Monday, April 14, 2014

Cloverfield (2008)

Unbelievable as it may seem now, there was a brief period of time where hearing that J.J. Abrams was attached to a project was something that elicited excitement instead pained groans. Before Lost ultimately whimpered to a close and before he cast the whitest of white guys as Khan Noonien Singh, Abrams was attached to a great deal of loved properties.

So when an unnamed teaser for what was unquestionably a found footage giant monster movie made its debut before Michael Bay’s first Transformers with Abrams’ name attached as a producer, there was an understandable amount of excited buzz instead of trepidation. As the months ticked on to the film’s release, though, a lot of the hallmarks of everything wrong with Abrams began to come forward.

The first was not really Abrams’ fault: the movie had no title. They had cut a teaser before they even fully had an idea of what they were teasing us with. The title “Cloverfield” was actually some kind of placeholder name or shooting title that the internet inevitably got ahold of. So despite attempts to rebrand the film (the only one I recall being the generic “Monstrous”), the filmmakers eventually succumbed to the inevitability of Cloverfield. The rest, however, was completely Abrams: the endless mysteries and viral marketing.

Viral marketing I have no issue with, but the mysteries served no purpose—as they almost never do with Abrams. The final film is a found footage film following a group of “regular” schmucks as they try to make their way through New York City as a giant monster lays waste to it. Obviously, this group is going to have no clue what the monster is or why it’s attacking the city. Therefore, littering hints about the monster’s origin is pointless. It literally has nothing to do with the movie itself.

However, there was one mystery worth obsessing over: what the Hell does this monster look like? The film followed the same marketing strategy as the 1998 Godzilla film and attempted to keep the monster’s design under wraps until its premiere. Unlike that film, they were actually successful. It was not until the film premiered that some fan sketches began to leak out. After seeing this one…

…it was impossible to not be excited for this wonderfully bizarre creature. It’s a shame, then, that the artist had given us a better monster than we get in the film itself.

The film opens with a Department of Defense title card indicating the following footage is codenamed “Cloverfield” and recovered from the area formerly known as Central Park. We are then introduced to Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) and Beth MacIntyre (Odette Yustman), as they revel in the afterglow—which Rob is taping for some reason. Beth admits she has never gone to Coney Island in her life, and Rob decides that they must go—

—and we cut to Rob’s brother, Jason (Mike Vogel), fumbling with the camera. Jason and his girlfriend, Lily Ford (Jessica Lucas!), are trying to get everything together for a going away party for Rob. Thanks to the date stamp on the video, we can tell this is months later than the footage of Rob and Beth. As they get things together for the party, Jason pawns the camera guy responsibility off onto Hudson “Hud” Platt (T.J. Miller), advising that Hud is to get statements from people wishing Rob well on his new job in Japan. Hud will be the audience’s eyes from here on.

Yes, the guy filming the events of the movie is named “HUD”. I bet the screenwriter strained himself patting himself on the back for that.

Hud quickly turns out to be the wrong guy to give the camera to. He lingers on women’s chests and people passed out on couches, barely films the well wishes that are his only reason for having the camera, and ultimately uses the camera as an excuse to harass poor Marlena Diamond (Lizzy Kaplan!). Marlena is clearly not interested in him and is only there because Lily invited her, but Hud is incapable of taking a damn hint.

Rob arrives to the party solo, and when Beth arrives she has some other guy with her. There is clearly some animosity between Rob and Beth, and Hud decides that is it important to find out why. To shut him up, Lily mistakenly spills the fact that Rob and Beth slept together. Hud then goes around telling everyone at the party what he just found out.

While Hud is certainly a dick, Rob isn’t much better. His poor attitude causes Beth and her date to leave early. So Beth isn’t there when a powerful tremor and an unnatural bellow shake the building. Turning on the news, the partygoers see that a tanker near Ellis Island just sank under mysterious circumstances. Since the tanker was nearby, they go to the roof to see if they can see what’s going on. They get their wish—a massive explosion in another location several blocks away rains fiery debris onto the roof.

Fleeing into the street, the partygoers barely avoid the severed head of the Statue of Liberty as something launches it at them. Whatever threw it is clearly large and alive, but Hud is unable to get a clear look at it. However, when Hud, Rob, Jason, and Lily find a dazed Marlena wandering around after the creature passes, she sickly tells them that she saw the thing eating people.

The group attempts to cross the Brooklyn Bridge, with Hud filming everything because he believes it is necessary to document this experience, but Rob gets a call from Beth just as they get onto the bridge. All she can say on the call before they are cut off by Rob’s battery dying is that she is hurt and trapped in her building. Rob is so eager to go save his one-time paramour that he doesn’t even notice that Jason has gotten separated from the group. As Lily and Hud call to Jason, the creature makes another appearance by smashing the bridge with its tail—killing Jason and collapsing the crowded bridge.

Having lost his brother, Rob is even more determined to save Beth, even after a quick stop to get a phone battery from an electronics store that’s being looted allows Hud to see via the televisions that the monster is only a few blocks away using a building to dislodge small objects from its back. Said objects turn out to be some kind of parasites: fanged crustaceans the size of a German shepherd, who are perfectly content to attack humans once dislodged from their host.

Rob is determined to go to Beth regardless of the various exciting forms of death waiting around every corner of the city now, but tells the others they can go to safety if they want. Lily, having also lost Jason, wants to make sure they don’t lose anyone else. Marlena oddly decides she will tag along, so Hud tags along to stay with Marlena.

Their journey gets off to an immediately rocky start. They find themselves caught in the middle of a firefight that a battalion of infantry and tanks gets into with the monster and are forced to take refuge in the subway. Once in the subway, Rob gets a call from his mom and is forced to A) lie to her that they are currently on their way out of the city and B) tell her that Jason is dead. Since the streets are currently a war zone, the group decides to brave the subway tunnels with only the light on the camera as a guide.

This quickly turns out to be a bad idea. Marlena notices that there is a flood of rats fleeing in the same direction the group is headed. Worse, something is clearly in the tunnels behind them. Hud decides to switch on the camera’s infrared to see what it is—and immediately regrets it as he gets a good look at the approaching pack of the parasite creatures right before they charge out of the darkness. Lily is the first attacked, but in the attempt to save her, Hud is dragged off into the darkness by one of the parasites. Marlena rescues him but takes a nasty bite to the shoulder for her troubles.

The group barely manages to find a maintenance door, duck inside, and close it behind to keep the little bite-happy bastards at bay. Since the tunnels are obviously no longer an option, the group heads up and finds themselves inside a department store that has become a makeshift army HQ. Men in hazmat sits trundle past with a dead parasite and—forebodingly—a dead soldier who appears to have been torn open from the inside by some kind of explosion, as Rob pesters the men in charge for some assistance in getting to Beth’s apartment. Despite the fact that Marlena was bitten by a parasite and was just complaining about feeling sick and dizzy right before the group stumbled on the army, nobody bothers to mention this to any of the medics…

…until Hud notices that Marlena is bleeding profusely from the eyes and nose. A frantic medic screams, “We’ve got a bite!” And before any of the group can even process what’s happening, a group of men in hazmat suits drag Marlena into a quarantine tent and Hud records the silhouette through the tent wall as Marlena expands like a ripe tick and explodes messily.

The film’s most likeable character having been killed off, Staff Sergeant Pryce (Billy Brown) takes the others aside and advises that, against his better judgment, he is going to let them go to try and rescue Beth. There is a chopper waiting in another part of the city but if they don’t make that chopper, then they’ll be caught in “Operation Hammer Down”: a last-ditch effort to kill the apparently indestructible monster by bombing Manhattan into oblivion. So now Rob, Lily, and Hud not only have to dodge the giant monster, its parasites, and the military to get to Beth’s apartment—if they don’t save her by 0600 hours, it will all be a moot point.

Cloverfield is a rather divisive film, with good reason. As a giant monster film, it takes on the very under-utilized aspect of even the best giant monster films—the street level view of the monster rampage—and makes that its entire focus. Some would argue this is a bad idea because we came to a giant monster movie to see giant monsters, but most of us are smart enough to realize that the human story is what keeps the film going. No, the bad idea is the group of people they chose to follow.

A monster film where the protagonists are ordinary people and not military or government scientists is hardly a bad thing--especially because then they know as much about the monster as the audience, or perhaps even less--but the group this film chooses is a bunch of yuppie douchebags. I hesitate to call them hipsters, but they're on the cusp. When I originally saw the movie I actually rather liked them--but subsequent viewings have driven home just how obnoxious most of them are. Marlena is actually a great character--at least 90% thanks to Lizzy Kaplan's performance--and I do like Lily, but that may have more to do with my attraction to Jessica Lucas than anything as Lily is rather a non-entity as characters go.

Hud, Jason, and Beth are the characters we most need to like, though, since we spend the most time with them. Whenever the camera is stopped or jostled we get little flashbacks of their happy day together at Coney Island, and they seem likable enough there. However, Rob is a selfish prick in the main film and Beth is given little to do but call him on it (yay) and whine and whimper (not yay). To be fair, I'd be whimpering too if I'd taken a chunk of rebar to the shoulder, but it doesn't make for a terribly engaging character and ultimately she's more of a MacGuffin to keep the characters in the city while a monster tears it apart.

Hud, however, is the audience surrogate. We are seeing this from his POV so he needs to be sympathetic. Instead, he's an obnoxious dope. The audience should be upset when he finally gets eaten by the monster--it's a found footage movie so it's no shock that almost no one makes it out alive--instead we're either happy or indifferent, depending on how obnoxious you find him.

The character we really need to discuss, however, is the monster. Simply put, it's not very good.

Now, I will admit to being biased towards more "traditional" monsters. I tend to prefer monsters that stick close to the "giant dinosaur" body frame of Godzilla, Gorgo, and the Rhedosaurus. However, even bizarre monsters can tickle my fancy. As I mentioned above, I loved the speculative design that I included in the beginning of this review. However, one thing that design has over the actual design is that it looks so vague that it could come from the sea or from outer space and it can be "believably" accepted as such.

The final monster is an alien. It looks nothing like any creature on Earth, even from the deep sea. That wouldn't be a problem, except we're clearly meant to have no idea if it's terrestrial or not. It should go either way, but it doesn't. As opposed to the parasites, which do achieve this balance.

Indeed, the only problem I have with the parasites is that they make the most ridiculous noises. It's more cartoonish than frightening.

The real issue with Cloverfield ultimately is that it's a found footage movie. Part of the major hurdle that needs to be jumped with a found footage film is: Why are these people filming this? The Blair Witch Project follows a documentary crew, [REC] follows a reporter and her cameraman, and Paranormal Activity is a couple determined to get proof of the weird shit going on in their home. You can buy that those people would keep filming, even at their own risk--though naturally even in those films you find yourself wondering, "Why didn't they put the camera down then?"

Cloverfield follows a group of partygoers, one of whom decides he must document everything--even though he was barely interested in just documenting the party, which requires considerably less risk to life and limb if he keeps filming throughout. It beggars belief that he would keep filming constantly rather than just run.

The other downside of a found footage film is that it requires all music be diegetic, so the film shuffles an overture by Michael Giacchino called "Roar!" to the end credits. This overture is truly wondrous and feels almost like an Akira Ifukube theme. Not letting Giacchino score the whole film was a mistake.

In the end, Cloverfield is a decent film, but it really needed a bit more fine tuning before it was released. It's certainly stretching to say it belongs to the same league of classics as King Kong, Godzilla (1954), or The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Hell, not even ten years have passed and the film has largely fallen out of pop culture consciousness--despite Abrams attempts to make ever monster in every movie he produces or directs look like the damned gangly space monkey from this film.

Amusingly, J.J. Abrams said he conceived of this film because he wanted America to have its own Godzilla--a creature that spawns a whole franchise and has toy line after toy line to thrill children and collectors. Given that a promised sequel still hasn't materialized six years later and only one prohibitively expensive figure of the monster was ever produced, I'd say he miscalculated massively.

I guess maybe that will teach him next time not to deliver a monster so underwhelming that even a fan sketch before the movie that posited the creature as a mutant whale was a better idea.

I bet you thought I was joking.

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