05 February 2008


I wonder if the found footage/shaky cam sub-genre of film will branch out from witches and monsters to include an actual domestic-themed "home" movie. But then I suppose no one would care to watch meandering stories of dysfunctional families. Oh wait, Little Miss Sunshine happened.

Anyway, 1-18-08 has finally delivered the film initially code named "Cloverfield" and shot under the names "Slusho" and "Cheese," and finally released as... Cloverfield. It follows through on the cryptic, gripping teaser trailer that promised a disaster/monster movie told from the point of view of the man (or Abercrombie & Fitch model) on the street.

It reinvents the genre in such a simple way that the film has an immediacy lacking in the likes of bloated behemoths like Godzilla (1998) or even the big event movie that carried Cloverfield's teaser trailer, Transformers. All the cheesy artifice that plagues these movies -- the military officers and government officials with their needless explanations, the interminable "something strange is going on" sequences followed by the "this can't be happening!" sequences -- all of that melts away. If you're someone who demands to know what this monster is and where it came from, you're going to be disappointed. This is a monster movie boiled down to the essence of what we all truly want: people running from something scary. It's surprising how spine-tingling the appearance of stealth bombers and machine guns can be when their arrival is a signal of danger, and not a precursor to more needless plot.

However, one thing Cloverfield doesn't reinvent is melodrama. Fans of JJ Abrams and his gang from their work on Alias and Lost will know they have a deft way with banter and group dynamics. Their characters are always endearing even if they're not terribly interesting (save for the notoriously inane Nikki and Paulo from Lost). The film takes a healthy amount of time to set up Rob, a young man who's childhood friendship with Beth has finally turned into romance on the eve of his career taking off. Unfortunately, the characters that end up together for the majority of the film are a hodgepodge bunch. While I applaud the filmmakers' willingness to kill characters, we end up with a group that lacks much chemistry.

What I especially was disappointed with was the character of Hud, who's basically the cameraman. He is Rob's awkward friend, saddled with the job of taping well wishes and turning it into a chance to hit on a girl. He easily could have been the voice of the audience, but instead he becomes a punchline, uttering some overtly obvious lines for the sake of humor. It's not that the character is dull or poorly written (his musings in the subway tunnel are hilarious), it's that the approach of telling the entire film through one single camera creates opportunities that are missed. The film could have subverted even more genre conventions by deliberately toying with the point of view or having Hud deliver more biting coments, but instead it opts for long, motion sickness-inducing takes. There's a lot of shaky cam for the sake of shaky cam, which is especially frustrating during the quiet moments. And there are moments with the monster when Hud points the camera at his friends, and instead of screaming at the stupid characters to run, the audience screams at the stupid characters to point the damn camera at the monster.

But here I am, after the fact, criticizing a fresh and inventive film for not being inventive enough. Cloverfield is undeniably involving, a special effects spectacular that you experience and not just observe. The standard built-in features of the camera (the light, the nightvision) are used to terrifying effect, and the approach creates startling moments that simply aren't possible in a conventionally shot film. The mere sound of the creature is terrifying because the camera could whip around and suddenly find it breathing down the characters' necks.

Even Rob's melodramatic motivation, which I didn't completely buy into amidst all the chaos, pays off in the end in a surprisingly poignant climax. It's icing on the cake, really, because at the end of the day the characters don't really matter, anyway. Cloverfield's approach is to trim the fat and make the audience an active participant. The point is to take part in this visceral, frightening roller coaster experience, and it works. Sure, you may laugh about the experience once the adrenaline has left your body, but you'll probably want to get on again afterwards.

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