Sunday, May 11, 2008

Late to the Party - Cloverfield

Consider the last time you heard somebody (possibly yourself) use the expression we kind of made out after a vigorous session of tonsil hockey. 'Kind of' covers a lot of ground: it can be a sheepish smile shaped around a treasured memory, or a horrified what-in-the-name-of-all-things-holy-have-I-done! realization once the haze has lifted and the spit is no longer being swapped.

There comes a point on one’s life where the use of this expression is ill-advised at best. As an excuse (“We weren’t really making out…”), it doesn’t hold much water after you’re old enough for credit card debt and tax shelters. Using it as a toehold (“…but we kind of made out, that means something…”) won't project oodles of dignity at any stage of life. It’s equally pathetic after high-school fumblings or too many shooters at an office party.

But the kinda-sorta sentiment around the kisses and cuddles is, in itself, almost enticing. After all, it’s not downright denial. You were obviously compelled to do it in the first place, so you must have had a good reason at the time. It’s affected you on some level and has to work itself out.

The action in Cloverfield begins with just one of those kind of made out experiences between Rob (mid-20’s and conflicted) and Beth (mid-20’s with heartbreaking eyes). The early-morning rumpled sheets and bare shoulders indicate the previous evening’s activities went a few steps past the kind-of stage as making out goes, but the post-event logic works along the same lines. Our snugglebunnies indulge in a cutesy breakfast before jaunting off to Coney Island for further frolic, Rob documents it all on his camcorder for sentimental reasons (or to add to his homemade Gettin’ Some library for review at a later date).

A few weeks pass. Rob’s buddy Hud (short for Hudson, Heads Up Display, and maybe a nod to Bill Paxton's freaked out Colonial Marine from Aliens) is on camcorder duty, capturing the festivities at Rob’s going away party. Beth arrives with a date (a boy, at that!) which results in a few cranky words between she and Rob before she leaves in high dudgeon. Word leaks out about the Rob & Beth incident, and the beer and the angst are both flowing freely when the power goes off, the building starts shaking, the partygoers head for the exits.

Y’see…there’s this creature that’s crawled out of the harbour. It has little regard for property rights. And it’s really big. In John Carpenter’s version of The Thing, somebody describes an unknown being by saying “… it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is.” It works here just fine as well. Kudos to the CGI team that put the creature together - you don’t get a good look at it for a long time (a very old trick - your subconscious fills in the unpleasant blanks), and when you do manage to get a peek, it isn’t comforting. It's even brought along a coterie of nasty little parasitic buddies that roam the streets on spidery claws, eating (or at least biting) any person they come into contact with.
The military (rather sensibly, in my opinion) choose to initiate communications through machine gun and bazooka fire. By this point, the partygoers have decided that Manhattan ain't what it used to be and make a run for the Brooklyn Bridge. When they get there (with thousands of eager evacuees), Rob receives a garbled cellphone call from Beth who is sounding like she’s not at all well. The call is terminated before he gets the details, but he decides that she needs help and he’s the man to do it. His opinion of their relationship has segued from it’s complicated, we kind of made out… to I have to rescue her in remarkably short order. Love does that to a boy.

The bridge option soon becomes untenable (the creature takes an active dislike to it), so Rob and his infinitely supportive buddies are further motivated to head back into Manhattan where, frankly, things are getting kind of gross. Hud keeps the camera running through all of this, and the audience watches his footage off of an from SD card found by the military in an area “formerly known as Central Park.” It lets you know the extent of the creature-initiated urban renewal that’s taken place since Rob and Beth first indulged in the Underpants Charleston.
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Pity any director compelled to lay waste upon his fellow man on a grand scale. Mass destruction movies exist in a perpetual catch-22 between being exciting or being realistic. Yesterday’s Armageddon frequently dates badly (Damnation Alley, anyone?); if you manage to make catastrophe rousing (the Mad Max movies, Independence Day), it’s bubblegum all the way down. And the most genuinely harrowing films (The War Game, The Time of the Wolf, the Brit post-nuclear flick Threads) depict carnage so effectively that they’re inescapably depressing.

Monster movies fit into this laying waste category, but usually lack the dignity of a good old fashioned man made disaster. You can make the whole beast-with-a-soul-teaching-us-about-ourselves argument as much as you wish, or you can go all highbrow and make a case for monsters representing a Golem of one kind or another, it all boils down to some sort of Uggy crawling out from somewhere or another and stepping on or biting things. This limits the fright factor almost immediately: Most people are far more unnerved by the more probable chances of nuclear accidents, famine or economic collapse. If I am unfortunate enough to wake up one morning to see my city in flames, my first thought isn't going to be that some omnivorous beastie the size of a bus, building or Olympic-sized swimming pool has decided to tear up the town. Literally.

Cloverfield finds a balance between trying for outright terror and establishing isn't-this-COOL excitement through relative economy and restraint (for a monster movie, at least). Its most obvious influence is The Blair Witch Project, but there are nods (perhaps even high-fives) to others who have come before; any number of Godzilla films, Steve De Jarnatt's Miracle Mile with its save-the-girl-dodge-the-reaper narrative (and similar helicopter unpleasantness), you could shoehorn Carpenter's Escape From New York into it if you needed to (glorious NYC turned upside down), and even James Cameron’s fingerprints are left in the ash of the wrecked city- Rob’s sprint through Manhattan is aimed squarely at the smoochy set who melted for Jack saving Rose in Titanic back in the day.

The action in Cloverfield is almost nonstop- the film only rarely pauses to say This Is Important in either narrative or visual terms. There is sort of a carpe diem moment between Rob and his brother milliseconds before things start to go boom, and there's a slightly strained That's All Folks coda to the handycam at the end of the film, but you only notice the conceit a few hours later. You'll grudgingly respect the fact realize that they were pretty much invisible while you were in the moment with the quaking camera.

This prey’s-eye view also avoids the sloppy problems of scale in films like Roland Emmerich’s US Godzilla (where the creature's size varied, presumably, from which special-effects company was animating it on any given workday). If we don’t quite get a handle on the size of the creature or its skittery little friends, we can forgive it – Hud is well motivated to get the hell away from whatever he’s shooting.

There is also a perspective issue - in both the figurative and literal sense of the term - that works in the film's favour. There's a sequence where Hud and Rob have headed into an electronics shop (which is having its inventory taken away for safekeeping by an altruistic group of looters), the shop's TVs are broadcasting the first fuzzy images of the creature in Manhattan. We watch the monitors for a few seconds, then turn around to find a collection of awestruck looters with iPods and Xboxes in hand, unable to look away. Hud heads outside and films down the street, he zooms into the far distance where the actual attack is taking place. We don't see the whole creature, we only see scales tracked by helicopter searchlight against buildings. At a distance, it's already terrifying; this thing is 20 stories tall at the least.

These kinds of shots - bad things going down from a distance - wouldn't have worked in a pre-9/11 world. Only 10 years ago, in the wake of Armageddon, Deep Impact and Godzilla, such a shot would have been seen as cutting corners. In 2008, We don't need additional details to be scared any further.

The rest doesn't bring up too many surprises- a few good people (or at least ones we've been introduced to) die. The army gets its act together and pretty much writes off Manhattan, giving a time constraint to our heroes (who, otherwise, might simply have holed up in some deep basement somewhere). I was waiting for somebody to say 'the area will be sterilized by the use of thermonuclear weapons', but it never came. I'm always in the market for a shout-out to Dan O'Bannon, so I was a bit disappointed.

A few critics have brought up the issue of narcissism in the age of MySpace and Facebook, how the need to document everything is the motivating force behind the film and panders to its young/wired/blogging audience, to which I feel compelled to reply...it's a monster movie. Through and through. Even Blair Witch felt more like a Cassavetes film gone really really bad (watch it again), and less about evil incarnate than being the architect of your own destruction given half a chance. The creature in Cloverfield just shows up and messes up your life. You don't understand it, can't avoid it, have to get around it (literally) or face it to get what you want. Life's like that. Monsters too.

The ending’s a bit dour, but, really, what else could we expect? At least it didn’t end in some horribly awkward unpleasantness between Rob and Beth-

Rob: (bloodstreaked and panting) Beth! I’ve just survived disaster and destruction death by weird creatures to come here and rescue you!

Beth: (staring at her shoes) That’s so…nice. You know, Rob, I really like you… as a friend

That would be a fate worse than death. Thankfully, it doesn’t come to pass. Rob acts on his conscience, Beth realizes that while a lot of guys will bring you flowers, Rob has just faced off against a first cousin of Cthulhu to get her out of a condo with a newly-acquired 60 degree tilt. She appears to appreciate his efforts. You can read the rest on Rob’s face: We kind of made out. I was kind of a jerk. I’m sorry and I’ll do anything to be with you.

The first point is adolescent. The second is all too common. The third is a bit tardy and even clich├ęd, but heartfelt in the face of disaster. Love triumphs over omnivorous beasties and crumbling concrete. Hoo & Ray for Rob & Beth. You’ll be glad that they got together. You’re sorry that everything else kind of all went to hell.

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