It’s so high concept and gimmicky that it should crumble under the weight of its own ambitions. It takes an already tired approach - the first person POV perspective milked to death by all the surrounding Blair Witch hoopla - and channels it through a much more coherent and creative ideal. Some have called it an event film, a rollercoaster ride through a city under monstrous siege. Others have referred to it by another, less flattering name - the bile express, perhaps in reference to the motion sickness inducing cinematography. But there’s no denying one fact - the J.J. Abrams produced monster movie Cloverfield is poised to become a true phenomenon. And in these dog days of January, the most lax time for cinematic excellence, that’s an amazing fact.
Yet this has also been a divisive affair, one that has just as many complainers as champions. All appreciation is opinion based, as is consensus. Majority rule does not determine a film’s final assessment as art, nor does the amount of money made instantly mandate a rejection reconfiguration. Basically, people are entitled to their view of the film, even if they use some specious reasons in support of their disdain. As a matter of fact, reading over the initial reactions to the film, certain constants can be gleaned. Aside from the purely physical responses (more on this in a moment), the various grounds for grousing deserve some discussion. In looking them over, one by one, we begin to see how expectations can undermine any entertainment experience. We also see that Cloverfield can create incredibly passionate feelings on either side of the summation.
Issue 1 - The Camerawork
This complaint is actually a dangerous double edged sword. On the one hand, it’s easy to understand people who didn’t like the handheld shaky cam POV because it made them ill. Both Blair Witch and the last two Bourne films claimed many a queasy stomach on their way to box office fortunes. So a clear caveat should come with every ticket sold - “Warning: This Movie May Cause You to Lose Your Lunch”. But barking about it afterwards seems like an aggravation sticking point, an “I got sick so it sucks” rationale that just doesn’t float. No, the real noggin scratcher comes from those who don’t like the approach from an aesthetic standpoint.
Now, no one hid the fact that Abrams wanted to make the movie this way. The trailer offered nothing more than starring at the lens logistics. In interviews, he explained that the film was inspired by a trip to Japan where he saw thousands of Godzilla toys. He speculated that it would be interesting to create an American version of said monster, yet handle the narrative in a novel, contemporary fashion - from the perspective of the petrified citizenry, lets say. So anyone mad that the movie ended up as a camcorder creation is misguided. It’s like arguing that a chocolate bar was horrible because it was made with cocoa. Huh? If you don’t like sugar, don’t eat candy. If you don’t want to see grainy, digital photography, you picked the wrong flick.
Issue 2 - The No-Name Cast
Remember the pretense here - a realistic depiction of New York being overwhelmed by a giant creature. It’s the event, not the individuals that are important. Sure, we have to warm up to the characters a little before the chaos occurs, if just to keep us locked in during the many action scenes. But why would famous faces make this any easier? Some, including this critic, would argue that recognizable actors would ruin the atmosphere. Being identifiable is one thing. Having sure superstar impact is another. For those who’ve seen the film, imagine the Army triage sequence with someone from The Hills as the victim. Aside from the vicarious thrill inherent in such a fatal set up, such a vacuous celebrity space saver would destroy everything Cloverfield has going for.
Issue 3 - The Running Time
By most accounts, this is an 80+ minute movie that ends up being about 70 minus credits. That breaks down to 15 minutes of party-based premise, and 55 minutes of bedlam. The complaints, however, have ranged from the film being too short (arguable) to being WAY, WAY too long (what?). Many argue that the send-off could be clipped by at least half, and that there needed to be more sci-fi stunting and action. Granted, there is a little down time in between bouts of monster madness, but to say that the film needs more of this material is ludicrous. Again, the intention of Abrams and his crew was not to make the same old horror show. Instead this was a real time type story strategy, letting events play out over a few heart stopping hours instead of several days and night. While it’s possible to argue over the allotment, the movie really seems perfectly paced.
Issue 4 - The Lack of Monster
This is a real deal breaker. You either like the way director Matt Reeves handled the numerous creature reveals, keeping the beast locked in its carnage and not posing or pussyfooting for the camera, or you’re flashing back to Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla and cringing in CG-ire. Frankly, the subtle approach has never endeared itself to the masses. Spielberg devotees will never get over the way he handled War of the Worlds’ many army/alien confrontations. One big battle took place completely off screen. Similarly, M Night Shyamalan’s Signs had an extraterrestrial invasion and then went and forgot most of the little green men. The idea of keeping the mayhem money shot just out of reach is one of the reasons Clovefield works. It was also the reason why Frank Darabont’s The Mist was so masterful. Jaws kept its fiend underwater for most of the movie. Doing the same with this skyscraping scrapping entity only amplifies its impact. Still, in the ‘show me’ state of the mainstream, this apparently wasn’t good enough.
Issue 5 - The Downer Ending
It’s SPOILER, SPOILER, SPOILER time. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and want to go in 100% untainted as to major plot developments, leave this part of the piece NOW. There, now that all the neophyte tenderfooters are gone…you just know that our main gang of survivors is not going to come out of this intact. We are going to loose a few along the way (and we do) and the death of the beast (if it can be achieved) will come with lots of character collateral damage. We do see a couple of the kids take off in a helicopter. There is no follow up. Of course, our hero, his buddy Hud, and plot catalyst Beth all end up in Central Park, their transport torn apart by the creature. There’s a close-up, a crunch, and some last minute monologuing. We leave our couple cowering as jets fly overhead, delivering an inferred nuclear payload. There’s an explosion, and then silence. Now, ‘Net rumors have unearthed a garbled bit of dialogue that plays over the final credits. Unscrambled, the ominous line has a faint voice whispering “It’s still alive”. Slam! Sequel!
Come to think of it, Cloverfield appears purposefully set up to tweak many a moviegoer’s most cherished viewership clichés. It’s not filmed particularly well, presents actors that don’t inspire a preconceived notion of heroics or hindrance, offers a monster movie with minimal monster, and gets its business over and done with in a short, succinct, and very somber manner. To many in the plebian viewership (not all audiences, by the way), this will truly cramp their celluloid style. Epics aren’t erratic and scope should come from carefully controlled compositions, not the haphazard luck of a wavering camcorder. And yet it’s these very things, these bows to the You Tube/MySpace generation (to quote craggy members of the older generation) that make Cloverfield a flop. Oddly enough, to others, they’re the reason the film feels like a revelation.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.