Warning: This Rant Contains Massive Amounts of Spoilerage!
Never before have I been so happy to see all the main characters of a movie die before the end credits.
Cloverfield, the highest grossing film of 2008 (so far), with a record breaking first weekend haul of 41 million smackers, is almost certainly going to be the highest grossing giant monster film ever made.
Cloverfield is what happens when Dogme/cinema verite meets kaiju eigah, it's naturally lit, the dialogue is all improvised (I am guessing) and the whole film depends on the way the characters freak out when a giant monster lands in New York City.
And for all intents and purposes, this mixture of style and genre should work like gangbusters. But it doesn't for one reason – the monster is barely in it.
Cloverfield is also a giant monster film for people who don't like giant monster films. As evidence for this there is about one WHOLE MINUTE of giant monster footage in this movie. The general plot is ingenious, if, like me you always wondered what the hell was going through the minds of the poor bastards trapped in Tokyo when Godzilla came for a visit in 1954. Now I know. They were thinking "AHHHHHH A MONSTAH!!!!! RUN!!!!!!"
People who don't like giant monster films will see this and think "hmmmm… interesting… such tension… such startling visuals… finally an original science fiction/horror film."
I say "Original in 1933. Not so original here…"
Really, that's pretty much everything Cloverfield has going for it. Sure the gimmick bit where you're watching "found footage" from the most indestructible digital camera every made after the battle with the creature, is ingenious. But, goddamn it, why the hell didn't the guy carrying the camera point the goddamn thing at the monster a little more?
But let's not get ahead of ourselves, the film certainly doesn't, and actually has a nice set of framing elements, that is the one-time off-screen banging of the main character Rod Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) for his longtime friend Beth (Odette Yustman) a mere month before New York City falls under the tramping feet of the monster, which for the purposes of this film I will name "Barelyvisibleziilla". Rod and Beth have breakfast, then go to Coney Island. All of this film is shot with a handheld camera in the hands of one of the main characters, so we don't really meet Rod until later, but we meet his voice and Beth right at the beginning.
Ominously, the footage begins with a government stamp from the Department of Defense that lists the location as "the area formerly known as Central Park". Already, I'm thinking cool!
Taping over this footage of Beth that Rod takes on the morning of their lovemaking, is Rod's brother Jason (Mike Vogel) who, along with his girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) are planning a going away party for Rod.
Got all that? Good.
Lily badgers poor Jason into taking testimonials from everyone at the party with the Samsung "Indestructo" Digital Camcorder (look for it at your local Best Buy). Jason, being the smartest of everyone in the film, badgers his friend Hud (T. J. Miller) into being the camera guy.
Rod, we learn through these testimonials where people speak directly to the camera, is about to take a job in Japan as a Vice President. Vice President of what? We have no idea. I like to think he's going to be Vice President of Japan. Why the hell not, right? Anyway, Hud has his own issues, he appears to be shy, and I say appears because we almost never see him as he's the schmuck holding the camera. Hud has the hots for Marlena (Lizzy Diamond) who does not know Hud even exists.
Why does any of this matter? Well, it allows the writer Drew Goddard to try desperately to make us give a shit as to why these characters will do what they do in about twenty minutes.
During the party we learn that since their ugly-bumping session, that Rod hasn't bothered to call Beth and she's taken up with some other dude named Travis. She even brings him to the party, which, when it comes to yuppy loft parties is a no-no. Rod gets all forlorn after pretty much throwing her and Travis out. While Hud and Jason are flummoxed by all this they realize that Lily probably knows what's going on and badger her until she spills the beans.
Keep in mind, the camera is on for ALL of this.
Finally, Jason and Rod and Hud (and his camera) are having a quiet male bonding moment when something huge explodes somewhere in the city.
Welcome to pandemonium cam! The party stops and everyone scrambles in front of the television. Is it an earthquake? A typhoon? A terrorist attack? Jason Giambi on a roid rampage?
The news says an oil tanker has capsized near The Statue of Liberty.
Better see if we can get a good look from the roof! From the roof the cast and assorted other party goers watch as something fucking huge explodes behind the buildings leading to the coast.
Everyone runs downstairs, and if you've seen the trailer, you've seen this bit where the head of the Statue of Liberty bounces off one of the building tops (which inexplicably explodes… I guess they store the torch oil in her head or something) and rolls to a stop right near Jason and Hud and Marlena and Lily and Rod.
This is the best seven minutes of the movie, so pay attention if you're in the theater.
Everyone tries to make sense of the head in the street and the sound of battle only a few blocks away. Something crashes between the buildings and Hud catches it on camera.
Cut to a brief clip of Beth from a month ago. (which is annoying and I will explain why in a minute).
Then cut back to the people all panicking. It's a monster. They don't know what it is. And it's just knocked down the Chrysler building. Just like the towers falling on 911, the street fills with dust and debris and everyone scatters for shelter. In the midst of this the monster walks down the street. We don't see it.
Let's take a brief detour to discuss how digital video cameras function, shall we? We know this is a digital camera because the opening government text says it's a recovered SD Card. But the way the camera is used in the film is as if it's an analog camera, like, as if Hud could accidentally tape over part of the previous recording of Beth that Rod made. He can't. It's impossible. Digital camcorders record individual .avi or .mpg files (or some other standardized digital imaging format). A file is not like a spool of rewindable analog tape. It's a file. A digital image file. So the bits where Hud, or someone else, is messing with the camera and accidentally showing bits of Beth mean that person has to choose the Beth file and view it… but they treat it like Hud is "taping" over it.
I know, nits… I'm picking nits.
Also, why doesn't this camera have image stabilization?
Marlene has seen the monster (she didn't hide in the convenience store with the others). "It eats people," she gasps.
Cool! I like monsters that eat people! When do we get to see it?
Everyone runs for the Brooklyn Bridge as they are close to it and it leads off Manhattan Island. Even the military is making people leave that way. In the midst of thousands of fleeing, panicked people running over the bridge to safety, Rod gets a call from Beth but he can't hear her.
The monster's arm (or fin or tentacle or some goddamn thing) then wipes out the bridge and just about everyone on it, including Jason.
Bye Jason, we hardly knew you!
Rod and Hud and Lily and Marlena get off the bridge and are still trapped in Manhattan. People are looting. The cops have given up and fled. People run willy-nilly as explosions and massive footsteps thunder in the background.
Rod gets a call from Beth. She's in her apartment. She's hurt and can't move.
Rod's phone goes dead, but fortunately an electronics store across the street is being looted so he can grab a new battery for his phone. While inside the news begins to shed a little light on the monster. The newscasters are speechless and can only describe what they see but not make sense of it.
This is sort of like what TV was like on 911 too, and I thought it was a really nice if not scary touch.
I know, you're thinking. Big? Why is Cloverfield in the Hall of Shame? You sound like you really dig it man! Don't lie to us!
The truth is, I didn't hate this film, but so much of it annoyed me that I couldn't in good conscience assign a skull rating. Besides, we're only like 30 minutes in and it's been pretty good so far. It doesn't stay that way.
Rod tells the others that he's going to walk across Manhattan to midtown, right near Central Park, to rescue Beth. The others, protest, but not very much and agree to go with him. Now, I know a bit about psychology as I had to suffer through a couple of college courses about it, and I know that people are predisposed to follow a leader in a time of crisis so I wasn't totally stunned that Hud and Lily and Marlena agreed to stick with Rod on his suicidal rescue mission.
I mean, the party's over, right? Might as well make the best of it…
There's not a lot of "dialogue" in this film, but that makes sense as it's supposed to be immediate and like everyone else, people in a panic don't spout lines when they are scared shitless. So most of the talking is "what do you think that thing was?" and "where do you think that thing is?" and the ever popular "Rod, I don't think we should do that." All of this is VERY natural and believable.
Now we get to the meat of the picture. Rod and his friends trying to get to Beth's house while running a gauntlet of a giant ill-glimpsed creature, an increasingly panicky military who can't seem to put a dent in the thing, and the changing landscape of a city being smashed to pieces.
This allows for several set pieces, which if you have followed Toho cinema at all in the last, oh I don't know… 54 years? Have been done before. Giant monster in the streets? Check. Witnessing the military attack the creature? Check. Little monsters that hitched a ride with the giant monster? Check. Being trapped and not sure what to do next? Check.
What we don't get, infuriatingly, is a good shot of the monster. I mean we're like 45 – 50 minutes into this thing now and I've seen a gray CGI elbow.
Milhouse Van Houten: "When are we gonna get to the fireworks factory???"
Annoyingly, in the midst of all these set pieces is Hud, dutifully filming the reactions of his friends to the chaos swirling around them but not really bothering to catch much of that chaos with the camera. There's a scene where the military charges up behind our heroes and launches a massive attack on Barelyvisibleziilla. Hud scrunches down on one side of the street, Rod, Lily and Marlena are on the other side. Does he film the battle? No. Does he linger for more than one second on the M-1 Battle tanks firing rockets at the beast? Nope. Does he keep the camera on his friends so they can scream and point? You betcha.
Look, I like Rod, and Lily and Marlena sure are pretty… but there's a fucking 300 foot tall something like one block away with missiles bouncing off its hide. FILM THAT YOU IDIOT!!!
The gang ends up in the subway while the battle rages up on the street. Rod's phone rings. It's mom. She wants to know if he's okay. He is. He says that he's with the military being evacuated. Then, in the best show of humanity in the film, he breaks down and tells her that Jason is dead.
They gang regroups after a few minutes when it's clear that whatever is going on at street level isn't going away. Rod checks the subway map and realizes they can walk the tunnels almost all the way to Beth's house, and if the battle stays where it is, they should be safe.
Hud figures out the camera light so we can spend the next ten minutes watching the backs of the cast as they stumble through the near pitch dark and hash out verbally what Barelyvisibleziilla might be and where it might have come from. Hud thinks it's from the deepest ocean, Rod doesn't know. The rest of the cast seems sort of annoyed by Hud and his incessant chattiness.
Marlena freaks out that there are rats sharing the tunnel with them. Hud notices they are all running in the same direction.
That can't be a good sign.
He figures out the nightvision feature of the camera and illuminates a whole shitload of little skittering monsters that look like the head with legs from The Thing grafted to the Alien Face Hugger with Tucan Sam's face sewn in the middle. The little things attack them and Marlena is bitten, badly.
The cast escapes into a break room for subway workers and we can see the extent of Marlena's injuries. She has a dozen deep, bleeding, oval shaped, two-inch-long tooth marks down her right breast, over her shoulder and down her back.
She does not react at all to the pain and actually manages to carry on a conversation with Hud like they are sharing opinions of the latest James Blunt CD at Starbucks (it sucks). I mean… they aren't reacting to this attack? No one loses their shit? No one???? No one even freaks out over the copious blood that Marlena is losing? She doesn't even wince when Rod presses a paper towel into ONE of the wounds?
Ahhh… Indestructible people. We will see more of this amazing superpower later.
They break out into a mall connected to the subway where the military has a triage set up. Hundreds of soldiers and civilians are in various states of horrible shape.
Marlena mentions that she's a little dizzy.
The commander tells them that they have to evacuate the city. He doesn't care about Beth. The military is losing.
Marlena starts bleeding from the eyes and nose.
The little things bite is apparently much worse than it looks (or she reacted to) and a gang of plastic coated soldiers wrestle Marlena away behind a curtain where, in silhouette, she explodes.
Remember, this is all filled in Pandemonium vision.
Why is Hud still filming? Hell, why does he even still have the goddamn camera after the fight with the little monsters in the subway tunnel? I'd have chucked that fucking thing hours ago.
The remaining cast flips the hell out when Marlena dies, but it doesn't last. The commander tells Rod that they have until 6AM to get to Beth before the last chopper leaves New York and the military abandons the city to the whims of the monster.
Wait. Wait one goddamn minute now.
Marlena just EXPLODED. SHE EXPLODED!!!!! Why aren't you all beside yourselves with terror? Why are you going back up to the street level and not taking the ride that the military is offering you right now? Someone? Anyone?
I mean, we understand that Rod cares for Beth a great deal… but I mean… Marlena EXPLODED!!!!!
The cast heads to Beth's apartment which is smashed and leaning over onto another building. It's also RIGHT on the edge of Central Park.
What job does Beth have? We see a little of her flat in the older footage on the camera SD Card and it OVERLOOKS Central Park. It's easily a multi-million dollar apartment. Oh, and Beth looks to be all of 20. Is it even possible to live in a flat like this if you aren't Paris Hilton?
Anyway…. Back to the movie. Rod suggests that they enter her building and try to work their way up to floor 34 where Beth lives. Hud, speaking before his brain shuts him up, suggests they climb the adjacent building and work their way down from the roof.
They climb all 57 floors and scramble over to the ruined building where Beth's apartment waits. They find her inside, a one-inch-thick steel rebar is thrust through her left shoulder and has pinned her to the concrete rubble.
Oh, and there's a monster outside, but that's not as important as Hud catching Rod waking Beth from her slumber and smiling at her. The trio pulls Beth off the rebar and wraps her shoulder. Miraculously, even after several hours with a rebar rammed through her shoulder Beth can still move her left arm and breathe and not bleed to death. She can even climb out of the apartment and into the other building supporting her apartment.
She doesn't even cry from pain or shock or anything.
These New Yorkers sure are a tough bunch.
While crossing back into the upright building Hud pans the camera away from his friends for one second to reveal Barelyvisibleziilla only a block away.
He flashes the camera at Barelyvisibleziilla again, and again it's just a glimpse.
Seriously. What the fuck? You'd think he would at least LINGER on the goddamn thing for, I don't know… thirty seconds? I mean, people stand outside and film airplane lights with their cameraphones and declare themselves as UFOlogists. Can't HUD just, for a minute, let us see what's OUTSIDE the camera's CCD chip?
We can tell through from the glimpses that Barelyvisibleziilla is headed for Central Park where the last helicopters are taking off with the last of the survivors. I guess there was a sale in New Jersey or something because the last time I checked New York City had 8 million… Million… with an M… residents.
The choppers seat four passengers and two pilots.
They reach the staging area and Lily is throw into one chopper, the others into another. Finally, as the chopper takes off we get our first real look at Barelyvisibleziilla. He's gray. He has long arms. He has a small head. Small back legs. A tail. Er… he actually looks like Orga from Godzilla 2000 after a crash heroin diet or if you like, two Tripods from Spielberg's War of the Worlds having doggy-style sex.
Why are American giant monster movies afraid to make monsters? Why are they always gray? Godzilla 1998 was gray. This one is gray. Admittedly this one is different than the Emmerich/Devlin Godzilla, but we see way less of it, and it's not that impressive when we do finally see it. The Japanese are a whole lot bolder when it comes to giant monsters. Green, gold, bright yellow, Mothra…. I mean, they put plenty of thought into their monster design and all, and aren't afraid to show it… even when it stinks (Orga… Titanosaurus… Minya… Gabara…), Here though we get Barelyvisibleziilla scooching through the city as bombs fall across his back. So not only is our big reveal of the thing sort of short, it's even shorter than it seems because most of the scene is bomb explosions and smoke and dust. One chopper goes down, which may be the one Lily was riding in we never know, then after Hud and the others cheer that Barelyvisibleziilla is probably dead, he leaps through the smoke and smashes their chopper.
Thankfully, all of our characters are still sporting their indestructibility as the chopper whirls down and slams into the grass.
Hud even manages to grab the goddamn camera as he and Beth pull Rod from the wreckage. Over the radio we hear the final evacuation order. "Putting the hammer down" as they call it, when the military abandons New York.
Now there's no way out.
Hud, again, preoccupied with his friends, doesn't realize a 300 foot tall gray CGI monster has snuck up behind him and has to react to Rod and Beth pointing up over his shoulder before he turns around to see that Barelyvisibleziilla now almost straddles him.
Finally we get a good long look at the creature and it's just as crappy here in closeup as it was obscured in smoke, and for those who haven't followed the progression of CGI into giant monster cinema, this is pretty good… but that's it. Again, the thing doesn't look like anything, it has no texture, it doesn't make visual sense either.
Barelyvisibleziilla snacks on Hud yet, amazingly, doesn't dislodge the camera from his hand. Hud gets spit out, I guess he had on too much TAG body spray… and Rod, inexplicably, grabs the camera before he and Beth take refuge beneath one of the little walking bridges in Central Park. They make pronouncements to the camera and are killed.
Cut to Beth on camera a month ago. Something in the background, over her left shoulder, plummets into the ocean.
End film. Grab Bandai Godzilla figures, digital camera, HO Scale train set, and make your own Cloverfield movie… only with better monsters.
Seriously though, this wasn't all bad. The main characters, while occasionally grating, and not surprisingly, completely resilient until the script stole away their superpowers, only managed to get on my nerves for about the last forty minutes or so of the film.
There's been press lately that tells the tale of J.J. Abrams coming up with the idea for this film when he walked into a Japanese toy store and saw the rows and rows of Godzilla figures there and realized that America didn't really have it's own good giant monster franchise. And you know what, he's right. We don't. But what did he take away from this when he started putting Cloverfield together? How do you follow such an untraditional film style? Will audience come back for another handheld film fest for the sequel (which you KNOW is probably already in the works), or will he have to shift to more steadycam stuff, with a less intimate storytelling style?
I don't get it? I just don't get it. Maybe it's a one-off? Who the hell knows.
And before the gaggle of Cloverfield zombies barrages me with e-mail that reads like – "hey man, why'd you shit on Cloverfield? Didn't you see how awesome it was? What other movie would be brave enough to kill off so many people? You don't see collateral damage like that in rubber suit monster flicks. Didn't you see the creature? Man, that was awesome. I like cheese. My shoes are too tight. It's cold and there are wolves outside."
Let me say this -
I did appreciate the film in that it took such a nice and unexpected viewpoint, that of the baffled fleeing minions, and expanded that staple giant monster film image into a whole film. That was great. I dug that. Seriously. But many of the other revolutionary things in this film have been done before, see Gamera 3, see Godzilla Mothra King Ghidorah All Out Attack, hell, see the original 1954 Gojira. All of the things that elevate Cloverfield above, say, D-War have already been done.
You just haven't seen them because you don't like giant monster movies.