Sunday, January 27, 2008

New Movie Review: "Cloverfield"

Terrible. That's a word I heard repeatedly from an older couple as the crowd left the theater after watching the J.J. Abrams produced Cloverfield. It was then that it hit me: Cloverfield is really a movie for a newer generation, a different mindset. The monster movie, which has the gimmick of being "shot" entirely by one single camera, one that you and I may have, really plays with pre-existing ideas and cliches. It has simplistic plot (unknown monster attacks NYC), but the movie isn't about why things are happening, just that they are happening.

Let me stop here for a moment and talk about the gimmick. Although shot similarly to The Blair Witch Project, it isn't presented as "documentarily" as TWB was. The characters are halfway between the Hollywood stereotype often seen and the "real" people of TWB. There are jump cuts and rocking of the camera, skipping over some action, etc. It is stylized is such a way that it is indeed a blend of big budget Hollywood SFX and Blair Witch-inspired realness.

As to see why this film is both so out there, yet so riveting, one should examine what Cloverfield is not. It isn't a Hollywood movie, with big names (Lizzy Caplan, who was last seen on the one season show The Class is probably the biggest name). It isn't a typical monster movie, with shots of the monster crossing the New York skyline. There were many more shots of the monster than I expected, but the concept of the movie is that we see it through the eyes of the survivors, not from some omnipresent source. We don't get a backstory to the creation of the monster. The movie was written by Drew Goddard, who also wrote for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and currently is involved in Lost. Much like those shows, the extraordinary is only used as background for illuminating the ordinary.

And I think that is where the older couple, and perhaps the older generation as a whole, might miss the boat with this movie. On the surface, this movie is full of cliches. Longtime friends have feelings for each other, but have a big fight and separate the night of the attack. This causes the man, Rob, to chase after the girl, Beth, out of love through the disaster. There is the wisecracking sidekick, the dutiful brother, all the typical group dynamic cliches. There are deathbed conversations that last longer than they should. People survive one big tragedy, only to be taken away in another one. A lot of cliches, no?

But anyone who has seen BtVS or Lost knows that there is a newer generation of geeks that love to mess with conventions. Look at Abrams' other big projects: Alias (which combined spy genre with sci-fi elements) and Mission Impossible 3 (which had a plot device that Abrams repeatedly teased the viwer with that he never revealed). I truly believe that the intention of this movie was to send up those monster movie cliches. That is why it was filmed as being real. Abrams and company were sticking the trappings and sometimes stitled dialogue into real people as if to say "See this? This is believable? Yet, we've all been watching these sorts of movies for decades." If Abrams intends to turn Cloverfield into a franchise, then this movie is the perfect palate cleanser for a newer monster movie. Abrams combined the old with the new.

The movie is a brisk 90 minutes, with about the first 10 or 15 mood setting, as a party is thrown for the main character, Rob. It sets up the characters well, as the walking cliches I mentioned before. My point about them being shoehorned into roles and being somewhat unlikable has been mentioned elsewhere. The movie does capture the terror of being in a dangerous situation that is completely out of one's control, as I felt pangs of fear where the military finally showed up. The movie is rated PG-13, so it isn't as gory as I thought it would be either, which made it more easy to watch.

Taken at face value, the movie is okay, maybe even terrible, as the older couple put it. But much like The Blair Witch Project and Adaptation, movies that you needed to know a little about before you went in and be able to take a step back and realize what is going on, it is a great movie. It is scary without being horrifying, it is funny without being obvious, and it is excellent filmmaking.

4 1/2 Dudes out of 5.

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