It’s been a while since we’ve posted… I know.
To put it simply, Cloverfield is effin’ scary. I would venture as far as to say that it was the most viscerally affecting movie I’ve seen since Children of Men. This isn’t just a monster movie; it’s a movie, that, like The Mist and I Am Legend before it, plays on our greatest unthought-of fear, that something so disastrous could happen that all manner of government protection would be rendered moot. Mass chaos with no way out, and nothing to keep you alive but your own strength of will in circumstances that you’d never imagine yourself in. Cloverfield is so effective at what it sets out to do, reminding us that our modern “civilized” society is one catastrophic event away from being reduced to nothing more than bickering people who’ve been taken over by primitive “fight or flight” survival instincts.
The way the reviewers have talked about it, I’m sure you’ve all heard complaints ad nauseum about the “lack of story”, the “unlikeablility” of characters, the illogical choices made by certain people, and that it didn’t make sense for someone to keep recording through the whole thing. Honestly, I didn’t care about any of those things at all, and it’s a testament to how involving the movie is that I only once stopped to think about the fact that a camera battery wouldn’t last as long it does, and only one other time to think about how long it would take them to walk in a subway tunnel the distance that they said they did. Despite the rich, hipster vibe that the characters exuded, I didn’t really find them all that grating, even though it was basically as if Godzilla interrupted an episode of Felicity (with good reason; both the executive producer and the director were co-creators of that show). If they indeed go ahead with a sequel to be shot in the same style, telling a different story from the same night, I would love to see people from the opposite end of the spectrum and how they managed, how different their priorities were, and just how they would differ in their actions in general.
More often than not though, I found myself sitting in my chair, with my mouth wide open, totally enraptured by what was going on. Would I too be able to climb across a roof of a forty-story building that was leaning at a sixty degree angle from the ground, only being held up by the building next to it? Would I have gone back to save someone from a giant killer spider-crab in a pitch black subway tunnel? Why was this monster movie the first one that ever made me question the lengths I would go to survive? As intense as it was, The Mist, never made me feel this way, despite the fact that the subject material was quite similar. In my opinion, it goes to media theorist Marshall McLuhan‘s statement from his book “Understanding Media:Extensions of Man“, that “The Medium is the Message”. To put a very long and convoluted series of the oftentimes contradictory thoughts by a raving Canadian lunatic into a simplistic summary, the method by which a message is sent from one person to another is oftentimes more important to the delivery than the message itself. The best example of this is the famed Nixon-Kennedy debate where the majority of radio listeners seemed to think that Nixon had won, while the television viewers, able to see Nixon’s body language, sweating, and poor make-up job, were convinced that Kennedy won. On a side note, I always wondered if the people who did that study took into account the differences in politics between the people who listened and people who watched, and if that played into their answers to the question.
How this idea of medium applies to Cloverfield is that we’ve been programmed with the language of film over the past one-hundred years. Even if we aren’t aware of it, we’ve come to expect a certain syntax. We don’t notice it though, until a reverse angle of a shot doesn’t match, or an edit isn’t smooth. The Mist lives by these rules, and the whole time it tries to invoke this question of “what happens when the world goes to hell?”, while also playing it like a 1950s B-horror movie creature feature. Issues with the unfocused nature of the plot set aside, it’s the fact that the movie’s presented in the language of Film that makes you step back and realize how preposterous the story really is.
Ironically, it’s the movie inspired by the crude and incredibly repetitive Godzilla series that has effectively transcended this medium and broken out of the box, leaving genuine lasting emotion. The same way that we’ve been trained to understand that movies aren’t real and that we shouldn’t feel anguish when Jason Vorhees, “an unstoppable killing machine“, hacks someone up with a machete, we’ve been trained to recognize video as infallible. Which affects you more: watching an alien pop out of someone’s chest killing them in a movie, or watching a video of a skateboarder falling fifty feet to a hard wooden surface and seeing his shoes explode, but then being able to walk off, relatively unharmed? We haven’t yet learned to apply the same reality filters to video that we currently do to film, and this is what Cloverfield exploits.
No matter how many times you try to tell yourself this movie isn’t real, the medium that the message is delivered in contradicts your thoughts and plays to your instincts. What would happen if you took this movie over to undeveloped parts of Africa (as McLuhan puts it, a place where people have not been “immunized” to this medium) or if someone years down the line saw this without the context to put it in? It’s very likely that they might think it actually happened, especially if they’ve seen the 2001 attack footage. Critics (used literally, not film critics) of the movie have been saying that it exploits September 11th imagery, but I would argue that it successfully uses those scenes we have committed to memory to scare us in a very real way, much more than any slasher flick or monster movie has done before. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been spending a large amount of time in the area that was directly affected in the movie. It’s more likely that I was less able to discern the difference between the two because when the twin towers fell I was watching it on a movie screen in a film auditorium. Watching Cloverfield, it was hard not to think back to this moment and relate the two, drawing all that emotion out.
One of the most harrowing scenes in the whole thing is the destruction of the Brooklyn Bridge, which I’ve walked over a few times. It may very well be the most frightening destruction of a major landmark ever to be created in a movie, far scarier than anything in the modern classic Independence Day or its red-headed step-brother The Day After Tomorrow, completely because of its realism and the point of view of the person delivering the message.
Here’s where the debate rages though. Should a movie be judged on how effective it is at making you feel a certain way, or on the quality of story and characters? If it uses the story and characters as well as technically impressive work to achieve this emotional effect (such as in I Am Legend), then it’s obvious that it’s a good movie. What happens though, when the two aren’t mutually exclusive, when character development and a tight story take second chair to exceptional method and incredibly well-realized scenes? Is it still a good movie? This isn’t to say that Cloverfield offered no cohesive story or successful characterizations (the realism in the actors’ portrayals ” not so much film acting, but moreso being in the situation with a natural intensity that you would expect of someone living out this unthinkable scenario”"certainly drives the moments and carries the film as much as the technique), but it’s a chase movie in the most basic sense. Something’s attacking, nobody knows what it is, but we’re running from it. There’s really nothing more to it than that, and I would be hard-pressed to say the movie had an effective story to tell, instead opting to give you a few character dynamics and letting them provide the motivation for an hour’s worth of recorded events. I’ve heard completely mixed reviews from friends and film critics in regards to this movie, and it seems as though this question of how to judge is where the basic disagreement lies. For me, the movie was incredibly effective at what it set out to do, and was plenty enjoyable from start to finish (and I loved the epic “Cloverfield Theme” that scored the credits) and that’s all I can ask for in a threatrical experience.
One last thing. If in my diatribe about the presentation of the movie I left out the success of The Blair Witch Project, which this movie couldn’t have come about without, it was because that was not a successful movie. Where the difference between the two films lies is that while The Blair Witch created a very real found-footage aura, it was overly-long and for the most part, boring and whiny. Think about it. The bulk of the movie was about kids wandering around the woods and arguing with each other. It took on the found-footage medium and while it succeeded at creating a realistic portrayal of what one might look like (as in “normal people are generally boring and spend a lot of time fighting and talking about nothing at all”), it completely failed as entertainment for all but about 15 minutes. It had a few interesting story elements, but needed to pad out its runtime with lame characterizations and nothing really happening. It was also completely visually uninteresting, giving you nothing to fall back on when you got tired of all the complaining going on onscreen. Cloverfield takes a look at the mistakes of this film and basically imports action movie beats into the style in order to fix its problems, never stopping to let us take a breath or think about all the implausibilities. The people behind this movie have brilliantly created a hybrid “found-footage/blockbuster action movie” medium, and by doing this, it skews our perception of its events, leaving our common sense to duke it out with our basic media instincts, and that is why it truly succeeds.
Cloverfield is not only a genre-redefining movie, but a medium redefining movie that uses the language of video and film together to confuse our perception of events. You know it isn’t real, but once it wraps you up in its swift pace, that notion leaves your mind, making the horror of the scenario all the more genuine. The entire group of people involved were committed to making you believe that this had really happened, and they succeeded admirably at doing it. Now next time, give us some better characters and a more plausible story arc for them.
While I’m at it….
I really wanted to love it, but it completely tears itself in two directions, trying to be a giant killer insect horror movie, and a bold statement on how far our civility falls when we’re presented with dire circumstances. Not only that but characters are either underused (Andre Braugher) or completely over-the-top crazy (Marcia Gay Harden), and though Tom Jane gives a strong performance (before he brings it on a little too strong at the end) he can’t keep down all my hatred for the main antagonist, the crazy religious nut-job who wants everyone to repent or die. If it’s supposed to be allegory, it takes a very ham-fisted approach that really turned me off. Subtlety isn’t this movie’s strong point. Visually, it’s spectacular, but unfortunately a great premise is undermined by story issues, probably stemming from the source material. Much like most of the movie, the end sort of rips off of “Night of the Living Dead” in its painful irony, though it may have one of the best “downer” endings I’ve seen in a long time.
I Am Legend
Visually, the most realistically drastic transformation of any actual location that I’ve ever seen put to film, I Am Legend decides to “show” us, and not “tell” us about the collapse of humanity, unlike The Mist . By that I mean that while the previous movie spends its time preaching to you about how everyone will turn on one another to survive, this movie shows the result of that, in a devastatingly real fashion. You are left to create your own account of how it all went down, only giving us brief glimpses into society’s fall in flashbacks that serve more to develop Will Smith’s character’s personal story. It was completely refreshing to see a movie that doesn’t give you every detail and leaves some things open to the imagination. Will Smith’s character and portrayal are perfectly subtle in the ways that his past, his loneliness, and his obsession with curing the sick have taken its toll on his sanity, but the critics are correct that unfortunately all of this strong set-up seems to devolve with about twenty-five minutes left into some more action-oriented, less suspenseful version of Signs, right down to the “oh, it all makes sense now, God has a plan for me” revelation. I Am Legend is a completely haunting vision of what life would be like if you were the last person on earth, Zombie storylines aside.