The modern fact is that we no longer believe in this world. We do not even believe in the events which happen to us, love, death, as if they only half concerned us. It is not we who make cinema; it is the world which looks to us like a bad film. - Gilles Deleuze
As the Star Trek teaser closed with a huge…Christmas 2008…a handful of obvious super dweebs rose from their seats, fists raised in triumph as one would on a roller coaster and a collective emphatic whisper of “YES” was heard. I wanted to shout out “May the force be with you!” knowing the pure revulsion and frustration it would cause the dweebs as they would not be able to identify the idiot among them committing this sci-fi cardinal sin. Alas, I was too psyched for Cloverfield and I missed my window of opportunity. Timing is everything after all.
What can I say about the much hyped and high concept Cloverfield? How about…holy shit, I get it now. I get what the hell Deleuze was writing about. Studying that old French cracker wasn’t just some professor inflicting a unique form of torture on undergrads taking his French New Wave cinema studies graduate course. It actually was useful information. I just didn’t notice until 6 years later.
Let me back up. Here is the plot of Cloverfield if it had been a normal “Hollywood” disaster flick: A rebellious teen, his/her absentee father/ex-alcoholic maverick scientist, a minority child just orphaned by the disaster and a scrappy but lovable dog and/or elderly preacher venture towards chaos, whilst the rest of New York flees, not only survive this violent attack by a creature from another planet but to save Manhattan and the world because the maverick scientist is the only one who can reverse polarized quantum-flux positronic dark matter essence, of course. After the monster’s defeat, the remaining population of
Manhattan cries out, " ! USA !" Sure, there will be some plot holes and believability issues but it stars Matthew McConaughey as the rouge astro-cryptopalientologist, Dakota Fanning as the teen and Will Smith’s kid as the orphan. With the information about the creatures one weakness they defeat it, but for a moment we think McConaughey didn't make it until he emerges from the rubble and joins the remaining heroes (elderly preacher would not have made it, but the dog would have been fine) and they all circle the enormous carcass of the dead whatever the hell it is. A slow clap, followed by roaring applause. They all test really well. Oh and it wouldn’t have been shot DVD cam style either, of course. USA
*WARNING: Spoilers Ahead!*
And while the TV spots have tried to market Cloverfield as a “little guy fights back” against immeasurable odds flick, those are just mainstream lies to get people to drop cash on a movie that simply cannot be marketed to those craving the ending described above. Oh, I forgot to mention, if the movie were made by Mann or Spielberg it would have been titled “Manhattan Burning” or “Fight of Their Lives” or something even lamer, if that is possible. Cloverfield is past and present at once; it is the embodiment of Deleuze’s crystal-image. From frame one, the audience is informed that what follows is evidence of some catastrophe, yet we are forced into the now by the presentness of viewing it. This is found footage, not turned over by its documentarian; therefore we know immediately that this is a mysterious and violent happening and it may not end well. The world of Cloverfield exists in two points in time, maybe 2 ½ - past, present and when the camera is off. But it is not the familiar logical world films usually present. Usually the audience assumes life goes on and characters might mention events in the past, they are clued into the story, even elements which are not shown. Cloverfield doesn’t leave a lot of room for that back-story. Sure, these people have lives and pasts, but none of that matters save for Rob’s weekend with Beth a few weeks ago. They are in the now. One of the few faults of the film is that the camera never misses anything major. It would have been nice if Hud missed the action once or twice. He never misses a plot point. That is almost as unbelievable as the giant reptilian something attacking New York or the fact that lives are risked multiple times to retrieve the camera for the simple reason that, “People will want to know.” Maybe at some point the characters realize that the survival of the tape is their best shot at avoiding their fate as anonymous collateral damage victims?
And who are these jerks running straight into the heart of darkness that is a 30-storey mystery/mutant/alien/deep sea creature possibly just awaked by off-shore drilling perpetrated by a Japanese beverage company? The apartment hosting the going away party is frickin' huge and most of the party-goers seem lame and uninteresting. The main characters are nothing more than overgrown teens, assuming we give a shit about their dating lives. Like most of the other exposition in the movie, we are given little work with, making it more about time itself rather than the characters struggling to survive. It reminds us that people die when chaos occurs...even main characters. The fact that most of them are douches just makes it somewhat easier for the audience to handle as the damage progresses.
No maverick scientist or government force can save
. This is not the Western style play-out that we are so accustom to. No one exclaims “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!” after one of the few successes they manage to get away with – successfully bashing some freaky spidery type parasite to death that fell from the monster and hunts down those snackable humans. The characters are on their own and by choice. Never have I had such an exhilarating time watching people rush into their impending doom as they sling a few so-so one-liners and careen past some really kick-ass effects that you never REALLY get a great look at. The resolution, POV and focusing issues faced by everyday DVD camcorder users does keep the film grounded in reality while the incredible persists. Manhattan
Cloverfield may, however, make you violently ill. I’ve heard of weak knees giving way, vomiting and some fainting from some folks I know. I blame the sound not the shaky cam. The sound is Oscar-crushing. It feels as if the theater is actually shaking. Every piece of concrete cracking, the tidal wave of debris e.g. 9/11 footage, the cars snapping beneath terrible claws – every detail sinks into the audience’s bones.
So kudos to Mr. Abrams, the director Matt Reeves and the pen-master Drew Goddard for making a truly enjoyable and jarring American European-esque horror movie. While the editing, sound and style really sell what could be perceived as a relatively light script, the utter boredom shattered by complete terror and chaos should not be underestimated. Nobody throws young people into horrific situations like this Buffy, Angel and Alias alum. Goddard’s 2002 and 2003 Buffy episodes are some of the best of the entire series - see Dirty Girls, Lies My Parents Told Me and Conversations with Dead People. Knowing those well titled works, it’s a little surprising that “Cloverfield” stuck. If only it were a writer's medium.