18 January 2008

Film: "Cloverfield"


Cloverfield
Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by Drew Goddard
Starring: Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David
Theatrical Release Date: 18 January 2008
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (For Violence, Terror and Disturbing Images)



This film is destined to become a cult favorite.  It's Blair Witch meets Godzilla, with a dash of Open Water thrown in for good measure.  Aside from the camerawork (all done handheld), the only real resemblance to Blair Witch is that the film's protagonists spend the majority of the film not really knowing what's going on.  Unlike those characters, who freaked out over every little setback along the way, Cloverfield's heroes are surprisingly able to roll with the punches.  Maybe it's because they're post-September 11th New Yorkers; maybe because being in Manhattan during a seige affects one's psychology differently than being lost in the woods.  In any event, having endured the frequent screaming of Blair Witch, I appreciated Cloverfield's folks keeping it together for most of the film.

In a lot of respects, Cloverfield made me think of Steven Speilberg's recent War of the Worlds remake, and even Jaws.  Like those two films, the antagonist of Cloverfield is seen only sparingly throughout; it is largely represented by the destruction it causes.  In War, Spielberg consciously avoided the destruction of well known landmarks, and followed the entire invasion strictly from the main characters' perspective.  Essentially, they felt Independence Day had already done all that and it was time to focus on what it might be like to actually live through something like that.  In that capacity, Cloverfield succeeds extremely well; we as an audience only see and know what they see and know.  Consequently, as they attempt to cross Manhattan, the audience builds suspense along with the characters, wondering whether things are getting safer or about to come completely undone.

Unlike WarCloverfield's creators saw fit to trash the Statue of Liberty (as seen in the trailer) and the Brooklyn Bridge.  The Statue of Liberty was, I suspect, a casualty more with the trailer in mind than the actual film.  The bridge, on the other hand, fed quite logically into the story, as it cut off an obvious means of escape for our heroes.  In a lot of ways, while watching, one can't help but think how much cooler this story would have been as a video game than as a film; practically each scene plays out like a game level, with its own objective and challenges. As for the characters themselves, given that the entire thing occurs in abridged real time, they may not be the most developed characters in cinematic history, but they do become believable and identifiable to the audience.  Rob, Hud, Lilly and Mega--mada--whatever her name was, generally make decisions that make sense throughout the film.  There's not a lot of forced plot points that hinge on a character getting a wild hair, other than Rob's insistance to cross Manhattan to save his could've-been-girlfriend Beth and his friends deciding to accompany him.  Still, given the state of mind one might have if a large creature were, in fact, destroying everything, it's plausible you might take off on such an effort and your distraught friends might go with you.

The only real problem is the camerawork.  A guy who's never really handled a camera before is unlikely to commit himself to documenting the entire ordeal, but we'll suspend that disbelief.  From a storytelling perspective, though, it is entirely unreasonable that Hud would continue to shoot as he does for many of the film's important show-the-audience moments.  It might have been better had they simply resorted to a third-person perspective for some of those moments; as an audience we still wouldn't have been privy to anything more than we would have had Hud continued shooting, but it would have 1) shown that Hud was more than an absurdly dedicated amateur documentarian and 2) given the audience a momentary respite from the herky-jerky camerawork.  Granted, such a moment might have reminded the audience they were watching just a film and not an actual documentary, but I think the fact that some kind of spider-like Godzilla creature is destroying Manhattan is enough of a reminder.

In the end, Cloverfield is a film that should probably be seen, but likely only once.  You have to decide for yourself whether you want to subject yourself to the big-screen treatment or wait for the DVD where the film's camerawork won't be quite as overwhelming.  Depending on what bonus features accompany the film in its DVD release, it may actually be preferrable to watch it when you can also get insight from the creators as to what they were trying to create and why they did or did not do something.  For most films, that kind of stuff is just for film geeks (such as myself), but I sincerely believe that, if they do it right, Cloverfield is one of those rare instances where that kind of thing can really complement the film.

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