CLOVERFIELD (2008) : M.Reeves : 7/10
I shivered. I looked out at the long grey lawn of the sea stretching away into nothing and nowhere.
"Oh, the sea's full." McDunn puffed his pipe nervously, blinking. He had been nervous all day and hadn't said why. "For all our engines and so-called submarines, it'll be ten thousand centuries before we set foot on the real bottom of the sunken lands, in the fairy kingdoms there, and know real terror. Think of it, it's still the year 300,000 Before Christ down under there. While we've paraded around with trumpets, lopping off each other's countries and heads, they have been living beneath the sea twelve miles deep and cold in a time as old as the beard on a comet.
"Yes it's an old world."
Ray Bradbury, The Fog Horn (1952)
Cloverfield is, first and foremost, a raucously skilful rock-the-house monster-movie – best seen in a big, crowded cinema. And, given the way it takes "shaky-cam" camerawork to new levels of kinetic excess, sensitive viewers should seek a seat somewhere near the back – unless they're entirely immune to motion-sickness.
The basic equation, as has already been widely noted, is Godzilla (1998 version) meets The Blair Witch Project: a gigantic whatsit emerges from the sea and attacks Manhattan, causing devastation on a vast scale. Everything that we see has been supposedly recorded with a single video-camera – initially deployed by the hapless Hud (T J Miller) to document a going-away party for his best-pal Rob (Michael Stahl-David). Well, not quite everything. Due to Hud's fumbling, we also get brief glimpses of the tape's original contents (Cloverfield – its incongruously pastoral title the government's code-name for the 'invasion' – is thus a kind of pseudo-inadvertent 'digital palimpsest.')
The near-entirely erased previous footage shows a quieter New York three weeks beforehand: starting with Rob enjoying the aftermath of pre-dawn nookie ("and… it's already a good day!") with his (previously-Platonic) friend Beth (Odette Yustman) – and ending with the couple at Coney Island amusement-park. We discover that Rob caddishly ignored Beth after this idyllic sojourn – but now realises his mistake ("hang on to the people you care about the most"). And when Beth is trapped atop her Midtown highrise (shades of Towering Inferno and Poseidon Adventure?), Rob and company set off to rescue her. But the rampaging behemoth isn't the only peril blocking their path…
Sufficient time has elapsed since Blair Witch that film-makers can explore the "found-footage" technique without risking plagiarism accusations. George A Romero's Diary of the Dead, and Spain's REC are other prominent current examples of a "camcorder-horror" sub-genre which aims to (a) plonk viewers in media bloody res, and (b) find (literally) fresh angles on over-familiar material. While exciting, the sub-genre is flawed by a nagging plausibility issue: camera-operators continue shooting even in moments of maximum danger, lugging equipment even when such encumbrance could easily prove fatal. Of course, as video-technology progresses this problem will soon vanish: micro-cameras could reside within spectacle-frames, in Universal-Soldier-type mini-helmets… or inside protagonists' heads – see Bertrand Tavernier's Death Watch (1980).
Tavernier was making a conceptual/metaphorical/philosophical art-movie – and so didn't bother with complicated special-effects. Not so the unashamedly multiplex-oriented Cloverfield, much of whose (relatively-lowish) $27m budget was lavished on flawlessly-integrated CGI – and the monster, when we finally see him/her/it, is a corker. The production certainly didn't have to shell out mega-star salaries: apart from Twin Peaks' Chris Mulkey (a khaki cameo), few familiar faces are visible. And, given how the quasi-realistic action is accompanied only by 'diegetic' music (from radios, CD-players, etc) composer Michael Giacchino can't have charged fortunes for his contribution – 'Roar (Cloverfield Overture)' – which accompanies the credits and reaches sarcastic levels of angel-voiced bombast.
Listening to this amusingly over-extended anthem as myriad crew-names unspool (12 of the movie's 85 minutes are thus expended), it's tempting to view the whole enterprise as having tongue near, if not quite in, cheek. There's certainly a post-modern, ironic air about proceedings – thus supposedly justifying the script's cornier excesses ("If you wanna stop me, you're gonna have to shoot me!" yelps Rob when obstructed by a grunt; "You — came back for me!" sobs hapless Beth). But this snarky tone sits uncomfortably alongside the countless overt echoes of 9/11: the first pre-shocks of cataclysm provoke someone to mutter (semi-inaudibly) about "another attack".
It's only when the Statue of Liberty's head comes bouncing down the street – in front of Hud's camera, handily enough – and Hud, catching a glimpse of a colossal leg, repeats "It's alive"* do our heroes realise their nemesis's biological nature. This line is one of numerous references to what is (egregious thefts from Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's 28 Weeks Later notwithstanding) the principal ur-text for Cloverfield's complex web of in-joke, allusion and homage: Eugene Lourie's half-forgotten 1953 sci-fier The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (see poster alongside>). Itself loosely based on Ray Bradbury's short story The Fog Horn, Lourie's film may even have inspired Inishiro Honda and company to devise the original Godzilla – and concludes, like Cloverfield, at Coney Island.
That's pretty much the only similarity between the two endings, however: Fathoms concludes with old-school, unambiguous clarity; Cloverfield is much too smart-alecky to take such an easy route. The last shot contains a crucial bit of info which (literally) flies through the frame so quickly that most audiences don't even spot it. And the mega-whatsit's fate is only revealed via an audio-fragment which is (a) placed after those interminable credits and (b) played backwards.
The Cloverfield team – and the collaboration between director Matt Reeves, writer Drew Goddard and producer J J Abrams has been unusually close and organic – are able to deliver vital information in this insanely obscure fashion because they're aware that every aspect of their film will be subjected to the hyper-intense analysis. Ever since the first teaser-trailer debuted last year, Cloverfield has been as much a phenomenon as a film – pored over on countless websites, discussion-groups and Youtube postings (The Beast for 20,000 Fandoms, if you like) long before anyone actually saw the finished article. It's clearly not accidental, for example that, when Beth realises she's being filmed by Rob (in the opening scene), she wonders if she's going to "see this on the internet."
The Cloverfield case is, explicitly and deliberately, a satirically-exaggerated example of what happens with nearly all films nowadays. In a world of 24-hour infotainment, many of us spend much more time thinking about movies beforehand and afterwards than on the actual watching of them. In this case: months of hype and anticipation; weeks of discussion, debate and analysis – and, wedged between, 70-odd minutes which barrel along so mercilessly we barely have time to catch breath, let alone engage brain. Welcome, perhaps, to the blockbuster of the future.
In the original teaser-trailer, this key line was given to a passer-by (and became "I've seen it – it's alive – it's huge!"). There's very little from that teaser in the film itself, by the way – it was made some time before the actual film, and used the services of a different cinematographer.
85m (BBFC timing)
director : Matt Reeves (The Pallbearer)
editor : Kevin Stitt (The Kingdom, Elektra, Paycheck, etc)
seen 28.Jan.08 Newcastle (Empire cinema : press show)
and 8.Feb.08 Boldon (Cineworld cinema : ticket £6.20)
Our troops are wonders—and why? I have heard many interesting speculations in cafés and all over. Their vigor and physical strength—which certainly did surprise these good people—and then their adaptability. (Mrs. H—-, I wish you could see a Frenchman throw a baseball, or try to ride a bicycle) ; even that, though, is not all, for their fire, their morale, is what amazes them most, and I have heard it explained this way:
At last, France is convinced that we are really fighting for a principle—"to make the world a decent place to live in." They don't believe we are trying to make money—to acquire territory—and they have eliminated all the other possible reasons they could think of. This took a long time—it isn't universal yet, thanks to the impenetrability of the common people—but they look on us now as crusaders, actually inspired by the spirit, for, in truth, we have nothing to gain but self-respect.
That, they say, now, is why Americans make such good soldiers.
Greayer Clover, letter (1918)