First Person: Cloverfield takes down a city – and an archetype
By
David Jackson
4/26/2008 5:19:34 PM

Monster movies are done to death – they're pretty much as old as the medium itself, right back to King Kong. They work on good, consistent levels, functioning both as escapism and showcases for the ultimate in filmmaking technology. Every time a monster is rehashed for a new generation of moviegoers, it gets a new layer of detail, becoming more visceral, more terrifying, a better representation of our worst fears manifest on the silver screen, with big sweeping shots and flybys, panning views of rampant destruction. Cloverfield, the new (on DVD) monster movie from Lost creator J.J. Abrams, is none of that. Shown from the perspective of a camera carried by a survivor walking the streets of a falling New York City, Cloverfield discards decades of monster movie tradition for an intimate, personal look at disaster and tragedy – and the results are truly stunning.

Taking viewers on a horrific journey through New York as it's torn apart, the movie is brutal but also personal – a cataclysm tempered with humanity and even occasional humor. The characters aren't just fodder for the monster's unstoppable rage – rather, they're interesting people with real lives interrupted by the violent catastrophe of the monster's appearance. Rob, the movie's protagonist, is an up-and-coming businessman who nobly (perhaps idiotically) ventures into the center of the city to rescue his almost-girlfriend. Out of loyalty, friendship, or fear, a small cast follows him on his quest, with (without spoiling too much) unfortunate results. But even if charging into the city in the face of danger seems illogical, the whole thing manages to make sense. Why? Because we know that, in this sort of situation, someone is going to do something that brave, and that stupid – and sometimes they'll pay for it. In the case of Cloverfield, the people who make that call simply happen to be carrying a video camera.

It's hard to explain what makes Cloverfield a “good movie”, because in much of the traditional sense, it is not. Movies are supposed to be staged. They are supposed to look staged, feel staged, and have a beginning, a middle, and an end. A film is typically about real life but not of it: it takes place in a world that is idealized (think chick flicks) or counter-idealized (dystopic thrillers or horror movies) in order to serve an artistic purpose. The good guys don't always win, but if they lose, they lose dramatically, driving a point home to the audience in noble sacrifice or admirable if futile devotion to an ideal. In Cloverfield, however, a disaster works something like the way it does in real life – strange, horrifying things happen at inopportune times, people die in ways that lack purpose or grand significance, and the world patently refuses to make sense. The film seems like a reaction to the big blockbuster, a rebellion against structure, a clever piece of art that substitutes realism and immersion for typical commentary.

It would be negligent on my part not to at least touch on the cinematography, arguably the most divisive aspect of the film. By attempting to replicate the experience of watching amateur video, the people behind Cloverfield have created, suffice it to say, a bumpy ride. In my experience, how you react to the movie depends in great part on your susceptibility to motion sickness, which is unfortunate, but unavoidable given the filming strategy. If you think you'll get sick, you're probably right – I know several people who had to leave halfway through because they couldn't deal with the constant motion of the shaky cam. If you can tough it out, though, the haphazard nature of the filming adds a lot to the movie as a whole – making the experience far more immersive than that of a typical thriller.

Overall, Cloverfield is a twisted and subversive success. Playing on everything typical about monster and disaster movies, it slyly avoids clichιs while still managing to tear apart a city in grand fashion. Sure, it's not for everyone, but for people who can do without filmmaking conventions or (fair warning) a proper ending, it's the ultimate monster movie: destructive, graphic, and deep down, even a bit human.

• Director: Matt Reeves
• Format: AC-3, Color, Dolby, Dubbed, DVD-Video, Subtitled, Widescreen, NTSC
• Language: English, Russian
• Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
• Rating: PG-13
• Studio: Paramount
• DVD Release Date: April 22, 2008
• Run Time: 84 minutes

 

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