh moments at the party, character and dialogue in Drew Goddard’s screenplay are effectively sandblasted of all distinguishing details. Our lead group is whittled away in the traditional order, and you could distribute Bingo cards with the collected interjections of Event Movie cliché: “Oh my God!”, “What is THAT?!”, et al.

As persistently unsteady as “Hud” is with the camera, he always manages to get what needs to be in or out of the frame for maximum jolt, it always manages to show just a little bit more of that mythic “Cloverfield” as we near the final reel. Michael Bonvillain, veteran of producer J.J. Abrams’ TV shows like Lost and Alias, is the movie’s cinematographer, and must be commended for how ingeniously he’s able to stage and capture the necessary actions and details of each scene in unrelentingly long takes, with none of the traditional angles and coverage of film grammar.

But these are just the trappings of Cloverfield, the daring new evening gown on a most familiar guest. As flashy as its presentation is (and as nausea-inducing on the big-screen for those of fragile equilibriums), this is still a throwback. A simple and ruthlessly-effective one, but a throwback still. In the end I cannot truly condemn it for that – I don’t imagine that the filmmakers’ ambition exceeded what I’m describing. On their own terms, they have pulled one off.


  • Hud did manage to one-up John McClane. Jumping off an exploding roof with a firehouse attached to your waist is one thing, ascending the stairs of a slowly-collapsing building and leaping on to the roof of an adjacent building while not dropping your video camera is another. And, in a delightful change of pace from "War of the Worlds" and "Independence Day", the creature in question did not in any way resemble an entree from a seafood menu.

    By Anonymous Mike De Luca, at 5:40 PM  

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