Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Cloverfield = Atonement + Monsters

*Warning! Cloverfield, Miracle Mile, and Atonement spoilers ahead!*

Last Saturday Canyon and I paid an extortionate amount of money so that we could get motion sickness. That's right, we went to see everyone's favourite successful whipping boy, Cloverfield, and were in two minds about it. If I were to give it an overall grade, I'd give it a B, or 4 stars out of 5, or a thumb up at about a 65 degree angle. When Canyon's stomach had settled down, she came to a similar conclusion.

Sadly a lot of the things I liked most about it were the things I liked about it before I saw it: the concept, the set-up, the ambition. Watching the movie just confirmed that Drew Goddard and Matt Reeves had come up with and visualised a brilliant idea, and J.J. Abrams was a smart guy for spotting its potential and getting it made. Apart from those things, I also loved the slow open, the bleak tone, the depiction of the mass exodus and shell-shocked reaction to the invasion by the people of New York. The monster was cool, the smaller monsters were even better, and if this doesn't become a huge franchise I'll be very surprised. There were enough ideas introduced and left hanging to be fleshed out in future films, and I look forward to them. Especially the whole exploding bite victims thing. That was unnecessarily horrible, and of course, unnecessarily horrible is often a good thing in a horror movie.

However, it wasn't all good. As the always-reliable Moriarty pointed out in his excellent AICN review:

The single biggest complaint about CLOVERFIELD is that nobody likes the kids that you’re supposed to follow through the movie. I’m a little surprised at just how much everyone hates them... they didn’t strike me as “rich fucking douchebags,” as I’ve seen many talkbacks describe them. But I don’t think any of the characters are defined enough or interesting enough to really pull you through the film.

I certainly didn't hate any of the characters in the movie, but I wasn't really that concerned when any of them died. Okay, perhaps I had a moment of sadness for Hud when Marlena exploded, but it was muted as I had only a vague idea of who Hud was, having only seen him for a couple of seconds early on and then hearing T.J. Miller's voice for the rest of the movie (poor guy). Instead of feeling a strong emotion about that, I was more impressed with the way Goddard and Reeves organically introduced pacing into the movie. Hud's reaction - having to stop running for a moment to regain his wits - was a perfect moment for the audience to do the same, and these elegant pacing devices cropped up several times throughout the movie.

I think I know why the movie had very little emotional effect on me, and I'll get to that later. Despite the distance I felt from the characters, the film certainly did some things right. When Hud is blabbing about Rob's affair with Beth I was furious with him, and yet I also felt awful for him when Rob mistakenly believed he had erased the tape of his special day. It's odd, though, that I was made more anxious about that than I was by the monsters, or the action scenes (though the crowd scenes were incredibly well done and utterly convincing).

The only time moment Cloverfield really scared me on a visceral level was during the rooftop Poseidon Adventure-style rescue, when the camera catches a shot of the monster advancing down the road towards our "heroes". More than the possibility of being stomped on (surely a rather slim chance), or being attacked by spider-mite thingies (you might be able to fight it off before it bites you), the sight of the enormous creature heading towards the tilted building gave me the horrible fear. If it had hit the building, there would have been nothing they could do. It would be the end. Those moments were the most effective, and it wasn't because of the characters, who were mostly cyphers. It was the sense that you have no control over what happens to you, except that when that happens to you it probably won't have anything to do with an enormous alien.

And that, perhaps, was the point of the film, that sometimes shit really does just happen and you can't do anything about it except struggle to understand it somehow. With only a tiny amount of pre-amble and exposition (effortlessly introduced, to my extreme pleasure) we're thrust into the lives of a bunch of pretty twenty-something catalogue models and get to watch them getting picked off without learning very much about them or seeing them grow as characters. They're monster fodder for most of the movie and as such aren't really worth our attention. However, I'm not so sure the film is just the empty rollercoaster ride it seems, and might be making a more interesting point about not just narrative, but the narratives we make. I'll get to that in a moment, but first, another thing that irked me: the scary similarity to Steve De Jarnatt's lost nuclear-paranoia classic Miracle Mile.

In a garish '80s Los Angeles, Anthony Edwards accidentally gets a phone call from a soldier in a nuclear missile silo trying to get through to his mother in order to warn her of the impending apocalypse. From that moment on the movie depicts, in real time, Edwards' efforts to find his true love (Mare Winningham) and get her out of LA before the missiles destroy the city. By the time the film finishes the city has descended into chaotic panic, and as the missiles destroy the city Edwards and Winningham's efforts to flee fail, and the helicopter they are in crashes into the La Brea Tar Pits, where their bodies will be preserved forever.

In Cloverfield, Rob (played by Michael Stahl-David, who totally looks like a composite of Alias actors Michael Vartan and Bradley Cooper) heads back into the rubble-strewn centre of Manhattan to find his true love and get her out of the city, only to fail when the helicopter they are in crashes into Central Park, where they profess their love prior to being blown up by what might be a nuke, their declarations preserved on camera. I'm really not saying Drew Goddard ripped off Miracle Mile (mostly because I really respect his work and don't want to countenance the possibility that he consciously rewrote De Jarnatt's film), but the similarity is striking nevertheless.

Miracle Mile is mostly a conventional film, and as such is emotionally affecting thanks to some skillfully manipulative writing and direction by De Jarnatt. Cloverfield doesn't follow those conventional filmic rules, and as a result is less emotionally resonant for the most part. At the time I thought that was a strike against it (and certainly made me compare it negatively with Miracle Mile, which is a very moving film), but now I'm not so sure. I still very much like the finale of Cloverfield, and think it shows that Goddard and co. were trying to make a comment about how we now record our lives in an attempt to make some sense of them. Why else begin and end the film with the recording of testimonials, first as a recording of Rob's friends and family saying their goodbyes as he leaves for Japan, and later as the last memorial of two otherwise anonymous people facing death. We do these things not only to set in stone the events of our lives (much as Miracle Mile shows two characters leaving an impression on the earth in the face of enormous events), but to understand who we are in a confusing world, using digitally-enhanced hindsight to give shape to our lives.

Cloverfield mimics that confusion and amorphousness. To the characters, the narrative they thought they were in (a pretty mundane love story) turns into the worst nightmare imaginable, and for the majority of the film, while they attempt to survive and try get their heads around the catastrophic events around them, we try to make sense of what the story is. For a long time I did think it was just a gimmicky ride, but as their predicament changes, so to does the genre of the movie. At first a love story, it becomes a Gojira-style monster movie, then a traditional monster-horror movie in the subway tunnels, then a war movie as the Army attempts to help our heroes, then a disaster movie as they make their way into Beth's fallen building, and finally a tragic love story as almost everyone dies and Rob and Beth have one last moment together before being blown up in Central Park.

Just as life has no narrative form until you have a chance to look back on it, so too does Cloverfield. For the majority of the movie we are held at a remove from the events onscreen, emotionally uninvolved as the characters foolishly run around and get into scrapes. Only as the last shot on the Coney Island ride appears does the film generate any frisson, as we understand the journey the filmmakers have taken us on, and understand the heartbreaking consequences of the monster invasion.

In that sense it's reminiscent of that overrated award-baiting prestige flick Atonement, in that a large stretch of the movie is filled with events that appear flat, inexplicable, and emotionless, until the final scene reveals the secret that unlocks the meaning of the entire film. I've not read the novel, in which I'm sure this final surprise is used to explore narrative theory and the purpose and value of storytelling (much as I feel Cloverfield does, perhaps to a lesser extent), but in the movie it feels (if you're willing to be uncharitable) like little more than a twist ending, despite the efforts of Vanessa Redgrave to bring the conceit to emotional life.

The end of Cloverfield has no twist (unless you count the sight of a meteor crashing into the sea off the coast of Coney Island, which I missed), but it does finally generate an empathic connection with Beth and Rob. The contextless video-glitch "flashbacks" have, before this point, added very little to the movie, but the final glitch, with them commenting on their happy day, made me tear up. Finally they were people, and their deaths struck me as a (movie) tragedy in much the same way that Atonement's final reveal made the characters I cared little about seem worthy of my pity.

Okay, so I've talked myself into liking the film more than before. It's certainly more worthy of your time than Atonement, even though that film does explore the storytelling theme in more detail. One last thing about Cloverfield, though. I've seen that a lot of people have raged against the film online, angry that the film failed to live up to their expectations. Now, I would never argue the film is perfect. It did drag at times, and belief needed super-extra suspension throughout, and the performances were mostly forgettable (though I hope T.J. Miller gets some more work, this time in front of the camera).

However, I'm not angry at the filmmakers for not making the best film ever, and I'm certainly not angry at them for promising they would make it, because they never said that. What kind of a delusional fool claims that his or her film is totally the best thing ever? It just doesn't happen. They might express a belief that they've made a good film, but they won't expect everyone to agree. Plus, advertising is often handled by the studio, with the filmmaker having some input into the process but not having full control over it. Why blame the filmmaker for over-the-top promotional blitzes that were set in motion by the studio?

And for that matter, why blame publicists for coming up with clever ways to generate interest in movies? A lot of the time they do their job by getting the word out about new releases, but then the audience takes over from there and blows things up more. Case in point: Cloverfield had possibly the best marketing campaign I've seen since The Blair Witch Project, another film that suffered terribly at the hands of viewers who felt they were sold a lemon.

The campaigns for both movies were brilliantly innovative, using the prospective audience's interest in the subject matter to generate the hype with not really that much help from the publicists. When the Cloverfield trailer aired, it was the fanboy websites like AICN and CHUD that went nuts over the initial trailer, while the Bad Robot team actually kept the plot secret. Hence the ridiculous Cthulhu/Voltron speculation debacles that occured in the first few weeks after the film was announced.

The expectation a person has while waiting for a film is their fault and their fault alone. Hype doesn't make you expect greatness from a movie; it gives you some possibly misleading information about it that you can ignore or believe depending on how invested you want to become. It's never an accurate representation of what the movie is like, and if you haven't figured that out yet, then you can't have been watching movies that long. Believe me, I know how it is, because I get excited about movies too and go crazy when new trailers or photos appear online, but I still try to hold off on expecting the movie to live up to the speculative images in my head.

Oh sure, I still get disappointed from time to time, but it's only when talented directors mess up. My disillusionment last year over Spider-Man 3 and Eastern Promises was nothing to do with any external hype. I was just pissed because I personally expected more from Sam Raimi and David Cronenberg. Okay, so I got really upset over Superman Returns, but that was me believing the hype. It does happen, but I really hope that that was the last damn time. Stupid movie.

Anyway, sorry to end the post with some niggling. It's just a real bugbear of mine. The hype did not brainwash you! You chose to believe the film would cure cancer! If you didn't like it it has nothing to do with overhype! The hype is separate from the film! The film stands and falls on its own merits! If you didn't like it, try to figure out why instead of blaming a bunch of trailers and posters and overwrought early reviews! Exclamation points ad infinitum!

That said, ZOMGOMGOMG how incredible is Iron Man going to be!??!?!

That trailer is so awesome! It's going to be such an amazing movie. I feel it in my old bones!


R.J.P. said...

Your breakdown makes me want to see Cloverfield for a third time.

Initially, when I came into the theater at the midnight showing with the silly disposable cameras they were passing out in hand, I was afraid that I was being setup for disappointment. However, as you pointed out, the hype wasn't generated by Them, it was generated by Me and all of my friends.

Needless to say, I was not disappointed.

Admiral Neck said...

Why didn't I get a disposable camera? And why didn't Paramount stay true to the format of the film and hand out camcorders? That is just not fair.

I'm curious to see the film for a second time, now that I've gotten past my initial confused response (it's taken me days to get a bead on what I honestly thought of it). Hopefully I won't suddenly realise I was wrong and it's actually shit and nothing at all like Atonement. Sadly lack of money has stopped me, especially now that I have to save up so I can see There Will Be Buckets of Blood, The Diving Bell and the Diving Butterfly, and Jumpier.

R.J.P. said...

Yeah, I kind of "over" tapped myself out by seeing Rambo last weekend so I might not even see anything this weekend, although, spending money I'm not supposed to spend might be worth it just so I can see There Will Be Blood. What pisses me off, though, is that because of waiting so long, I'm probably going to miss out on seeing The Assassination of Jesse James... Oh well. Thank god for DVD.

Regarding Cloverfield a second time, I was actually expecting to be really bored because I don't do well with seeing movies multiple times in a theater. However, it actually turns out to be the perfect opportunity to appreciate the little things because this time, I wasn't trying to "keep up," in a manner of speaking. Albeit, I still missed whatever it was that landed in the water at the end. I couldn't even figure out what the audio clip said after the credits had finished rolling...

Admiral Neck said...

You've probably found out what the voice said if you've poked around the internet enough, but if not, from what I gather it says, "It's still alive!" Or "It's still a lion!" if you're a Voltron fan, obviously.

If you've looked around this blog, you'll see that two-thirds of us here are huge fans of Assassination of Jesse James (and Masticator may possibly love it when he gets to see it). You probably don't want to hear this while on a tight budget, but you owe it to yourself to see it on the big screen. Not only is Roger Deakins' photography deserving of the largest canvas possible, but the sound design is breathtaking. Canyon and I were lucky enough to see it on an excellent new screen in the West End, and with their top-notch sound system it was an incredibly satisfying experience. Hope that's not depressed you. Man, films are too damn good lately.