Dogme Meets Godzilla

Your technology is your prison!I’ve used this line a couple of times in the past, but it works perfectly for “Cloverfield”: If this was in Japanese — or Spanish, maybe — it’d be marketed as a genre-bending masterpiece, embraced by critics and ignored by audiences.

Instead, it’s turning out to be the most contentious and divisive genre picture in a while, not just for casual viewers but for critics.

Here is the defense and analysis of Matt Reeves’ movie that’s been rattling around in my head since Wednesday night; I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but just in case, here’s a jump to protect your innocent eyeballs.

So, about those critical responses: Adam, for example, is willing to give the movie credit for doing what it sets out to do — present a monster rampage from the terrified perspective of civilians caught on the ground — but can’t avoid recoiling at the visual references to 9/11.

Stephanie Zacharek and Mahnola Dargis had similar responses, though as far as I can tell they let those responses obliterate anything else they might have had to say about the film. Roger Ebert acknowledges the resonance to real-world disasters, but prefers to spend the rest of his review making snarky comments about genre conventions that suggest, once again, that he just isn’t paying as much attention to movies as he used to.

Over at The Onion AV Club, Keith Phipps has a similar take on it to mine — that “Cloverfield” is not just a gripping attempt to reinvent the giant-monster movie from the inside out, but a genuinely daring formalist experiment — and pays for it in the comments threads, which make for a fascinating feedback loop of audience reaction.

What no one really seems to be focusing on is the collision between the hyper-real nature of camcorder footage and the extra-natural nature of the project. Yes, “The Blair Witch Project” did it first, in a far more ambiguous manner: You could just as easily come away thinking Heather, Mike and Josh got themselves lost, freaked out and eventually consumed one another in a paranoid rage as conclude that the whole thing was engineered by a ghost. (You’d be wrong, but that’s neither here nor there right now.)

“Cloverfield” presents its super-sized monster invasion as undeniable fact. The opening titles, which set up the film as the playback of some 70 minutes of raw footage found on an SD card in “the area formerly known as Central Park”, are as flat and merciless as the opening titles of “Blair Witch”, which told us without fanfare that the footage we are about to see is the only remaining record of the three people who appear in it: They were never seen again.

Those introductions establish the rules of the fictional worlds we’re about to enter, and they also tilt us toward a more pessimistic frame of mind: Whatever we’re about to see, it isn’t going to end well.

Both “Blair Witch” and “Cloverfield” rotate around twentysomething characters who find themselves in situations way over their heads. For extra credit, the “Cloverfield” characters are half-drunk for most of the action, having spent the evening at a going-away party; sure, the inevitable adrenaline rush of surviving the monster’s arrival will sober them up some, but not all the way; it’s another very smart way of making the shakycam aesthetic of hand-held DV a storytelling element, rather than a gimmick.

It draws us closer to the characters, who never come close to understanding what’s actually happening around them; how would you behave in a situation like this? How would you handle watching people die right in front of you, killed by something you can’t even comprehend? And, in your traumatized state, what would you do if your sort-of-ex-girlfriend called you, begging you to come and save her from her midtown apartment in Monster Central?

Would you think things through and abandon her to leave with everyone else, or would you try to man up — even if you don’t fully understand what “manning up” means — and go to the rescue?

The “Blair Witch” comparisons are fair enough, but it seems to me that “Cloverfield” is tied far more closely to three other films. The first is “Titanic”, from which Drew Goddard’s script harvests the essential romantic conceit of running into the disaster to save a loved one; the second is my beloved “Shaun of the Dead”, which I believe is the first apocalypse movie to fully background its apocalypse, though the zombie epidemic provides a more diffused and less immediately threatening “monster” than we’re dealing with here.

The third, and perhaps most telling, is “Miracle Mile”, Steve de Jarnatt’s barely-remembered romantic comedy that, about half an hour into the story of a meet-cute romance between Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham, pivots into a nail-biting WWIII thriller, with Edwards rushing to be with his new love after learning of an apparent nuclear attack. The terror of “Miracle Mile” is rooted in panic (and paranoia; what if that phone call was just a prank?) and thus plays out on a largely psychological scale, where “Cloverfield” gives its threat physical form, but I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that Goddard was traumatized as a kid by catching de Jarnatt’s movie on TBS some random weeknight.

But here is the thing that distinguishes “Cloverfield” different from all the other movies in its wake: After 9/11, we know what panic looks like. We know what crowds of people fleeing a collapsing building looks like, and we know that those crowds don’t behave in what you’d call an orderly fashion.

For any disaster movie to avoid acknowledging this knowledge would be craven and unfair. In interviews, J.J. Abrams has talked about the events of September 11th giving us a “visual vocabulary” for a disaster; Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” explicitly referenced that same visual vocabulary two years ago, but did so in a far more conventional manner and so felt less immediate, though the response from critics and audiences was just as divided.

Basically, as far as I can tell, people were pissed off at “War of the Worlds” because it didn’t deliver the classical genre beats in a recognizable fashion — action sequences that climaxed in heroic victory, a full sense of the destruction and chaos, money shots of the aliens. They’re all in there, just not in a conventional manner, and the closest Tom Cruise’s character comes to heroism is when he points out to the soldiers in Boston that the alien machines’ force fields are no longer functional.

But because Cruise spends most of the movie fleeing and hiding from the disaster happening off-screen, “War of the Worlds” plays as more of a refugee picture than a disaster movie. (M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” was similarly reductive, winnowing its focus down to a family who barricade themselves in the basement of their isolated Pennsylvania farmhouse to wait out the end of the world.)

In running towards the action, camcorder in hand, “Cloverfield” confronts the giant-monster genre in a new way. As in “War of the Worlds”, the genre requirements are fulfilled, but only in the most casual manner; the nature of this movie prevents us from a fuller understanding of what’s happening beyond our characters’ experience, and “Cloverfield” goes even further in denying us the big-wow explosions and rampaging monster action that certain segments of its audience continue to demand.

But, as the saying goes, it is what it is: An isolated first-person perspective of a horrifying event, devoid of context or even coherence because of the very nature of that horror. Abrams and Goddard and Reeves clearly love the genre, and nod to it constantly — even going so far as to cast veteran character actor Chris Mulkey in precisely the kind of thankless supporting role he’d rate in a soulless Roland Emmerich epic — but they’ve crafted a very different experience, and one that succeeds tremendously well in its stated intentions.

Knocking “Cloverfield” because it isn’t like every other monster movie is just missing the point. There’s never been anything like it — a giant-monster movie that’s immediate, terrifying, and utterly credible in its refusal to pretend ordinary people would be anything other than collateral damage in an event like this. And that’s about the only 9/11 analogy that sticks.

5 thoughts on “Dogme Meets Godzilla”

  1. As a Canadian, I would have thought you’d remember ‘Last Night’ as an earlier “apocalypse movie to fully background its apocalypse”. Much more so than either Shaun of the Dead or Cloverfield, for that matter. The apocalypse is pushed so far into the background that it’s barely even acknowledged.

    I don’t know. I still wanted more from Cloverfield. I recognize that logically there really weren’t many other alternatives for how to end the story, but it still felt cheap, predictable, and derivative. You refer to it as “a genuinely daring formalist experiment”. I would agree with that, but the problem for me is that it isn’t much more than a formalist experiment. It’s all gimmick, with no substance behind it. The best genre movies are those that transcend their gimmicks, and Cloverfield never does that. It doesn’t even try.

  2. Hey, Josh — you know, “Last Night” did cross my mind, but it just can’t be read as a disaster movie; it’s just people being considerate to one another for 90 minutes, and in this case it’s the final 90 minutes of their lives. (Yep, that’s pretty much the definition of a Canadian apocalypse movie.)

    I agree that it’s derivative by its very nature, but it seemed to me to use that as a strength, trusting the audience’s familiarity with the genre to fill in the blanks of the usual monster-movie arc. And as far as transcendence goes, I thought Rob’s decision to go after Beth — particularly after what he’d experienced just before she calls him — gave “Cloverfield” an emotional grounding similar to that of “The Host”, breaking through the conventions to find a potent emotional hook. The camcorder aesthetic just made it seem even more urgent this time around.

  3. Hey Norm,

    I really liked your take on Cloverfield and I agree with you on a lot of points. I also thought it would be worthwhile to see a disaster/event movie from the POV of the ordinary joe, the kind of character who would be an extra in a more traditional Hollywood entertainment. I loved the way War of the Worlds presented an ant’s-eye-view of something huge (which the book did first, really), and I thought Cloverfield really delivered on the promise of that and “Blair Witch.”

    And I really thought the palimpsest taped-over camcorder flashes were very interesting and kind of a new idea.

  4. I wasn’t in a huge rush to see Cloverfield, but now that you’ve referenced Miracle Mile (which completely bent by head)as a comparison, it’s top of my list. Thanks for the tip, Norm!

  5. Hey Norm,

    I’m with you. Saw this earlier this evening. Loved it.

    “The best genre movies are those that transcend their gimmicks, and Cloverfield never does that. It doesn’t even try,” eh?

    Nuts. Some works aim for a target and hit it squarely and true. Others aim really high, and miss. As B.R. Myers observed in another context, the former are more deserving of praise.

    Cloverfield aims to be a ground-eye view of a monster attack. It succeeds admirably.

    What’s wrong with that?

Comments are closed.