On Cloverfield

Up from the depths, 30 stories high, breathing fire…

A combination of Japanese ancestry and over-identification with my inner child means I am heavily predisposed to like movies featuring implausible giant radioactive monsters.  So it will come as no surprise that I liked J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield.  But what I liked about it, oddly enough, was that it stayed away from the typical Godzilla monster-movie formula.  You know the one.  Giant monster trudges out of the ocean, takes issue with local architecture, and after a number of false starts, an unlikely combination of reluctant scientists, gung-ho soldiers and comic-relief kids collaborate to defeat the giant monster.  In this movie it’s not entirely clear what—if anything—could slay this beast.  And that’s okay.

The interesting thing about Cloverfield is that it really doesn’t go to great pains to explain the hows or whys of the monster.  It simply is.  Just as if you were watching some giant menace crawl ashore in your own hometown, and not from the Godzilla-movie safety of the Cabinet Room, with the Japanese Prime Minister, the Chief of the Self-Defense Force, and the plucky scientist-of-the-week in attendance.

What I Liked:

  • City-smashing monster goodness.
  • Civil authorities seemed to react quickly and responsibly, civil order did not completely decay.
  • Military personnel portrayed as caring, competent, and brave.
  • Filmmakers did not feel compelled to explain every little behavioral and genetic detail of the monster to the audience, as would happen in a Godzilla flick.
  • A deliberately ambiguous ending.  A lot of people hated this, and I can understand why.  On the other hand, I am 100% certain that there is no form of corporeal life on this planet that cannot be felled by sufficient application of kinetic force.  I believe that to be true whether or not the filmmaker shows it to me.
  • The main camera-operator is kind of like a weird hybrid of Shaggy (from Scooby-Doo) and Butthead (from Beavis & Butthead).  I found this highly amusing.  I know a lot of reviewers did not.  They were expecting Orson Welles-level acting.  Keep in mind it is a monster movie, not The English Patient.
  • No in-movie soundtrack filled full of whiny modern bands.  Yay, cinéma-vérité!
  • Nice short running time—84 minutes.  To quote Nathan Lee in the Village Voice, riffing on the Cloverfield movie poster tagline: “Can we just take a moment to pause the action, set aside our differences, drop all beefs, join together as one, and give thanks, all praise due, shout joy to the world and hey, hallelujah—something has found us! Something that isn’t three fucking hours long!”

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Not enough city-smashing monster goodness.  Seeing a monster stomp a mudhole downtown is part of what makes these things fun.  Smashy monsters need more screen time.
  • Flaky Gen Y scenesters.  You will want some (or possibly all) of these characters to die.  I know this is the end of life as they know it, but ratchet back the drama a tiny bit.  If my city were to get wiped out, yes I would be upset for lost family and friends.  But I’d also be thinking about how to get through tomorrow, and the next few days, under the present circumstances.  I would sure as hell want to exact personal revenge on the giant monster, too.  And dead men avenge no deaths.  So the first priority is staying alive long enough to hit back decisively.  You’ll have time to cry later.

NOTE:  I should point out that I am not a fan of Lost, another J.J. Abrams’ effort.  Some people love the ambiguity and intentional obscurantism of the plot in that show.  Not me.  But in a giant monster movie—which has an implausible premise to begin with—ambiguity is really not a bad thing.

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3 Responses
  1. Flea says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed it too and point for point the reasons you have outlined. I was particularly impressed with the evacuation procedures which in a couple fairly subtle ways were exactly right. Or at least are the way we would handle things at St. Elsewhere so realistic as far as that goes.
    I could have done with a little less of the yelling of the same name over and over again for the length of the film but, yes, there are many, many people like this who would react in precisely this way. I was surprised to learn a film set in Manhattan and Coney Island was actually shot in Manhattan and Coney Island. The scenesters were so similar to the Toronto variety I assumed they were in fact the Toronto variety.
    I am also foursquare in agreement re. exacting vengeance. Now thinking I need a Cloverfield Plan to parallel my Zombie Plan.
    The English Patient would have been significantly improved by the introduction of a 200′ monster.

  2. Chris Taylor says:

    There are very few movies that wouldn’t be improved by the addition of giant monsters. Especially the awful ones from my youth, like Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People.

  3. Flea says:

    I saw The Company of Strangers at the cinema because a friend was being forced to see if by her girlfriend. The film was almost as tedious and self-regarding as its earnest, progressive audience and we were dying of boredom until we realized its premise – eight women on a bus tour get stranded and have to learn to find strength in their diversity – would be much improved if the party was being picked off one by one in the bush by an unseen terror.
    We started re-scripting scenes on the fly. The loud whispering and muffled chortling did not impress the girlfriend but to this day I will sometimes wiggle my arm and say, “Anaconda!” This is the first time I have ever had the opportunity to explain why.