Saturday, October 15, 2016

Cloverfield

I want to blame The Blair Witch Project for the glut of found footage horror movies in recent years, but it was the better part of a decade before we started seeing so many more of these subjective perspective thrillers. Admittedly, some are good, even really good, but today, to me, they just seem to run together. As a sub-genre, it feels played out. It's in this state of mind I revisit Cloverfield (2008)

Cloverfield fundamentally is a cross between The Blair Witch Project and Godzilla. Instead of a bunch of filmmakers getting lost in the woods and hunted by an unseen phantom, the plot here concerns a bunch of 20-something Manhattanites trying to survive when a giant monster hits New York City. No explanation is offered in the movie for where this monster comes from or how it came to be. All that matters is the military is ineffective against it, and it is destroying everything in its path.

Godzilla famously was a nuclear metaphor. The radioactive lizard functioned as a symbol for the Atomic Bomb. The footage of Godzilla leveling Tokyo, completing obliterating everything in his path, killing millions and incinerating buildings, brought to mind images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Other movies, including the giant ant movie Them!, played on this connection, building on the theme that when man opened the door to the atomic world, he stepped into an unknown world. He didn't know what lay beyond other than it had the potential to destroy the earth.

While the real-life parallels Cloverfield draws on are not nuclear, it certainly fits into the tradition of the movies mentioned above: the rules of the game have changed and everything you thought you knew about the world has been wrong. In this case, Cloverfield refers to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

The imagery cannot be missed: the mass destruction of New York, people panicking as they run through smoke-filled streets as buildings crumble and burn around them while police officers, firefighters, and military personnel bark orders and take charge. At one point in the movie, our main characters climb the stairwell of one apartment building so they can access the another apartment building where a friend is trapped that is leaning against it, and it's hard to see these two tall buildings and not be reminded of the Twin Towers.

Unlike the other aforementioned giant monster movies, Cloverfield depicts its drama from the ground level. The camera, operated by the character of Hud (ha ha), occasionally shows the big pictures. Occasionally, he catches a long glimpse of the monster, but mostly, his camera is jerking around, showing us events from the inside. We don't see the mass of humanity running across the bridge; we're in the middle of it. We don't see the bridge collapse; we only see it start to, and then Hud is running for his life as the camera shakes and captures nothing clearly.

The heritage of Cloverfield is strong and some of the imagery is powerful. About twenty minutes in, when the shit first hits the fan, a party is broken up, and the characters are just in time to run outside and see an explosion send a massive object flying in their direction. The object in question? The head of the Statue of Liberty. That this clip got over-exposed in the pre-release runup is something we shouldn't hold against the movie.

So why aren't I more enthusiastic about Cloverfield? Part of it is I'm just tired of found footage movies; they feel played out. I didn't care for any of the characters. Hud in particular, for someone we rarely see, is kind of a douchebag who says the wrong things at the wrong time, and the rest are just boring, blandly pretty people.

I think the monster's a letdown when we finally see it. It's nasty looking, but compared to the likes of Godzilla, King Kong, or the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park, it doesn't have much personality and resembles mostly an oversized bug. It's not very memorable, nor are its parasites, the little beasties that fall off it.

Cloverfield is an unconventional look at the giant monster movie, albeit with big studio backing and funding to give a sleek, polished production. The found footage format tends to work best with grittier, smaller scale stories, ones you can almost half-believe could be plausible. A giant mutant monster destroying New York is as unsubtle as it gets, and I can't shake the feeling the subjective camera is mostly a gimmick. Immersive, yes, but nothing that couldn't have been achieved from a traditional camera setup.

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