Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Rawr! (do not read if you have not seen Cloverfield)

Here are some things I really liked about Cloverfield:

It's short, and it cuts out all that crappy character development and hugging and learning that really messes up otherwise perfectly good monster movies.

It's loud enough all the way through that even if people are talking in the cinema, you can't hear them.

It's very exciting and genuinely bloody scary. It's also kind of sad. The party scene at the beginning is only short, but it's well written and well acted enough that you accept the basic niceness of the characters. Also, the fact that Robert goes through all that stuff to get to Beth makes you think that maybe, just maybe, they might get away with it, although you know they won't, because of the movie you're watching.

I also love the modernity of it. In the early days of movies, certain signifiers had to be included in order to make films easier for people to follow. If someone was leaving one location to go to another, you would have to see them leave, then see them travel, then see them arrive, because otherwise the audience would be confused about where it was or what was going on. The increased sophistication of audiences is something that Abrams's team has played with in their major TV shows: in Alias, they switched from one place to another with very little explanation of what was going on a lot of the time; in Lost, they switch between the present, the past, and the future with very little warning; in both cases, they simply rely on the audience to keep up or not care that they can't keep up. Cloverfield is the same. Why is there a monster? Don't know don't care. Where did all the other people from the party go? Don't know don't care. How did they get off the Brooklyn Bridge so fast, considering it looked so crowded? Don't know don't... actually, Mister Monkey did wonder about that a little bit.

What they've done is create the spine of a story, and rather than flesh it out themselves, they're going to let everyone who comes along later do that. In a similar fashion to the Max Brooks zombie books, I'm sure there'll be a massive outpouring of Cloverfield spinoff projects that will show up everywhere. It could be really good.

They also resisted the urge to throw in some monster movie tropes, despite setting the scene for them so clearly. Listing building with gaping open windows looking down toward the ground? Surely a great excuse for a fire, or rescuing a child, or a puppy. But there was nothing. Scrambling across the roof with the monster only blocks away? Surely someone is going to end up dangling off the building in a moment or two. Nope. No time, no time.

Also, some critics have complained about it playing on people's memories of 9/11 by using the images of frightened New Yorkers, covered in dust and milling about, as part of its scare tactics. But isn't that kind of what a good monster movie is supposed to do?

Here are some things I didn't really like about it:

The camerawork did give me the nausea a little bit (although that was maybe a function of the enormous, delicious, and hastily eaten Chinese meal that took place beforehand).

I couldn't understand why, the instant the monster hove into view, the women all turned into useless eejits while the men (one of whom, let's not forget, had been in love with the same woman for years and years and never managed to cowboy up and do anything about it) suddenly became all decisive and brave. Other people also have some race issues with the film (where are all the black people at? Oh, they're looting the electronics store), so maybe the movie could have less hidebound in both of those directions.

Sadly, I probably don't ever need to see it again, except out of pure academic interest. But it was a really enjoyable experience. I thoroughly appreciated the way they ended it with the scenes at Coney Island as well, given that the film is more like a fairground ride than anything else.


Ray said...

have you read any of the wikipedia/web teaser stuff yet?

Andrew Farrell said...

My only original thought on this is re: the niceness of the people, which is that it's a canny move giving the camera to the guy who is an bit of a dick, as he can basically be properly invisible because no-one actually listens to a word he says (due to him being a dick).

Also I didn't see any there as basically nice in any way shape or form, but that may just be me and New Yorkers.

I don't know that the modernity is all that modern - it's twenty years since William Goldman was telling screenwriters that they should on no account take the time to show someone parking a car, just start the scene when the story starts. I did like the modernity of the assembled partygoers immediately videophoning the Statue of Liberty head.

I also like the fact that it was (or looked like, which is even cleverer) just one long realtime take, which is why I was annoyed that they got back from the listing building to the copter in about a minute.

One of the black people is the only protagonist who survives!

I know what you mean about the avoidance of tropes and how it made it feel fresh: when the monster doesn't know that it's in a monster movie, that's pretty cool.

Also I think the reason that some people don't like it is that it is 91,100. The World Trade Centre is still known by that name even though there's nothing there, but this is something that so fucked up NYC that Central Park is now "incident site #476". So it's suggesting that 9/11 is not uniquely special and magic, which annoys people (largely those that should be annoyed).

I really enjoy your movie reviews, they give me a lot to think about.

Trish Byrne said...

I am interested in your idea that Hud was a dick. He just seemed like some bloke to me, who maybe said a couple of inappropriate things at weird times and maybe doesn't give people the privacy they might like.

I thought the people seemed nice, although it should be pointed out that I am mostly comparing them to people in other recent monster movies, particularly those by Devlin and Emmerich, where the people are all so punchable that it seems totally unbelievable that anyone would go back anywhere to save any of their crappy lives.

>>it's twenty years since William Goldman was telling screenwriters that they should on no account take the time to show someone parking a car, just start the scene when the story starts.<<

Right, but people do still have certain expectations when it comes to movies and television shows, about how the narrative will flow and how slowly or quickly events might unfold, and it is possible to create a coherent movie without them because people take certain things on faith. As recently as Spielberg's War of the Worlds, for example, there had to be a scene in a monster movie where you learned the monster's origin. There's nothing like that here because it's not important.

>>have you read any of the wikipedia/web teaser stuff yet?<<

Not yet, no. I will now, though.

>>that it is 91,100. The World Trade Centre is still known by that name even though there's nothing there, but this is something that so fucked up NYC that Central Park is now "incident site #476".<<

Ooh, good point. You're right, that does have a beautiful awfulness to it. Also, if you are one of those people who is a little nauseated by the film, it provides you with a handy reference point. When they reach Central Park, you know it's almost over.

ian said...

what I liked about the party scene is that I got sufficiently involved with what was going on that I forgot that something really bad was going to happen. I also became sufficiently fond of the characters that I became grumpy once I thought "I bet they'll start being killed off one by one now".

The race thing - meh. Having the looters all be black is better than having them be one of those amazingly ethnically integrated gangs you get in films.

Ray said...

Oh, oh, oh - speaking of monster movies that avoid the usual tropes, you should watch The Host. It's Godzilla meets Little Miss Sunshine!

(Okay, it actually has very little in common with Godzilla)

Incidentally, I didn't think of Cloverfield as happening in realtime. The party -> the bridge seemed like a substantial jump in time, and after that I assumed there would be gaps.

Trish Byrne said...

Oh, I didn't like [i]The Host[/i] at all, beyond the first half an hour. I got the distinct impression that there was some huge allegory of Korean society going on there that I didn't understand.

That said, it does have one of the best first half hours of monster movie fun ever.

>>Having the looters all be black is better than having them be one of those amazingly ethnically integrated gangs you get in films.<<

The funny thing is, according to some blog somewhere, written by a black person, the gang of looters isn't all black. Apparently only two of the faces you see are black; one is white, and the rest are hooded and seen only from behind. So the whole debate seems strange to me.

If I was a proper blogger I would have links to all these things, but I'm not so I don't.

Big Boss said...

Yeah, I kind of got really bored with The Host too. Partly I just didn't care about any of the characters except the kid and partly because I got the same impression as Trish that it was trying hard to tell me about Korean society. Not that such a thing isn't interesting but I would rather just see a monster movie.

Cloverfield is definitely in jump-cut. There are a lot of places where clearly a lot of time is cut out. My thinking about the bridge scene was that I couldn't see how you could be on the mid-river side of any of the pylons and survive the severing of the support cables. Surely the pylons would collapse really quickly with the removal of tension on one side. The film deals with that by cutting straight to them being on the island again. Which seems really smart to me.

Andrew Farrell said...

But surely the gang of looters isn't a gang, just some looters? Also if you think there aren't any mixed- race gangs, come hang around Mile End for a bit.

Trish Byrne said...

I agree.

Although, if they were an actual organized New York gang, my previous experience of film and television suggests that they would be predominantly one colour or another.

Nevertheless, I agree that they probably are just random looters, and the fact that not all of them are black anyhow means that the "the only black people in the film are negatively portrayed" argument is slightly askew.