Monday, January 21, 2008

Spoilerific Review of "Cloverfield"

J. J. Abrams is known for several things. Most famously for Lost, I suppose, an ABC show whose season breaks are so long viewers wonder if it's been cancelled. He also botched Mission Impossible 3 and he's rebooting the Star Trek franchise later this year. But most recently he's produced Cloverfield, a movie known best for its viral marketing campaign. Viral movies have, in the past, succeeded (Blair Witch) and failed (Snakes on a Plane). I have a feeling that Cloverfield will undoubtedly succeed, but that doesn't mean it's good.

I should mention right off the bat that this review is packed to the brim with spoilers. If you haven't seen Cloverfield and don't want anything spoiled for you, don't read any further. However, you should also know that the film's synopsis could be written in about a paragraph, there are no plot twists, and you rarely see the monster that is terrorizing Manhatten Island(which I have named "Das Beastie").

Cloverfield is, admittedly, unique for a number of reasons--one might even say innovative. While most monster movies focus on the monster itself (Godzilla series, Godzilla 1998, King Kong, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, I could go on...), Cloverfield tells the story from a bystander's perspective. The only other monster movie that's attempted this viewpoint that I've seen is Gamera: Revenge of Iris, in which a ten-minute sequence depicts Gamera's reckless attack on a Gyaos "bird," destroying half of Tokyo's Shibyua district in the process. Cloverfield is also filmed via hand-held camcorder like The Blair Witch Project, which gives a real sense of scale to the destruction as well as a "you're right there with them" feeling to the movie. The monster itself is fairly unique, and while obviously inspired from several beasties in the past, looks nothing like your standard reptilian behemoth.

The plot is nothing special. The first twenty minutes of the film introduce the five major characters at a party, and one of the characters (nicknamed Hud, surely a reference to Heads-Up-Display) is interviewing people with the camera. An earthquake (or something) momentarily shakes up the party (HA!) and a local news story reports on a barge being overturned in the bay. Everybody runs to the roof because they want to see the overturned ship, only to see a building explode on the skyline. Everybody runs downstairs and then, for reasons unknown, into the streets, where Hud briefly catches a glimpse of a giant vertebrate passing behind a building. Stomps are heard. People scream. The camera shakes madly as Hud runs around.

That's where the trouble starts, at least for me. I imagine this sort of movie would not be difficult to watch on a small TV screen, but in the theater, the constant shaking and motion of the camera may leave you feeling dizzy or at least lightheaded. I ended up with a migrane headache and a feeling of imbalance that lasted until the next morning. None of my friends experienced this motion sickness, though, so it might just be me. If you get motion sick, though, avoid Cloverfield, at least in the theater.

Rob, one of the main characters, decides to find his way to midtown to save his ex-girlfriend, Beth. As his friends warn him, Rob would be crossing the path of Das Beastie, but for reasons I can't quite understand, he cares not. For reasons that make less sense, his idiot friends decide to go with him. Hud feels a duty to film the entire event, even stuff that doesn't make any sense to film, like a pitch-black subway tunnel or running up several dozen flights of stairs. What Hud does a terrible job of filming is Das Beastie itself, who shows up several times (it appears to be following out heroes), but Hud always manages to look at his friends instead of the monster. There are some close-ups, but I would have preferred full-body shots. As it turns out, Das Beastie is hardly in the movie, and when you see it, you just get glimpses. There was a scene late in the going where Hud and his friends are trying to cross a collapsed building, and the monster is coming right for them, in plain view to the left. Hud glances at it, then insists on making sure his friend Lilly's butt is still safe. DUDE! LOOK TO THE LEFT! YOU IDIOT!

Innovative though the camerawork may be, Cloverfield never rises above the standard genre scares. Das Beastie shakes off spider-like parasites which immediately attack innocent bystanders. This is a kind of cool biological trait, but it amounts to a "surprise" encounter with the spiders in that pitch-black subway tunnel, which I could see a mile away. "Hey, a pitch-black subway tunnel. We'll be safe there, right? Oh, it's so dark. Here, turn on the camera's night-vision (because cheap handheld cameras have night-vision). OMG! Spiders! Run!" And of course, the spiders did not attack at any time before they were seen. It would be in bad taste to attack prey that doesn't know you're there. If the spiders bite you, you eventually explode.

Then there's the "monster attacks, to nobody's surprise, the helicopter that Hud and his camera are on," the "everybody survives expect the pilots only to have one more encounter with the monster" scene, and the typical soap opera subplot crap that tires a movie like this out. Why would you film that, Hud? That's the other problem. At a certain point, I would just drop the camera and run--perhaps when Das Beastie is standing right over me, considering its next meal, or when the spider things are attacking the ugly girl. No, I'm just gonna film it. I'll let the cute girl help.

If you've had any interest, you've probably looked for pictures of Das Beastie on the Interweb. You'll usually come across concept art, like the big whale thing with lots of flippers. But the second I got home from Cloverfield, I sat down to draw its insidious form. What you are about to see may shock you, and I have been told from several people who saw the movie that it's essentially accurate. There may be an extra elbow joint in the arms, and the face might be a bit flatter, but...Behold! Das Beastie!

Terrifying, no? Those little paddle-arms bring to mind the Alien Queen. Actually, the whole animal seems like more of a bunch of concepts than a finalized build. Also, the hindlimbs are never really seen--I'm just guessing as to their form. There definately are hindlimbs, and they're a lot shorter than the forelimbs, but...yeah. Anyway, now let's talk about Das Beastie, and the other movie monsters it obviously takes inspiration from.

First off, the head is straight from the creatures in Gears of War. This is especially obvious near the end when it's being bombed, and also when it's staring Hud in the face. It is unique in having soft-tissue inflatable sacs around its temples, which indicates when it inhales and exhales. That's kind of cool. The teeth, tongue, and eyes all scream Gears, though. The tiny mitted vestigal arms smack of the Alien Queen, and the monster's overall arm-centric form may be a nod to King Kong, although that's just a guess. The creature is not textured well, and it seems to have an entirely smooth, perhaps moist skin. Assuming it came from the ocean, it may be originally amphibious. Aside from its sheer size, Das Beastie doesn't look especially threatening, and one wonders how much time Abrams et al. spent on the design. The spider-creatures look more threatening, but definately familiar. There are pieces of the insects from Starship Troopers there, the Splinter bugs from Metroid Prime 2, and the Chimerae from Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles. They have a decidedly leggy appearance and a high-rising head, which is kind of cool, but we've seen it before.

But what really irritated me about Cloverfield is exactly what makes it unique. There are no scientists or army generals explaining things away. Nobody knows the monster's motivations. Hud muses to himself as to Das Beastie's origins, but that's all we get. If you stay past the credits, you find out that, like Godzilla (not GINO), Das Beastie is impervious to all weaponry. Did it come from space? The ocean? Some island in the Pacific where a tribe worshiped it as a God and fed it a virgin sacrifice every year until one time they forgot and Das Beastie went on a rampage? Why attack New York? Was it a government-created biological weapon gone awry like in the short-lived TV show Surface? We get nothing, and that really frustrated me. I can only hope that the DVD will include more information about Das Beastie (including a name for it). The director has mentioned in interviews that a sequel may be on the way, and may come in one of two forms (if at all): Another movie shot by somebody else the same night, or an entirely new movie exploring the monster's origins and motivations. Guess which one I'm hoping for?!

Now, two of my friends are absolutely gung-ho about Cloverfield. They loved it, and really felt like they were a part of the action. They did not get motion sickness, and felt that the entire experience was very intense. They are not, however, big monster-movie fans. Thus, they are immune from references to previous kaiju films and genre-specific cliches.

So you may actually enjoy Cloverfield. You might like it a lot, but I couldn't stand it. Aside from the interesting perspective switch, Cloverfield fails to be original in any meaningful way, and may in fact give you motion sickness. Take this monster flick with a grain of salt, and maybe wait for the DVD.

P.S. For both this post and the spinosaur one, I cannot click on my pictures. They will not open in a separate window. Are the pictures too big, or is this a Blogger problem?


Tracey said...

Great review! I just got back from seeing this and have been so horribly nauseous since about halfway through the movie...ugh. Definitely not just you!!

Amanda said...

J saw this the other day and he thought it was totally unbelievable...that some guy would film his friends dying...He thought the line, "people are going to want to know what happened" was a particularly lame excuse.

ScottE said...

Ha! What a great and entertaining review. It does sound interesting, but not 2-hours interesting to me, and I'm not likely to go see this in theaters anyway.

"(because cheap handheld cameras have night-vision)"

All CCD cameras can see infrared. Some actually come with IR lamps. So it's not "night vision"; it's IR-vision.

For a really good, innovative monster movie, see the Korean kaiju film, The Host. Brilliant, funny, and way more inventive than I was anticipating!

Traumador said...

Spot on review!

Yeah as a huge Godzilla fan (heck there were even parts of the lame American version I liked) this is among the WORST monster movies I've EVER seen... though Godzilla's Revenge is worse to be fair.

Why would I go see a monster movie to NOT see the monster.

The American Godzilla was frustrating that way for the first half, but at least they smartened up and showed him for the latter end of the movie.

The ONLY compelling thing about a monster movie is unwarranted property destruction on a massive scale. That damage being caused by a massive creature or robot making it cooler.

Human drama and monsters? Yes I've always wondered "how would people act if a monster was tearing up the city?"...

At least if it was more interesting perspective like a news team or something, and actually have shots of the monster!!!

You cut Abrams a lot of slack. I'm so sick of his whole "I'm so clever hehehehe I'm not going to tell the audience anything, and thus I'll look smart hehehehe"

It's not brilliant to cover up a lack of imagination and forsight by opting out of telling us key points. My friends thought this was so smart "just like Lost" ugh...

Anyways I'll just end up ranting if I type anymore about this movie.

I'm just glad we pirated it... I'd be enraged if I paid $15 to see it.

Your review is spot on minus not slamming Abrams enough