Most monster or disaster films tend to have a story scale about the size of Godzilla himself. They chronicle their stories on the extreme macro level—from the perspective of scientists uncovering the origins of the situation, of military officers debating response strategy, of political leaders being briefed, and of the hero saving the day. You're the omniscient viewer seeing all sides.
Meanwhile, random extras scream and run while buildings topple and landmarks explode.
In contrast, Cloverfield could exist within one of those giant, multi-dimensional Godzilla-type movies. You'd just have to give a video camera to a random running-and-screaming extra. That guy doesn't know about any scientists. He doesn't know if this is only happening in his city. He doesn't even know what is happening to his city. He doesn't know what's doing it—or where it came from. He doesn't really care. He just wants to survive.
By filming a normally grand-scaled monster movie with the intimate and limited viewpoint of The Blair Witch Project, this J. J. Abrams (Alias, Lost) produced film brings intensity, freshness and a sense of personal danger to a genre that needed a kick start. In fact, this $30 million film (with surprisingly good special effects) could be a tutorial to big-budget action directors who create removed, distant and sterile big-scale movies with characters you don't care about. (I'm talking to you, Michael Bay.)
The movie begins with a Department of Defense tagline identifying the following footage as a case designated "Cloverfield." It apparently came from a camera found in U.S. 442, the area formerly known as New York's Central Park. The shaky amateur video starts as random home movies and a going-away party for Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), a 20-something moving to Japan for a new job. His best friend, Hud (T. J. Miller), runs the camera as we meet Rob's brother, various friends and Beth (Odette Yustman), Rob's longtime crush.
And then, with a loud roar in the distance, the whole world turns upside down.
What follows is an unrelenting and fast-moving gut punch of a movie as Rob and friends try to survive the attack of some sort of monster upon their city. While Blair Witch and Godzilla are obvious comparisons, the film can often tap into what it might have been like if Bill Paxton's character from Aliens had a camera with him. It's more consistently thrilling and scary than Blair Witch and more personally connected than most action films.
I've been looking forward to this movie since its massive marketing campaign began. I was looking for a fun and geeky thrill ride. It is that, but it's actually more intense, scary and personal than I assumed. It's intense because you're dropped right into the meat grinder with the characters. It's scary because it stirs very real fears within such an absurd premise—and puts you right there where just hearing things around you is more terrifying than actually seeing. And it's personal because the movie creates a connection with its characters. This horror is not happening to Some Giant City. It's happening to Rob and to Beth and to Hud.
Now, this film is no character study. Honestly, we don't know Rob or Beth or Hud or the others intimately well, but they are written so you can identify with their bonds and motivations. Filmed at such an intimate level, we see the quiet moments of tragedy, of breaking down, of awkward silence, of uncontrolled panic and of stilted conversations that might be missed in wider narratives. These people and their emotions feel real—and so the unreal they experience becomes more relatable.
The key to the character development is really newcomer Stahl-David's centering performance as Rob. He seems so torn, so emotional, and so caught up in internal processing that it shows on the outside. Rob supplies the emotional ground wire to the movie—especially in the moving and dramatic dynamic that plays out between Rob and Beth. Their longing looks and telling awkwardness speak volumes about the chemistry between them—and adds a striking bittersweet edge to the film.
This storyline fuels one of the film's subtle but thought-provoking undercurrents. Like the Albert Camus book The Plague, which used a disease's rampage on a city to analyze how people respond to the absurd, Cloverfield naturally shows very real reactions to unthinkable events. In Rob and Beth's case, their reaction to eminent danger is to drop all the petty static of life and cling to what really matters. Who means the most? Who would you run to when the world collapses? These moments show your true priorities quickly and clearly.
Rob and Beth aren't the only characters reacting here. Some victims need to know what is happening and why. Others don't care. Some run. Some take charge. Others pull out their cell phone cameras to document all they see. Still others loot. In these scenes, the parallels to 9/11 are inescapable. Dust fills the streets of dazed and wandering people. Faces are blank and stunned. It's a portrait of destroyed people completely out of control. These moments are all the more gripping because we've seen such similar footage from very real horrors.
After 9/11, I was sure landmark-destroying disaster movies were dead. But then, movies are about so much more than just entertainment. They're also vehicles for processing life, and fantastical movies like this can help us deal with all too real and terrifying issues in a more safe and removed way. After all, Cloverfield's approach is not too far removed from that of Paul Greengrass' brilliant and heart-breaking United 93, which "documented" the 9/11 story of the airliner that crashed in Pennsylvania—after passengers attacked the hijackers and kept them from crashing the plane into a Washington, D.C. building. Since United 93 was a true story, it was difficult to watch. This film replaces real terrorism with … a giant monster. It's easier to take, but probes the same ideas.
"We live in a time of great fear," Abrams said recently. "Having a movie about something as outlandish as a massive creature … allows people to process and experience that fear in a way that is incredibly entertaining and incredibly safe." After all, Godzilla's rampages on Japan were born out of the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And so now, 9/11 has given birth to a monster's leveling of New York.
You may be surprised that I've barely even addressed the monster. That's because the movie isn't really about the monster. It's about the reaction to him. But yes, they do show him. (And yes, he is cool.)
Overall, Cloverfield is a well executed, unique and at times, even artful, take on the genre. But it's not for everyone. The camerawork is very shaky and dizzying—especially at first. In fact, the "amateur" quality of the filming is a bit overdone; few people could be this bad with a camcorder. So if Blair Witch or the Bourne movies made you queasy, think twice. Secondly, the movie is intense and even tries a bit too hard at times to crank up the danger. Thirdly, some people expecting a more Hollywood approach may be disappointed. It doesn't answer all the big questions of what's happening, or where the monster comes from, or why it's here. This is not the film's mission.
Instead, Cloverfield puts you on the ground level of a disaster: face-to-face with the dangers of this night. It's a fun, fast ride, but also poignant and strangely affecting.Discussion starters
- What was your first reaction to the now famous ad featuring the Statue of Liberty's head flying through New York? Does it seem too soon for a movie to destroy New York? Will it ever again not be too soon?
- Producer J. J. Abrams said, "Having a movie about something as outlandish as a massive creature … allows people to process and experience that fear in a way that is incredibly entertaining and incredibly safe." Do you agree? Why or why not? Can these movies serve a greater purpose in dealing with fears? Why do people find it fun to be scared in a movie theatre? Anything wrong with that?
- After the Virginia Tech shooting, author Philip Yancey spoke to the school. He said that after a severe car crash that left him facing death, "all that mattered boiled down to four questions: Who do I love? Who will I miss? What have I done with my life? And am I ready for what's next?" How do you see those ideas in Cloverfield? How would you answer those questions? How can you live every day with those questions at the forefront?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Cloverfield is rated PG-13 for violence, terror and disturbing images. Consider this a hard PG-13 or even an R. The terror is intense, unrelenting and often hopeless (things do not end well for all our heroes). Disturbing images include lots of blood and a short scene of severely injured (read: mangled and gutted) soldiers in a makeshift hospital. There is also frequent profanity. With all the yelling and commotion, almost all known cuss words make an appearance (including streams of both "God" and "Jesus" used in vain). Also, the prolonged party scene includes a great deal of alcohol consumption and there's a scene of an unmarried couple in bed after sleeping together. The woman is only barely covered by her sheets.
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