Cloverfield was a helluva ride and not much else. I’ve never seen a movie that hewed quite so closely to its pitch as this tale of narcissistic twenty-somethings on the run from a mysterious creature that is laying waste to New York City. It is almost literally The Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla as we see the story unfold in (nearly) real time via a character named Hud’s filming every move he and his friends make as they try to survive an attack by a giant monster.
And in many ways, it is awesome. Things start off slow. After an ominous opening declaring that what we are watching is found footage from what used to be called Central Park, we are hit with some youthful melodrama at a going away party for Rob, who has totally been crushing on Beth “since college” but has not told her how he feels, aside from them hooking up with each other a month before the film begins. We intermittently see flashes of Rob and Beth on that magical day together as Hud tapes over it. Soon after Beth leaves the party with another dude, the monster attacks sending eerily 9/11-ish clouds of white smoke and the head of the statue of liberty down the streets of NYC. Rob receives a voice mail from her, hurt and asking for his help. And faster than you can say “Idiotic Plot Contrivance” Rob takes off on a quest to find and save the totally righteous babe, with his camera-carrying pal and a small assortment of Monster-Bait, I mean friends, in tow.
While the soapiness wasn’t my favorite part of the film, it was also the most minor. After about 15 minutes of set-up, the shit is still dripping from where the fan sent it, and we get a 1st person view of some very scared people running for their lives. It could be cheesier than the parking lot of Lambeau Field, but the fact that we can only see the monster in short flashes helps out. As does the visceral impact of seeing things as the characters do. When Rob and Co. turn a corner and find themselves in the middle of a tank division unleashing hell on the passing beast, it’s hard not to get that “Holy, Shit!” feeling as they try to get to safety. The fact that the camera shakes and pans wildly could be disconcerting to some, but hours of Halo have rendered me immune to that sort of disorientation.
Produced (though neither written nor directed) by J.J. Abrams, the co-creator of TV shows like Lost and Alias, it’s not surprising that the film likes to have mysterious things happen for reasons no one can rationally explain. He prefers the mystery of the unknown to the unsatisfying exposition. The monster has no real origin, and he really doesn’t need one for the purposes of the story. Rob and Hud have no idea where it came from, so neither does the audience. It can be a little infuriating, but if you think about there isn’t really any one explanation for the creature that would really be better than the possibilities inherent in keeping it vague. Is it from space? The Marianas trench? Is it a Cthulhu-type thingy? I dunno, and I bet Abrams doesn’t either. While they do show the whole monty in a few brief scenes, we usually just get a general idea of the monster’s size (and its elbows). The meat of the story is the Rob and his friends trying to get out alive. The downside to the structure of the film, from a storytelling standpoint is that we know there will no sense of closure. If this is footage that the military found in central park, we know from the outset the best we can hope for is for those crazy kids to drop the camera there at some point, if not get killed outright. There is no possibility of us getting to see the monster destroyed by a reprogrammed Mecha-Godzilla and Rob and his pals eating birthday cake with Godzooky and laughing about the whole thing. The lack of satisfactory ending is inherent to the film’s conceit.
It feels mean to say that there was nothing original about Cloverfield. But there really wasn’t. It’s a mash-up, something artfully crafted from ideas that have come before and welded together into a viscerally satisfying whole. Should originality be part of the criteria for a good move? The easy way out is to say that Cloverfield was enjoyable, but not good (if that distinction holds any practical value for you). But I think it was good. It made me think of the movie Equilibrium. To say that this movie borrowed liberally is like saying that David Foster Wallace kinda-sorta likes to use footnotes. In terms of plot, it lifted elements whole from 1984, Fahrenheit: 451, and Brave New World. The look of the film was a direct swipe of The Matrix. And yet somehow the whole was nearly as good as (though probably not greater than) the sum of its parts. Abrams and company have performed a similar feat of alchemy with their shaky-cam monster movie. It was wildly derivative, yet perhaps because it wore its influences proudly, seemed to rise above the level of high-concept schlock.
Go see it.