Thursday, October 2, 2008


You can't fathom how excited I was to see the American remake of Godzilla in 1998. I grew up in love with Godzilla, and since the movie was heavily promoted as being done by the people behind Independence Day, a movie I probably watched a dozen times at least, I had no reason not to be excited. The Greg Lytle of 10 years ago was a much less cynical, critical, and pessimistic person, so even though I knew the American Godzilla wasn't incredible by any stretch of the imagination, I still liked it. It was only years later that I came to realize what a terrible failure it was, making the dire mistake of focusing on unlikeable characters, absurd chase sequences, lame "Godzilla plays hide-and-go-seek with helicopters" action sequences, and a terrible segment wherein humans run from Godzilla's young'uns, which was ripped directly from Jurassic Park. Let's face it, American monster movies aren't good, King Kong aside.

In fact, one could make the argument that monster movies in general aren't that good anymore. They belong to a different time and place, and even the ones we still like are decades old and unarguably cheesy. Sure, the more modern Godzilla films are pretty good and have decent special effects, but they're still a bit childish. The problem of monster movies, in my opinion, is that if you only focus on the monster(s), you quickly run out of things for it to do. You can only watch a monster smash buildings, fight the military, and combat other monsters for so long before it gets really boring. At the same time, if you focus too much on humans, you risk losing an audience that came to see things get smashed and blown up. Or you get something like the American Godzilla, which is bad in both cases. After all, this is a film where simple missiles kill Godzilla despite the fact that in every Japanese film he pretty much scratches his ass with everything the military throws at him. Lame!! And again I say, "lame", dear audience!!

So, it's kind of weird for me to sit here writing about Cloverfield, a monster movie not even a year old that I mostly ignored upon its release. Godzilla '98 had ruined whatever interest I had in monster movies, particularly American monster movies, so it took a real leap of faith for me to finally watch this. At the same time, so much mystery and buzz had been built up about Cloverfield that I think my imagination of what it could be, along with everyone else's imagination, ended up being better and more interesting than the actual thing. Not that the Cloverfield monster is terrible, exactly, but it just kind of looks like every other monster churned out over the years, you know?? In fact, it only looks slightly more 'realistic' than the '98 Godzilla, which was also almost purely CG. At any rate, Cloverfield, when I finally saw it, felt like an apology to the world for that Godzilla movie. It shares a lot in common with the '98 Godzilla, down to our heroes crossing paths with the main monster over and over and smaller creatures chasing/attacking them, too. But it's both a better film and a better monster movie, so please accept it as an apology, world.
The success of Cloverfield lies solely in the fact that our heroes aren't really heroes at all. They do some heroic things, to be sure, but otherwise they're just ordinary people. They aren't trying to destroy the monster even though it kills people they know. They aren't even trying to stop the military from killing it, like in some monster movies. No, they're just trying to go rescue some dude's ex-girlfriend and get out alive. I would probably just let an ex-girlfriend fend for herself if a giant monster was smashing up my city, but I'm a bad person. Anyway, the movie does such a good job of establishing an ordinary world that the first part of Cloverfield could almost be mistaken for a comedy/drama about 20-somethings in New York City. Using the first person perspective throughout, we are made to sympathize with the characters by sheer familiarity and proximity even though we don't know much about them. This "camera as a character" thing is borrowed from The Blair Witch Project though I found it a lot less nauseating and disorienting here. Your mileage may vary.

Thus with its in-the-thick-of-it look and feel, Cloverfield has an immediacy and visceral-ness lacking in other monster movies. Our heroes react to events as they happen just as we, the viewers, do. Moreover, the camera-wielding character acts as an audience surrogate, constantly offering commentary about ongoing events as well as asking the questions we might ask if we were in the same situation. Constant screams of "oh my god!!" and "did you guys see that?!" are both grating and true to life, bringing to mind amateur footage and reactions of 9/11. In fact, the whole movie smacks of 9/11, as all post-9/11 disaster movies have and will, but there are many visual cues that directly recall the event so that the idea of an unknown giant monster is a bit more believable. If terrorists could fly planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, hey, why couldn't a giant monster rip the head off the Statue of Liberty and smash up New York City?? In the end I think this is the movie's secret success: it made the monster movie believable and somewhat scary again. Not scary in a "jump out of your seat" way, but scary in a "on-the-edge-of-your-seat, everything's-happening-so-fast, holy-crap" kind of way.
Yet Cloverfield is no masterpiece, and those who suggest that it'll help reinvent or reinvigorate the monster movie genre are fooling themselves. The monster isn't the star, it's the whole "event" and our reaction to it as it's taking place. You could replace the monster with anything else and it wouldn't make much difference. It hurts me to say that, since the creators clearly put a lot of thought into the beast, but it's true. In commentary and interviews they talked a lot about how the creature is like a newborn baby; rather than purposely attacking the city and humans, it's just confused and scared. While wild animals are frightening, I don't think any of that came across in the film. I certainly didn't think of it until I heard the commentary and read said interviews, particularly because of the ridiculous deus-ex-machina ending where (spoilers!!) the monster directly attacks the helicopter our heroes are escaping in and then proceeds to loom over our injured cameraman before pausing dramatically, looking down at him, and biting him in half. For a movie that strived to make a giant monster realistic, this part really seems artificial, as does the final moments of our two surviving heroes embracing and managing to say they love each other a second before the military bombs the ever-living-shit out of the monster...and a wave of fire consumes Romeo and Juliet...and helpfully turns the camera off so that we flash back to a movie they made on a date a month before. Ah well.

I remember hearing many critics say something along the lines of "Cloverfield is like Godzilla for the YouTube generation" but I don't think this holds up too well. For one thing, the movie would have been far more effective if we had flashed across different people and their documents of 'the Cloverfield incident.' It also bothered me that the battery of the digital camera lasted so long during the movie, since at one point the characters loot a store to get a new cellphone battery. But I digress. When the head of the Statue of Liberty is flung down the street, we see a huge group of people taking cellphone photos and videos of it. The creators of the movie have suggested that sequels might present those differing accounts, but how much more successful could the original movie have been as a monster movie that focused on the monster if we weren't following the same group of people?? I didn't hate the heroes we stuck with, which deserves praise on the face of it, but I also was hoping to see other people, too. Perhaps some mixed media footage of the government examining the small parasite creatures that fell off the giant monster?? Maybe some footage from the tanker that capsizes at the beginning of the film?? Maybe even a local news channel's recap of the monster's path of destruction?? It's true that it humanizes a widescale tragedy to get the depth of a singular account rather than a wide-but-shallow array of many accounts, but still. George Romero's latest zombie film, Diary of the Dead, was quite similar to Cloverfield in the way it dealt with a huge disaster on a small scale with a group of people documenting events as they happened with digital cameras. And, well, I felt the same way--I wanted to see more of what was happening across the world or simply in other areas of the same city. At least Diary of the Dead had the good sense to force the camera-wielding-character to plug in his camera since it was running low, but it would be fascinating to see a monster or even a disaster movie that truly would look and feel like how the Internet world community would document, capture, and comment on these kind of events. Or you could make essentially a Ulysses of a monster movie and mostly follow a main character over a day while giving over sections to other people to provide context and for contrast.
People sometimes talk about certain films as being "a ride." What they mean is, it's like a rollercoaster or a thrill ride: you're constantly on a heightened state of alertness and reaction and the moment the action starts, it never lets up. I always think of Jurassic Park or Aliens when I think of "ride" films because they keep building and building and things are never fully over until the credits roll. Cloverfield holds a similar distinction, except that it's not as lasting of an appeal as those two films. It's a one-shot deal; once you've seen the movie, there isn't enough there to watch it again. Neither the characters nor the monster are good enough to warrant repeat viewings, and once you've 'been through the event', so to speak, that's enough. Though Cloverfield is a good movie, combining as it did a better version of Godzilla '98 with The Blair Witch Project's camera style, it's not great. It's a rental, a single viewing, and a lot of unrealized potential.

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