Written by Monster Awareness Month team member, Mark S. Deniz
[Part Two of Mark’s ‘Handheld Cinema Classics’ trilogy]
Something has found us…
So reads the tagline of one of the most powerful films of its type so far. Being as several of the monster obsessives I know have dismissed the film (for various reasons) and seeing as I, much as I am a lover of monster films, am not a monster film devotee, I am aware I may well be treading on thin ice in praising its quality. However, as I’m not known to easily shy away from making a fool of myself in defending a beloved movie, I take to the stage once more…
I agree the film starts quite badly, even though I understand why. There’s a distinct lack of personality from the protagonists and the hand-held camera action is hard work at times, even for me. I usually don’t have a problem with the camcorder effect but in the early stages of Cloverfield I really struggle.
There’s the shaky camera work, party gossip, revelations of flings at Rob’s leaving party and the wonder at this point is possibly why you’re watching the film.
And then…a little over eighteen minutes in, the film begins in earnest. We did need the intro for the characters but it was all leading to this, to the monster.
The film picks up in action, pace, intensity, and even though I adored the early pay off in The Host, where we see the monster in no time at all, I feel that the delay in showing us the Cloverfield monster was done to perfection.
I completely jumped out of my seat when the Statue of Liberty’s head came flying down the street, just before we caught our first glimpse of something big, something monstrous near a skyscraper.
A sense of panic builds as the party goers, along with half of New York, try to make their way out of the city before we see a massive tail take half of the bridge (and Rob’s brother Jason along with it).
This is where, like The Blair Witch Project, that Cloverfield stands out, as the filming feels real, you can’t understand why someone would keep filming at a time of such distress and faced with something so unbelievable but you also understand why it happens. It almost becomes an extension of ‘Hud’.
We then get a glimpse of the monster from another ‘screen’ as people in an electronic store stop to see the monster’s companions, the smaller beasties, grabbing a few civilians from the street before the best shot when the four protagonists flee down a subway tunnel to get away.
It’s here when I think the early stages of the film are justified, as we see Rob’s insistence on tracking down Beth, (which we would have had no feeling for otherwise) and Rob’s telephone call from his mother, where he has to explain that his brother, Jason, is dead.
They’re all running in the same direction. It’s like they’re running away.
And then we meet the little beasties, who are not actually so little, and where, unfortunately, the film loses a little again. As much as we want the camcorder to follow the action, we want it to be as believable as possible, to strengthen our suspension of disbelief. As ‘Hud’ is attacked by the monsters, there is no way he’s going to keep that camera running, or hold it while his companions are attacked. Again this is where The Blair Witch Project shines, as there is never a moment in that film where the camera action doesn’t gel, doesn’t fit.
The film blends the pace well, the direction keeping the dialogue within reasonable frameworks, before handing over to the action, which in turn is sharp and punchy.
After leaving the subways and the smaller monsters, we move into, what I consider the most disturbing part of the film, where Marlena starts to show symptoms from the attack and they are surrounded by the military, before Marlena is taken into quarantine. I’m not so sure whether this is disturbing because of what is actually happening to Marlena or due to the whole military involvement and what that usually results in in these kinds of situations. That they are befriended by an army officer, who helps them to get out of the building helps to counter this trope, but serves more to dilute than to diffuse.
We then follow Lily, Rob and ‘Hud’ as they make their way to the apartment block where Beth is, and here is one of the most gripping and enjoyable scenes, as they travel between collapsed rooms, at dangerous angles to get to their destination.
During the trip to Beth and the ensuing reunion, between her and Rob, we are witness to a cacophony of sounds, both from inside the apartment (as ‘Hud’ is forced to put the camera down to help them rescue Beth) but also from the battle outside between the monster and the military.
Something else, also terrible!
Leaving in the helicopter gives us much more scope, as instead of seeing everything up close and personal we get an overview of a section of the city and our up-to-now, best glimpse of the beast.
And for a beast he’s rather impressive, first as he razes the city, before knocking the helicopter (carrying Beth, ‘Hud’ and Rob) out of the sky.
We then get a couple of minutes of camera stasis, as we hear about ‘Hammerdown’ and how it is due to be initiated in fifteen minutes – we know now there is not much time for our gang.
‘Hud’ then ‘meets’ the beast, in the most gruesome and well delivered of scenes before we are left with Rob and Beth in a tunnel, understanding the gravity of their situation. Rob decides the best thing to do is document what has happened from their perspective, and for those that may find the video afterwards.
The film then ends and we return to the past, and Rob and Beth’s date at the funfair, before the camera dies and the credits roll.
There’s a lot packed into 85 minutes, and it shocks me every time I watch it that it is actually less than an hour and a half. In fact the 85 minutes refers to the whole film from start to ten minute closing credits and the wonderful ‘ROAR (Cloverfield Overture)’ by the excellent Michael Giacchino, an accepted tribute to Ifukube’s Gojira theme. The film is actually 73 minutes long, the length of a DV tape, giving a greater authenticity to the piece.
Not only is there much within the story to feast your eyes on, with reviewers using superlatives like “chillingly effective”, and with a “whip-smart, stylistically invisible” (script) but there is so obviously a reaction to events, such as 9-11 and subsequent terrorist attacks that give the film a little bit more of an edge for the US public.
I’ve read an equal number of reviewers damning the film for its over-the-top in your face approach to the subject of terrorism as those praising its use. Referring back to James Willett’s Remake and Reboot article I can’t help but agree with his sentiments about why Cloverfield succeeds and why the Godzilla remake fails, as the former follows the themes and feel of previous monster films, those that look at society and the human persona, whereas the latter is a merely a big monster going around trashing New York, a pale shadow of its 1954 original. Whether it is less subtle than other films is, of course, up for debate, I merely state here that it at least falls into the same category of the greats, in terms of intention.
J. J. Abrams stated that he wanted to create a monster for the US, a monster that could rival Japan’s Godzilla and here I think he failed, more for the fact that less than five years after Cloverfield’s release we are getting ready to witness another remake of Godzilla. Why I think he might have failed is that he wanted to give the US filmgoers a monster that they could call their own, not entirely realising that they had already bestowed that title on the Japanese behemoth. It doesn’t matter that he is not from the US (the ultimate irony is that he was created as a response to the atrocities inflicted on the Japanese by the US) for he is already part of their cinematic make up and will remain so.
But, Cloverfield is a great monster movie, it works on all the right levels: the tension builds up superbly, once the monster appears, the monster itself is fabulous, especially with its smaller cousins/friends/offspring, the idea for the videotape length sublime, etc. It’s a film I thoroughly enjoyed the first, second, third…around and will, I suspect, enjoy more the more I watch it.
Exquisitely placed to end Monster Awareness Month, I leave you with Cloverfield!