I feel remiss letting the one big budget, theatrically released daikaiju movie of 2008 pass by without comment. I have no illusions about the utility of these comments, however. Every fan on the Internet has already seen the film and come down fo’ it or again’ it. Instead, I plan to cut a path straight through the ambivalent center. My hope is this vantage point with throw Cloverfield‘s good and bad sides into stark relief allowing us to have fun. This is, after all, supposed to be entertainment. Not the Second Coming of Godzilla. Not the Third Coming of the Blair Witch (God help us if it is). Cloverfield is neither of those things, in spite (or perhaps because) of the fact that it was probably sold as such.
“Probably,” hell. This is one of those movies where you can almost hear the producer making his pitch over the first reel, no commentary track required: “Okay…it’s Godzilla meets The Blair Witch Project…with creepy bugs thrown in for good measure. And I’ll do it all for under twenty-five million. I’m telling you, we can’t lose.” Unlike the film’s characters.
Cloverfield begins with a multi-colored barcode and a warning from the Department of War Defense. We’re about to witness the contents of a SD video card recovered from “Site Designate: U.S. 447-B. Area formerly known as Central Park.” Creeps-inducing frame out of the way, we find ourselves back in the land of shaky-cam with our Hero, Rob (Black Donnelly‘s Michael Stahl-David).
But not for long. Soon Rob and his sleepy-headed paramour, Beth (Odette Yustman), give way to Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and his girl, Lily (Jessica Lucuas), who (we learn through clunky, expository dialogue) are busy preparing Rob’s going-away party. (Great thing they turned the camera on just in time to catch all this for us, no?) As the newly-appointed Vice President of…something or other…Rob’ll depart New York for Japan soon. Lilly charges Jason with taping some testimonials throughout the party, the better to send Rob on his way.
Jason, in turn, hands the job off to Hud (T.J. Miller), Rob’s “main dude.” I initially feared Hud. My spider-sense warned me that he was destined to be our Odious Comic Relief for the remainder of the picture. His flagrant attempts to hit on random party-goer Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) bear this out. But Hud’s at least semi-serious enough about his job to shut the hell up occasionally and let others speak. “I’m documenting the night,” he repeats to anyone who asks…and what a night it proceeds to be.
For one thing, it seems Beth and Rob are no longer on speaking terms. Beth compounds the problem by showing up with (gasp) someone else. (Sure, great idea, honey. That’ll work out just fine.) Storming out after the inevitable fight, she leaves Jason and Hud to console the grieving Rob, which they do…to a point, declaring (in true Romance Novel fashion) Rob to be a worthless piece of human shit sans the Love of a Good Woman. An opinion, incidentally, he’ll do nothing to disprove over the remainder of the film. If anything, Jason and Hud’s assessment of their brother/friend is a little soft, considering just how much of a Designated Hero Rob will eventually turn out to be.
Mysterious explosions interrupt his Pity Party, raining fire and rubble over lower Manhattan. With our characters established in Mississippi-broad strokes it’s time to we follow them, through Hud, as they flee Rob’s building. Outside, panicked civilians jam the streets. Smoke, mortar-dust, and the Statue of Liberty’s severed head soon join them, leaving our characters shaken and puzzled…save Jason, who keeps his head long enough to figure that, “We need to get out of the city.”
No shit, right? Going with the crowd-flow, Our Heroes evacuate en mass along the Brooklyn Bridge. Freedom’s in sight…until Rob halts to receive a panicked call from Beth, across town. “What…you can’t move?” His friends (including Hud, still filming) call a halt at the worst possible moment, in time for something to lurch out of the East River and snap the bridge like a toothpick.
Recovering in the streets below, it becomes apparent to at least three of our four survivors (Hud, Lilly and Marlena) that they’d better get off the island before it comes back. Rob, for his part, totally shuts down, consumed by the sudden need to help Beth. Wracked with guilt over his brother’s recent death and the plight of his apparently-trapped girlfriend, Rob sets off uptown, to Beth’s Columbus Circle apartment, out of some misplaced sense of responsibility. His friends put up only token resistance to this suicidal idea, becoming culpable to their own demise. Will Rob rescue the girl he sent home angry, reconciling with her in the process? Will Rob, his girl, and the dwindling band of friends survive the frantic hellscape of midtown Manhattan and escape?
Bully to director Matt Reeves and writer Drew Goodard for having the courage to answer this question as they do, and to frame it in way so-far unused by the genre. We’ve seen the occasional Japanese TV News anchor give the occasional stand-up shot live on location somewhere in Tokyo. But for too long we’ve sat, annoyed, through film after daikaiju film as hapless characters waltz through monster melees immune to harm. As immune as we their audience. How many Godzilla movies end with the main characters standing around watching the action from minimum safe distance? It’s long past time a filmmaking team chose to tell this kind of story from the ground up and I am thankful someone else, somewhere, finally picked up this idea and ran with it.
Not since Godzilla: 1985 have characters in a giant monster movie endured more crap. And come to think of it, these New Yorkers have a lot in common with those Edokko. Both flee their pristine, technological heights to run screaming through blasted streets. Both miraculously avoid friendly fire and/or becoming monster toe-jam. Inadvertent separations strike both parties thanks to ill-fated helicopter rescue attempts late in both films. But whereas 1985‘s protagonists have an integral part to play in the overall plot, Cloverfield‘s hapless humans are the plot in its entirety.
This creates several problems that have nothing at all to do with the motion sickness you may or may not feel after an hour and a half in Hud’s POV camera. First, there’s the problem of motivation: I have no idea if Goodard (whom you and Matt Reeves know from Lost and I know from the Buffy/Angel Universe) consciously chose to use Love as his MacGuffin or had the choice forced upon him from above. Hollywood higher-ups insist women will not watch action-packed extravaganzas without a romantic element…no matter how patently unbelievable it might be. I just can’t help but wonder if there’s an alternate version of Cloverfield out there somewhere, wherein the following exchange (or something similar) takes place:
Hud (to Rob)
Dude, all that stuff I was saying before, about going after Beth? Forget that, man. That was all kinds of get-your-man-up bullshit. That was pre-giant monster talk. And we’re living in a post-giant monster world now. So, like Nick Tatopolus always said, dude, we gotta go, go, go!
But I need her!
Man, what you need is some sense smacked into your damn, fool head. Here, hold this.
(HANDS camera to Lilly, DELIVERS aforementioned smack, spends rest of film LUGGING Rob’s unconscious body away from the giant, rampaging ichthyoid, rather than towards it.)
A less dramatic story, perhaps…but more believable than the alternative.
Not that said alternative isn’t fun. In fact, it’s a nightmarish odyssey, defying all the usual comparisons. Cloverfield makes Miracle Mile look like a short hike through Washington Square Park and it beats The Poseidon Adventure (both of them) like a family mule on every relevant metric. The cast of relative unknowns, with no previous roles to hobble them (I’m looking at you, Matthew Broderick), turn in spot-on performances, questions of motivation aside. Their panic is palpable, infectious, and therefore effective, transforming what would otherwise be a fairly-standard disaster film into what it is: a horror story.
Clive Barker once said something to the effect of (I paraphrase) “Horror stories are stories of people about to die.” Hence half the effectiveness of (just to pick an example off the top of my head) The Blair Witch Project. There, budget and intent aligned perfectly, creating a palpable, impending Doom absent from your usual horror movie. Hyperconscious of this, Reeves chose to drop his audience into Hud’s shoes and abandon them there, creating a dissociative displacement that’s both jarring and hypnotic. By making the film more or less one continuous POV shot the filmmakers bypass that cynical portion of my brain (as it sits in judgment of their characters – see above) and plug right into my fight-or-flight responses…the very same that propel these onscreen fools. We become Hudson Platt to an astonishing degree…so much so that Hud’s voice and face (when occasionally heard or seen) wrench us, violently, from the delusion that we are, in fact, there. Hud even makes this explicit at one point, telling the camera (re: us) in an aside, “If this is the last thing you see it means I…I died.” Yeah, buddy, you certainly did…and in spite of all my protective armor, callused from years of being jerked around by ham-handed movies, I actually care. Not about Rob: fuck him, and his estranged girlfriend…but the rest of you bastards are just well-drawn enough, and superbly acted, to inspire me. I wanted you to live…and its been a long, long time since a daikaiju protagonist made me say that.
So all you future monster moviemakers out there, take a lesson: personal jeopardy equals drama. Drama equals audience identification. Identification equals interest and interest is what we need if we’re going to propel our favorite genre into the twenty-first century.
And this is very much a post-Nine Eleven daikaiju movie, its images and settings keyed for a post-modern, deconstructed audience. I’d love to see more of our titular monster, or at least hear some explanation of its origins and rampage…but setting those questions aside puts the audience and the characters on the same foot, underlining all that stuff in the last paragraph. Most of my endearment flows from the fact that Hud is the only character with the presence of mind to consider these questions. “I don’t read the papers,” he admits, “Maybe our government made this thing…Yeah, it matters! Because I need to talk about something. Otherwise I’m actually, probably, going to shit my pants in this stairwell.” I’ve yet to hear a more concise expression of contemporary America’s crisis.
Also, there’s the occasional “camera” malfunction, allowing Reeves to cut the main story with scenes from Rob and Beth’s visit to Conney Island, about a month before the monster’s attack. The best day of Rob’s life, then, is literally overwritten by the worst, as first Jason, then Hud, tape over Rob and Beth’s trip. Their ignorance of the camera’s functions occasionally allows blissful, ignorant scenes of our two romantic leads enjoying the pinnacle of their relationship. This is sappy crap designed to worm its way into my heart…and by God it works, against all odds, adding a poignant note to an already tragic operetta.
That, in an eggshell (big as Mothra’s) is Cloverfield – a slick production in the hands of ready, willing, and able professionals who shamelessly manipulating us into buying their cheap, cookie-cutter melodrama. Short on plot, short on action, long on suspense, it lures us into common cause with its one-note, Living Doll-characters, something other giant monster movies only hope to achieve. It’s my hope other daikaiju storytellers-in-training will pick up where this film leaves off and carry its baton forward, past the pitfalls it couldn’t avoid.