It’s almost impossible to downsize spectacle. Something that plays as awe-inspiring and epic on the big screen loses much of its luster when miniaturized to standard TV specifications. No matter the home theater set-up, the size of the screen or the complexity of the sound system, nothing matches the theatrical experience point by point, 100%. Instead, it can only marginally mimic what the movies do best - stretch the scope of a subject beyond the most tenable elements of the individual imagination. Back in January, the J.J. Abram’s produced Cloverfield used the Japanese giant monster movie formula to tell a personal story on a grand scale. Believe it or not, on DVD, the size of the saga only increases.
Young Rob Hawkins is leaving New York for a new job opportunity in Tokyo. On the night before his departure, younger brother Jason, best friend Hud, and various friends and family have gathered to celebrate. They include Jason’s fiancé Lily and the object of Hud’s obsessive affection, Marlena. The only person missing is Beth, Rob’s long time gal pal and secret love interest. Confused by something that happened between them weeks before, the trip to Japan has both questioning their commitment. During the festivities, an earthquake - or something like it - hits the city. Suddenly, the power goes out. In the panic, the partygoers head for the building’s roof. There, they see something horrifying. A section of Manhattan explodes into a massive fireball. Then there is a scream. It’s something big. It’s something angry. It’s something ready to destroy New York, block by block.
Inspired by Japan’s love of its Kaiju, and the unfathomable horrors of 9/11 - you can’t look at massive debris clouds consuming the streets, or scenes of victims covered in soot roaming aimlessly through the chaos without being reminded of that fateful day - it’s zeitgeist as a Saturday matinee, a romp through the last 40 years of b-grade schlock given a terrific technological make-over. Many have complained about the handheld ideal, arguing that it seems singularly unreasonable for anyone fleeing for their life to make the viewfinder, not their viability, the main motivation and priority. But thanks to the youth coup concept of YouTube and MySpace, such an event would seem funny if it didn’t feature such an approach. After all, when was the last time you saw a major disaster in perfectly framed and artistically composed shots?
Cloverfield clearly wants to use the unreality of the situation with the nu-reality of the portable camera to mirror this new way of seeing the world. Like the frontline battle footage from Vietnam offered nightly on the evening news during the ‘60s, the notion of being part of the action is intuitively unnerving. We know we’re not supposed to follow Rob and Hud, that Marlena, Jason, and Lily should have run for cover instead of wandering aimlessly within the city. Of course, like all good horror films, our heroes pay for their mistakes. As with all classic movie macabre, the notion that anyone can die at anytime continues to fuel our fear. Reeves and company then magnify this philosophy in a legitimately larger manner - as in any CITY can die at anytime.
Among the final thoughts on this film four months ago was the following statement - “it will be interesting to see how this film eventually plays on the small screen”. The recent DVD release answers this concern immediately and honestly. Brought down to an average family room’s size, the movie somehow works even better. Of course, those who’ve already experienced the film know the scary movie beats by heart, so some of the initial shock certainly dissipates. But this allows for a more detailed, intimate overview. We can follow the characters’ arcs more easily, discovering unseen nuances that were lost in the bedlam. There are also little moments that take on more meaning, like the post-subway attack when Marlena tries to laugh off her injuries. The F/X also stand out more, the brilliant work done in turning green-screen sets and LA locations into a replica for Manhattan more amazing than ever.
The extras also expand on this stellar work. Reeves, along with producer Abrams and many behind the scene personnel, show us, step by step how a realistic view of a destroyed NYC was built in the computer. One of the most fascinating shots discussed is also the most iconic - the head of the Statue of Liberty traveling through the skyscraper landscape. The reason for the symbol’s use and design was crucial to the film’s success. So was the attitude of the monster. The chief designer of the beast points out that he wanted the creature to act like a newborn, not angry so much as confused and cranky about the violent world it has just arrived in. Oddly enough, there is very little about the viral marketing campaign, or Ethan Haas, or the soft drink Slusho. Perhaps a future release will address these missing elements.
As a film, there is much more to this movie than CG creatures and convention tweaking. Like Cannibal Holocaust, which used torture and reprehensible atrocities to take on the glaring, unforgiving eye of the media, Reeves reinvents the giant creature category of horror to question our perverse fixation with images. During the initial chaos, when fireballs and bridges are falling to the ground, one of the characters asks Hud why he’s still filming. His answer is matter of fact - “People are gonna want to see this. They’re gonna want to know how it went down.” That’s 2008 in a nutshell, a social sentiment that doesn’t believe anything as reported unless there’s accompanying footage taken from an up close and personal viewpoint. This is why, long after the gimmick is gone and the sequel has been set-up, Cloverfield will remain a classic - and rightfully so.