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Arts & Culture

Cloverfield

Now the danger of so much buzz is that it builds a lot of audience excitement and expectation, which, if not satisfied, can lead to a heightened sense of disappointment. As my son and I waited for the preview screening to start, you could hear people still speculating on what the film would be. Would it be a creature or a robot? Would it be another American Godzilla? Would it be King Kong? My son and I speculated too. I asked him, "In a Godzilla or Gamera movie, how long before we see the creature?" "Ten minutes," he said. That prompted me to make a bet with him "If Cloverfield reveals its creature in ten minutes, it will be great. If it waits longer than that it will probably suck."

Okay, not exactly scientific methodology but as a diehard fan of monster movies (from Universal horror to the classic man in a rubber suit Japanese kaiju movies to the recent South Korean The Host ), this was a valid prediction to make. So as the lights dimmed, we squirmed anxiously in our seats, hoping to be impressed by a new monster. Yes, our expectations were high and we were hopeful. We are both suckers for a good monster movie (after all I do have a 3-foot tall Godzilla and Gamera in my home).


Michael Stahl-David and Odette Yustman in Cloverfield (Paramount)

The film begins like The Blair Witch Project with an explanation that what we are about to see is found footage of some terrifying event. The titles imply that Cloverfield is some government code name for the site of the destruction we were about to witness. A tape begins to play. The date burned onto the image tells us its April 27. Rob (Michael Stahl Stahl-David) is videotaping the morning after with his new girlfriend. After a few cute shots, the tape jumps to May 22. Now its Rob's going away party. He's leaving for Japan. (This made me hopeful, the reference to Japan meant that maybe the film would pay appropriate homage to the great monster movies from the land of the rising sun.) Rob's friend Hud (T.J. Miller) has been tasked with videotaping reactions and good-byes from everyone. Hud takes his job seriously, and it's a good thing because he's the one who is about to diligently document the terror to come.

When something like an earthquake hits Manhattan, Hud runs out to film the chaos, including the now famous Statue of Liberty headshot. Something is tearing up the city but no one can figure out what. All Hud catches on camera is a glimpse of something big moving through the city. And how far into the movie are we? Some twenty minutes and still no sense of what the creature is. All we know is it's big and destructive. It will take quite some time before we get a good glimpse of the creature.

SPOILER ALERT

I am about to describe Abrams' answer to Big G so skip this graph if you don't want to know

The creature looks an amalgamation of beasts created by Ray Harryhausen taking a little from the Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (in which a creature rose from the sea and terrorized New York), 20 Million Miles to Earth and even a little from Clash of the Titans . The film seems to be deliberately trying to pay homage to our classic American monsters rather than trying to rip off the design of Japans towering titans, which I have to say is a nice touch. It's also nice to see an American monster movie in which the U.S. military is helpless to defeat. The American Godzilla movie was ridiculous -- and failed -- because it gave us a monster that could be easily subdued by man and technology.

Anyway, back to Cloverfield . Its monster is on a definite rampage through the city for no apparent reason and the small band of characters were hooked up with is trying to escape its path. But they make a stupid detour so Rob can try and find the girl he slept with but had dumped. Of course she lives way atop a 40-story building that just happens to be in the middle of all the destruction. But since we don't care much about the characters or their fates, there's not much tension built up along the way.

So, the monster did not appear in the first ten minutes, and yes, ultimately, Cloverfield sucked. When it ended, a bare 80 minutes after it began, you could hear a collective sigh of disappointment from the audience. One person even yelled out it was a rip off. The couple next to me seemed so deflated that they turned to me to ask if I had the same reaction. Many of us even waited until the last end credit rolled by in hopes of some post credit kicker that would redeem the mess. But no. All we got was some heavy breathing, possibly implying that not everyone was as dead as we thought.


Cloverfield (Paramount)

Not only did it take half the film before we got to see the creature but the many minutes leading up to the reveal were painful. The shaky-cam was not only annoying but it called so much attention to the contrivance of the device that it pulled us out of the story. Handheld camerawork can be effective -- in small doses and when used for effect. Paul Greengrass made excellent use of the "shaky-cam" in Bloody Sunday and to lesser effect in United 93 . he used it to give a sense of immediacy. But as used in Cloverfield , the handheld camera conveys less a sense of immediacy and more a sense of this being a realty TV take on the monster genre. That means it feels like no one is writing and no one is in control of the material. It's just being thrown out there "uncut." And oh boy does this film need some editing and the sense that someone is in control. Just because its meant to look like home video doesn't mean it has to look like crap! Some people, even drunk ones, can actually hold the camera still and get someone within the frame. Plus we don't buy that Hud would shoot as he's trying to climb from one sky scraper to another or as the girl he's been hot for is attacked and in need of help. At least The Blair Witch Project was a genuine low budget movie and its rinky-dink look was justified. But Cloverfield had money and could have made the film look better. The only redeeming factor here is that Hud sometimes provides amusing running commentary. It's like having Harold and Kumar or Seth Rogen dropping into a horror film to provide comic relief to the proceedings.

Abrams (best known for creating Alias and Lost ) came up with the idea for Cloverfield and serves as the film's producer. He handed over the actual task of making the film to Matt Reeves and Drew Goddard. All three of them coming from TV successes. Director Matt Reeves created Felicity with Abrams, and writer Drew Goddard wrote for Buffy before working with Abrams on Alias and Lost . Now Lost has dabbled in monster land, serving up a black smoke creature terrorizing the island survivors. And the jury may still be out as to whether the dwindling viewers of that show have bought into that creation. So maybe Cloverfield is an attempt to make the monster formula work better. If so the experiment has failed.

For Cloverfield, this creative team spends way too much time setting up characters that we don't really care about, and far too little time with the creature and its destruction. Personally, I liked the creature far more than the humans. The monster looked very cool and it seemed able to spawn little winged creatures (bat-like tarantulas with lethal bites) that provided the film with one truly scary attack in the subway. But we are given no information about what the creature is, where it might be from, or any speculation at all about it. Abrams has said that he wanted to create an American monster movie that would provide a legendary figure like Godzilla and be a metaphor for our times. Well his nameless beast does neither. Godzilla had personality! You can make fun of the fact that he was a man in a rubber suit, but that man in the rubber suit gave Godzilla a personality, just like King Kong had a personality. A monster without some kind of identity will never become legendary. As for the notion of a metaphor what, America is destroying itself? A metaphor for 9/11? Okay, maybe that works, but not very well. This film seems so designed for an audience that's plugged into the web, electronics and itself that there's no humanity in sight. Those who liked the film were probably texting their friends while the movie was still going on. But for me, Cloverfield has about as much human interest and suspense as an episode of survivor.


Skip Cloverfield and see The Host (pictured here), which is better (Magnolia)

After seeing Cloverfield , I was so frustrated and disappointed that I felt like I needed a palate cleanser. I wanted to immediately go home and watch South Koreas The Host . Now there's a great, new monster movie. We see the creature early on and in broad daylight. It serves as a potent social and political metaphor for Korea. We come to care deeply for the characters. And through the course of the film we learn how the creature came about, what it is doing, and how it lives. If you love monster movies and start to feel the urge to see Cloverfield , I urge you to go rent The Host instead. Or at the very least, have The Host waiting for you at home for when you come back from Cloverfield feeling let down.

Cloverfield (rated PG-13 for violence, terror, and disturbing images) gets a 10 for its monster but a 2 for everything else. The subway attack and a few revealing scenes of the creature (especially as he moves in for a kill) got my hopes up that the film would be better. But the filmmakers kept going back to their stupid humans and bad camerawork. The film would have been much more clever if it had gathered a number of videos from different people in the city, plus some from the military, and maybe even a few surveillance cameras in the city. Then it could be like someone going through these tapes to gather information for a report. Then we could have fast-forwarded through all the crap at the beginning and all those drunken good byes from the party. Nobody wants to sit through that kind of home movie. Diehard Abrams fans may still find a way to like this movie (as they have found a way to embrace the black smoke entity on Lost ), and the frenzy of attention the film has received will probably make it the weekend's top draw. But this movie is unlikely to go down in history as a classic monster movie.

Companion viewing: The Host, King Kong, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, 20 Million Miles to Earth, Godzilla Wars, Gamera

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