20 January 2008

Cloverfield

Cloverfield (2008)
Directed by Matt Reeves. Starring Michael Stahl-David, T. J. Miller, Jessica Lucas, Odette Yustman, Lizzy Caplan, Mike Vogel.

What kind of camera is the POV character in Cloverfield using? It’s indestructible! The military should forget about all their heavy weapons trying to halt the monster—they should just use that camera!

Tired as everyone may be of hearing about how Cloverfield mixes Godzilla and The Blair Witch Project, those two films were unambiguously on the filmmakers’s minds. The Blair Witch Project comparisons are numerous, with indentical structure and finale. The only difference is Cloverfield has a giant monster. That, to my mind, makes it the superior film.

Cloverfield is a fine, intense time in the theater. “Intense” is the operative word, since the moment the film ended someone in the back of the theater where I was seeing the film shouted “intense!” See, you don’t have to take my word for it.

Getting on to the more cerebral part of the review… Cloverfield restores some of the power and dignity to the giant monster flick that the horrendous American version of Godzilla, which has nothing to do with Godzilla in any meaningful way, utterly trashed. At their best, giant monster films combine outrageous and eye-popping fantasy excitement with a broad-use metaphor. Cloverfield is an Ishiro Honda film imagined for the world of YouTube and paranoia about urban disasters. It doesn’t harp on post-Katrina, post-SARS, and post-9/11 comparisons—that might get in the way of the B-movie enjoyment—but at least it lets you make the connections yourself if they make the film a better experience for you.

The story involving a coterie of young Mahattanites trying to survive the assault on the city by a really big nasty thing (that’s actually how the characters describe it; nobody wants to use the word “monster” for some reason) provides enough motivation to drive our heroes through the nightmare without getting sentimental or letting character moments get obtrusive. The screenplay and the performances remain invisible, and only in rare cases does the artifice of the presentation come through. The cast of unknowns helps sell the realism.

And then there's the monster. Yes, we do get to see it. Get to see it rather close, at one point. Even though shots linger on it, it’s still hard to make out its bizarre shape. It has spindly legs and an enormous tail, an all-over fleshy appearance, and a strange-shaped maw. It isn’t a awesome monster, and it lacks the beauty of many a classic kaiju, but it does manage to act pretty scary as it levels most of Manhattan. Scarier are the “lice” creatures that fall from it and which look like rejected beasties from the spider-pit sequence in Peter Jackson’s King Kong or extra-sized face-huggers from Alien. These critters appear to be a direct borrowing from The Return of Godzilla (a.k.a. Godzilla 1985), where radiated sea lice from Godzilla’s body kill the crew members of a boat that witnessed the monster’s rebirth.

Fitting its documentary approach, Cloverfield has no music score. Songs play in the background of the going-away party at the opening, but otherwise the only music runs over the end credits. But what a great piece it is! Michael Giacchino, who has collaborated before with producer J. J. Abrams and who penned the killer score for The Incredibles, delivers an old-fashioned 1950s overture (called “Roar!” in the credits) with thundering military themes and a wordless wailing female chorus. It is the most unlikely choice for a post-modern monster movie—and that’s why it works so well. Great job Michael, and I can’t wait to hear what you do for Star Trek in December. (Update: Uh, make that next summer. And his score is a major disappointment.)

A special warning: If you have a problem with motion sickness, you might want to skip the theatrical showings and wait for the DVD. That way you can hurl in the privacy of your own home… because this movie will make you sick from the uncontrolled camera movements.

Although this “leaked” image below of the monster is a hoax (and was specifically revealed as such before the movie opened), I would just like to say how cool I think it looks. It’s a perfect homage to a classic Japanese “suitmation” monster, and I would love to see this thing appear in a movie as well. Maybe in a Cloverfield sequel, the two monsters get in a great kaiju smack-down?