is fun, perhaps not as fun as the brilliant hype around it would
have us believe - no Cthulhu-like creature evoking H.P. Lovecraft's
complex mythology, more's the pity - but if disappointed fans can
bring themselves to settle down and relax and actually watch the
damned thing, they could appreciate it for what it is - a clever
little meditation on the different forms of modern media and communication
and how they interact with each other, presented in the form of
a monster movie.
As a creature
feature it's not all that much - the brute doesn't change the way
the creature in Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) does, and it doesn't
have that creature's faintly erotic biomechanical look (thanks to
H.R. Giger) or fairly fascinating reproductive system (lifted from
the 1939 story "Discord in Scarlet" written by A.E. Van Vogt - who
in turn had borrowed the idea from digger wasps).
It doesn't unbend from beneath a bridge with all the grace of an
uncoiling acrobat (a la Bong Joon-ho's Gwoemul (The Host,2006)),
or lope gracefully on the ground like a herd of antelopes (or rather,
a herd of antelopes monstrously fused into a single agile mass).
Actually, it's not much of monster, period - it's got a massive
hunched back, a complex-looking series of inset mouths (a la Giger),
and rather malevolent life-forms dripping from its shoulders (Are
they tadpoles? Parasites, maybe? If the monster had been some kind
of biological fractal, constantly generating smaller and smaller
exact reproductions of itself, we might have had something).
Easily the most compelling aspect about the big mother is that we
don't see it - or that we only glimpse parts of it, in between collapsing
buildings, along Manhattan's shadowed streets, swinging a tentacle
up out of the East River to swat at the Brooklyn Bridge. When the
whole thing finally lurches into view, you can't help but feel let
down - it would have been better off skulking around in the dark,
pretending to be more than what it was.
entire movie was better when it pretended to be more than what it
is, by turns a cunningly marketed, internet-driven teaser campaign
(complete with puzzles and dark hints) worthy of Daniel Myrick and
Eduardo Sanchez's 1999 horror mockumentary The Blair Witch Project
(from which this movie borrowed much of its camerawork); the latest
production by TV wunderkind J.J. Abrams (Lost); a possible tie-in
to Lovecraft - but that's part of the fascination of this sort of
project, the way buildup can be achieved early on, and the eventual,
almost inevitable, disillusionment (in a movie all about metatexts,
couldn't the whole thing - from provocative previews to fairly successful
commercial run to ultimate critical backlash - be seen as the film's
The final product is unsatisfyingly short of context, explanation,
exposition, not because we need the picture to make narrative sense,
but because we'd like a potent metaphor--unexplained monster trashing
New York City - to at least try carry more than its weight in poetic
and philosophical baggage. Even Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963)
paused briefly to allow its characters to thrash out the significance
of what's been happening (even if all explanation is cut short -
dismissed in effect by Hitchcock and his characters as being for
all intents and purposes useless - by yet another attack)
tries to get away with even less than Hitchcock did, but it doesn't
quite fly; you can only get so much from a bunch of people running
about and screaming in the dark. Director Matt Reeves and writer
Drew Goddard should at least have made their characters a few I.Q.
points smarter, so that they could speculate intelligently while
on the run - it's not impossible; the good Doctor (Andy Tennant
in his latest TV incarnation) does this all the time.
I haven't forgotten
saying that I did like the picture, even if I've spent most of this
article poking holes in it and pointing out where it (and even its
sources) lifted its (their) best ideas; I do like it. I don't think
it's superior - that it beats the haunting, otherworldly beauty
of Alien, or the poignant melodrama (and offhandedly fluid bestial
loveliness) of Gwoemul, or that it presents the kind of precision-tooled
escalation from unaccountable event to apocalyptic terror that The
Birds did, but it's a welcome addition, a sort of shakier, grimier,
newly-born cousin to its superior predecessors.
And it does
have a fascination uniquely its own. If, nowadays, a monster is
not content to stick to its own initial form (Alien); if a monster
movie is not content to stick to its own genre (Gwoemul, with its
combination of creature feature, family tearjerker, and slapstick
comedy), Cloverfield does do its own serious morphing - not so much
in genre, as in the terms in which it tells its story.
The picture starts out as found footage - titles declare to us that
this tape was found in the sector "formerly known as Central Park,"
which implies a number of things, not many of them good. It turns
into a POV documentary, initially of a pair of lovers going on a
subway trip to Coney Island, then of a cocktail party full of beautiful
young things - I'd call them "yuppies," only that term is so '80s
- ostensibly a farewell shindig for one of them, who's about to
leave for Japan.
When the creature attacks, the documentary turns into a reality
show, with its own set of basic challenges (Run Brooklyn Bridge
without falling into the East River! Walk a subway tunnel while
being hunted by spider creatures! Evade U.S. military with orders
to detain and deport you! Climb a building leaning at a 45-degree
angle!). The movie finally devolves into a video testimonial, with
the heroes identifying themselves for future generations that might
find the footage (which, as the opening titles suggest, is what
happens - yet another idea lifted from Blair Witch).
is not entirely without sting - perhaps the most interesting shot
in the whole picture is of the cameraman gaping at a news broadcast
of the monster, realizing where it's happening, and stepping outside
to witness the real thing (talk about a shift from representation
to reality, and the paradoxical loss of realism (he had a better
view from the news broadcast)); perhaps the most poignant are the
insert shots of the lovers on their summertime idyll, idiotically
innocent and unaware of the heartbreak and horror to come.
It would help if we actually get a better sense of the lovers and
their friends as people - as is, Cloverfield is eighty minutes of
watching a group of youthful supermodels getting mussed and muddied
- but even the sight of plastic mannequins being slaughtered is
not entirely unmoving. I approve.
Email me at email@example.com
First published in Businessworld, 02.01.08.