This movie review-plus-analysis is a drastically revised (and abbreviated) translation of an earlier version I wrote in Dutch shortly after “Cloverfield” hit the cinemas in Holland, in early 2008. After all this time – and multiple viewings! – I still consider it a good movie, but not as great as I first held it to be. I know though, that a lot of people will tend to disagree with me regardless. That’s why I think it wise to explain and defend my enthusiasm, before moving on and risk losing all my skeptical readers. Hopefully I’ll also end up enriching their (re)viewing experience of this remarkable film, by opening their eyes to another dimension to the movie they might have missed out on the first time round. So please, kick up your feet, and enjoy the read.
A REALITY CHECK
It all started with what I think was a smashing trailer, one that leads to uncontrollable drooling, and makes the imagination run wild with anticipation. Good trailers are an art-form in and of themselves. They give a sample or impression of what is to come, without telling you too much, and without a sonorous voiceover ruining the whole experience beforehand – because in this case less is surely more. This was one of those trailers, and the first thought that struck me was: intervention. “Why?” you might ask. I’ll tell you. The trailer shows a group of young New Yorkers throwing a big going-away party, all faithfully captured by handheld-camera, when suddenly the merriment turns into terror as something monstrous strikes at the heart of New York City. I interpreted this the following way: ‘everyday life’, as symbolized and reinforced by the ‘home-made video’ feel of the camera, being brutally disrupted by an unknown ‘outside force’ – comparable to Freud’s reality principle. You could almost say our unsuspecting partygoers were brutalized by the story or plot of the movie, which violently imposed itself, casting them in their unwonted roles of heroic protagonists – like an Althusserian interpellation.
Film is always a flight of fancy. By installing yourself in your comfy seat, bag of popcorn in your one hand a coke in the other, the lights slowly dimming, shutting out your worries along with the rest of the world, it allows for a suspension of disbelief – and for the forbidden and impossible to become possible. In this sense the dreamscape projected on the silver screen provides us with a temporary release or escape from our often boring and inconsequential live. Reality TV Shows on the other hand are typified by the mundane, precisely because they tend to zoom in on our uneventful existence, catering to our narcissism with “15 minutes of shame” – a source for endless repetition, more durable and applicable than reruns. “Cloverfield”, I believe, makes clever use of these two extremes by playing them off each other and tying it all in with its controversial subtext. The attack on NYC could thus be construed as the traumatic of the ‘Real’ breaking through our familiar daily routine. A rupture in our defense that awakens us from a self-imposed slumber. Not unlike the phenomenon of ‘wrist cutters’, the victims of self-afflicted bodily harm. Who do not hurt themselves to escape reality, but rather as Slavoj Žižek argues, to ground themselves in order connect with it. Pain in order to fight apathy, an insight gleaned from earlier foresighted films such as “Fight Club” (1999) and “Se7en” (1995).
Being a sucker for bold and original ideas – and their successful implementation – I got blinded to the glaring deficiencies which also characterize this movie. It helped ameliorate the uninspiring performances and sometimes terrible acting, but also the (psycho-)logical inconsistencies and other absurdities. I admit the film is a mixed bag – and to some a vomit bag. Since the biggest turn off for many people is precisely the shaky camera style, which forms the essence or heart of the movie. Obviously most critique centered on the indestructible quality of the camera, and the unremitting (rather inhumane) professionalism of the amateur cameraman, who just kept on filming no matter what happened to him or his friends. Of course all this is inevitable – though not inexcusable – to a movie which made of the camera its center piece. So if in the first fifteen minutes you didn’t experience dizzy spells or rolled off your chair nauseated, you had a good chance to experience something very interesting, highly original, and to some even controversial. It goes without saying that the originality I’m speaking of doesn’t refer to the nearly non-existent plot, which basically is nothing more (nor less) than a fun Godzilla[i] rip-off, with a group of people running around trying to find each other in the ensuing chaos.
The originality of the film is in the storytelling, or better yet: the lack thereof, which brings me to my next point. Due to the similarity in style, “Cloverfield” has sometimes been jokingly called The Blair Witch Project in Manhattan, since like “The Blair Witch Project”[ii] it makes extensive use of the handheld-camera. More important than this superficial similarity though, is the way both films make use of the camera in the act of telling or ‘constructing’ the story, whereby style becomes substance and vice versa. In both cases the camera[iii] functions quite literally as – and becomes the paradigm of – an eye-witness account, by giving a ‘lived’ testimony of an unimaginable and monstrous Event as it unfolded (linking it to the sublime). And since every account is subjective, because partial, so is each reconstruction an approximation, because of the limitations inherent in each chosen perspective(s). This, along with the aforementioned themes, makes it a very slick postmodern flick, with some truly beautiful and nightmarish scenes.
Characteristic of postmodernism are its self-reference and deconstructionism, making irony its weapon of choice. The clever way in which various ‘information filters’ are used during the movie point toward its playful and self-conscious nature. I already mentioned the handheld-camera and how it directs the attention to the film itself, or the filming process. Another example is the constant news bulletins filtering through information in supposedly ‘real-time’. These different media perspectives on the event influence the actions of our protagonists, while simultaneously immersing[iv] the audience. Yet another is the way mobile-phone conversations give a feeling of in-the-moment authenticity and of ‘space’. Perhaps ‘locality’ would be a more suitable word, in reference to the ‘happening’ that is the creature’s rampage, leading to a sort peekaboo effect all through the movie. All these elements successfully conspire in creating a setting of familiarity and verisimilitude.
By placing the viewer at the center of the action it becomes very easy, yes, almost natural to relate to what is happening on the ground[v]. This ‘directness’ or ‘immediacy’ in combination with its complementary lack of information and overview – since we know as much (or little) as the protagonists themselves – clearly calls to mind such popular phenomena as First Person Shooter games and YouTube. I mention YouTube too, because the film tries to emulate its sense of ‘spontaneous self-direction’, as if the film were shooting itself[vi]. Of course to achieve all this, the story has to be largely non-linear, thereby doing away with much of classical storytelling and devices such as plot, yet allowing for play and randomness to occur (often mistaken for freedom). After all, life, “it’s all moments”, as Jason explains to us at the beginning of the movie. This accidental aspect can also add to the suspense since we don’t have any clue what will happen next. Expectations are further undermined by a cast of good-looking but largely unknowns, leaving audiences in the dark who will survive the ordeal and who won’t[vii]. Like when the cameraman, Hud, unexpectedly dies and the next man simply picks up where he left off. I say can add to the suspense because if there would be no expectations whatsoever, there wouldn’t be any room for suspense or build up either, merely shock value[viii].
The sudden death of the cameraman is a striking example of the interesting and new dramatic effects that I want to focus on now. For instance: when Robert Hawkins has to inform his mother of his brother Jason’s death by mobile phone. This dramatic scene, heart wrenching in its simplicity – and instantly recognizable – shows how much technology and the media have become integral parts of our modern individualistic lives. Because who wouldn’t rather tell such devastating news face to face? But his parents being worried sick by the news try and get hold of him, and he in the knowledge that he might not survive gives them the news. It makes the banality of the phone call, considering it will be his last, that much harder to bear. Then there are the more obvious dramatic moments, when we, the audience, are spoken or appealed to directly. These acts seemingly lift what they call the fourth wall in theatre, but on closer inspection might be better construed as the ultimate ‘real’ expression of it – because utterly concealed.
Foregrounding[ix], as it is called, also happens when the camera plays a physical part and/or crucial role in the action. In one scene the camera falls to the ground during a panic, thereby adding to the sense of panic. At another moment its light and night vision ability saves the lives of our protagonists when they’re hunted down by parasites in the deserted New York subway system. Because the camera is carried around it is able to frame situations in surprising and unexpected ways, focusing on details usually left out of a shot. This decentering of the classical shot both adds to the realism, and opens up new areas for creativity. Also part of the repertoire is the ingenious use of ‘flashbacks’ that literally still exist on the tape[x] as un-erased fragments from weeks before. These moments inform us of Rob and Beth’s background and their love for each other. At the same time they provide interesting and abrupt contrasts with the situation at hand, illustrative perhaps of life’s precariousness. Especially interesting in this respect is the film’s ending, a last happy fragment as epitaph to the deceased. Yet had the protagonists survived, it could have been a symbol of human resilience, as a glimpse of a future reconciliation. And if so, how people, by remaining open to the new, always seem able to redress, repress, or rewrite the old, and pick-up their lives and move on, or contrary: how easy it sometimes is to forget.
I’ll end with some words on the controversy that sprung up around “Cloverfield” in view of the so-called “tasteless references” to 9/11. Apart from having after a short respite yet another monster quench its blood thirst with a chunk out of the Big Apple, I think it is undeniable the film contains a lot of imagery that sometimes shockingly explicit, points towards that dreadful date. There is for example a direct and unmistakable reference only fifteen minutes into the movie, when an anonymous someone among the alarmed partygoers shouts, in a state of near panic: “another terrorist attack?” However, how each community should or shouldn’t deal with its collective grief (or trauma) and remember its dead is not for me to comment on, but I can’t imagine Iraqis in a hurry to make a ‘blockbuster’ about their ‘deliverance’ from Saddam Hussein anytime soon. Instead I would like to point out a few of these sensitive scenes, because they’re quite interesting in and of themselves, and conclude with a final remark.
One of the more obvious images is found near the end of the film, when our faithful crew finally arrives at the towering apartment-building in which Rob’s girlfriend Elizabeth McIntyre is trapped. It’s leaning dangerously against another, almost identical looking building, also on the verge of collapse. Coincidently resembling quite closely the Twin Towers after the planes flew in and Oliver Stone’s fire brigades performed their heroic deeds, in “World Trade Center” (2006). This time though, the heroic life-saving is captured and experienced in first person view, adding greatly to the suspense as our protagonists have to jump from rooftop to crumbling rooftop. It also intensifies the disorientation felt from traversing slanting and tilting slopes, or the claustrophobic effects from flickering lights, creaking sounds, and peeking around corners.
The giant billowing ash cloud from the collapsing building, experienced at ground level, could also remind some of that faithful event in 2001. Other allusions would be the coverage of the incident by handheld camera itself, as a testimony to an unimaginable disaster, the emotional heart wrenching mobile phone calls made during the attacks, and the idea of ordinary people performing heroic feats in extraordinary situations – the moral of the story. Then there is the explosive scene of the Iraqi-style military intervention, and of course the brilliant poster and trailer campaign, that only revealed an ominous date: 1.18.08. Last but not least, there is the decapitation of the Statue of Liberty, which I believe, can’t get any more clear cut…
My point is that these references, as unpalatable as they undoubtedly are to some, especially to the victims I imagine, made “Cloverfield”[xi] all the more interesting for it. Adding an extra layer to the viewing experience and providing the movie with a sharp edge it wouldn’t have had without it. It almost seems meant to be a kind of therapy: a safe way for Americans to engage their traumatic memories creatively. As something enabling them to banish the nightmarish WTC scene, which had looked like it flew straight out of a Hollywood filmscript, back unto the big screen where it belonged.
“Leave your home behind you,
Your friends by field and town:
Oh, town and field will mind you
Till Ludlow tower is down.”
by A. E. Housman
[i] “Cloverfield” is first and foremost an ode to the monster movie genre, with references and winks not only to Godzilla and King Kong, but many other classics. Seen in this context it’s no coincidence that Robert Hawkins is on the verge of leaving for Japan. The movie also contains some hidden references and surprising secrets…
[ii] It is similar in form to “The Blair Witch Project” (1999), “[REC]” (2007), “Diary of the Dead” (2007) and yet so much better than all of these. My article is meant to show the many original and interconnected ways in which “Cloverfield” makes use of this new handheld-camera style. The major problem with “The Blair Witch Project” is that the Blair Witch remains an entirely subjective (and to me immensely disappointing) phenomenon, thereby limiting numerous possibilities from the get go.
[iii] Some food for thought… “Rather than being produced or “written” by me, my gestures, one might say, are me. But for Derrida a truer witness of meaning would be not my internal feeling for my body’s gestures as expression, but rather a video recording of my body’s motions. All that feels most inward is in fact, he insists, merely outward.” Excerpt from David Mikics’ excellent book “Who Was Jacques Derrida?” (Yale, 2009, p. 56)
[iv] We, the audience, get immersed, because we’re as hellbent on figuring out what’s going on as the protagonists of the story are. And while we’re busy slurping up all the bits and pieces of information flung our way, the artificiality of the carefully crafted ‘news items’ providing them, goes largely unnoticed. In fact, the ‘news items’ are used to naturalize and authenticate the shots of the creature.
[v] Indeed, it would have been very easy and natural to relate if it wasn’t for the shortcomings that mar the movie, and pull some of the viewers out of the experience.
[vi] That is, as if the cameraman were responding to occurrences as they happen, or giving a “registration” of an actual event as it unfolds.
[vii] It might or might not have escaped some, but Jason’s girlfriend Lily is the only one that escapes the onslaught by jumping in the first chopper. She being the sole survivor of the event, might return in the proposed sequel.
[ix] But the movie seems to be using “foregrounding” in reverse. Instead of making people become aware of their viewing experience by pointing out the artifices, “Cloverfield” aims at its exact opposite: participation, or pulling the audience further in by adding even more layers of subterfuge. Designed so as to collapse the distinction between audience (reality) and performance (fiction).
[x] Exploring an intriguing metaphor: tape as memory...
[xi] The operational sounding name of the movie refers, as stated at the start, to the initial sightings at Central Park. Thus the film we’re watching is in actuality the researched tape as retrieved by the U.S. military – a nice but transparent attempt at adding yet another layer of realism. Similarly unsuccessful as the “urban legend” strategy employed by “The Blair Witch Project”.