Thursday, January 24, 2008

For Real This Time: Cloverfield Review

In the 9 years since The Blair Witch Project, I've talked to a lot of people who hated the movie. They didn't get what the hype was about, they thought it was boring and not scary at all.

My question to them is always "Did you see it in theatres?" Their answer is always "No."

I don't mean to get all David Lynch on your ass, but if you didn't see The Blair Witch Project in theatres, you didn't really see The Blair Witch Project. There's a huge difference between watching a movie on your dinky television set, in the comfort of your living room, with your roommate or significant other making popcorn in the kitchen, knowing you could pause the movie or turn up the lights at any time, and watching it on a big screen, in a dark theatre, surrounded by strangers, with the experience totally out of your control. At home you're really only half-paying attention1; in the theatre you're totally enveloped.

So I'm going to say: if you don't see Cloverfield in theatres, you'll never see Cloverfield properly.

Now, I've wanted to see someone take the Blair Witch found footage/documentary horror ball and run with it for almost ten years. I wrote a couple of outlines for those kinds of films -- one of a group of people on a camping trip that gets caught up in an alien abduction/invasion, one of a group of college "ghost hunters" that get in over their head in a real haunted house -- but Cloverfield takes it to the epic level straight out of the gate.

Like Blair Witch, Cloverfield's marketing campaign was primarily viral.2 The "found footage" aesthetic lent itself well to the post-YouTube world; this is, in many ways, a YouTube monster movie. But unlike Blair Witch (a movie which some people I meet still believe was real), Cloverfield never attempted to pass itself off as real footage from a real event. Instead, it is an "IF this were to happen, here's how it would go down" hypothetical, with enough verisimilitude to make O.J. Simpson proud.

One thing I love about Cloverfield, just from a conceptual standpoint, is that there's another movie taking place off-screen. Somewhere else is the movie where the retired army guy is pulled back into service to stop the creature that has attacked his city, and he's throwing out one-liners the whole ride. Somewhere else the scientist and/or the hacker are figuring out where this thing came from and (maybe) how to bring it down. Somewhere else the President is facing the tough calls of sending the military into Manhattan and, sir, a localized nuclear strike may be our only chance of containment but we have to act NOW. But we don't see any of that. And that's okay, because we've seen that movie. Cloverfield is the movie we haven't seen, the one that turns the body count into characters we connect with.

Because let's face it: when you go to see a monster movie, you're kind of rooting for the monster. It's almost a given that the humans are going to win, so you're really just looking to see the monster wreak as much havoc as it can before that happens. That means you want to see the really gruesome, brutal kills; you want to see the damn STAKES get raised.

But while that other movie I mentioned will show the President grimacing as he watches someone die brutally in a military video or whatever, Cloverfield makes you one of the victims, watching your friends die and hearing your other friends scream and mourn as it happens. Cloverfield makes you a part of the event.

My first impression of Cloverfield was that some parts were pretty predictable. For example, there's a scene in a dark tunnel where you can only see about five feet in any direction from the camera. They hear a sound -- what was that? All the rats are running away from it. Oh hold on, the camera has night vision. Let me, the main character, step in front of the camera to turn it on.

If you don't see where this is going, you're one of the lucky ones and you should skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers. For the rest of us, we know that as soon as the night vision comes on, we're going to get a VERY clear look at what's making that sound, because it'll be right behind the main character, and it will wait until it's sure you've seen it clearly before it attacks. And so it goes.

Now, I initially faulted Cloverfield slightly for this, but I asked myself: how would I have handled that moment differently? And to be honest, I probably wouldn't have. It's highly effective and after the attack sequence the entire audience applauded spontaneously because it was a damn good piece of immersive filmmaking. So maybe it was only "predictable" because it's exactly what I would have done.3

At any rate, it doesn't really matter that you can see what's coming a mile away based on the tropes of horror and monster movies (in no case, ever, is loss of blood the only thing you need to worry about if a monster bites you). The point is not what is happening, the point is that it's happening, essentially, to you, and you're powerless against it. The film is not afraid to kill its characters, and when it does, it often happens in the blink of an eye, in a moment so chaotic that you, like the characters, have no chance to even really process what just happened until some time later. I've had nightmares like Cloverfield, that played out in similar ways. The filmmakers did a great job of tapping into that.

The characters themselves are generally well-realized. Most of them are Dawson's Creek stereotypes of some kind or another, but their performances are solid. A lot of the film sounds improvised -- which, in a movie of this scale, seems unlikely, so it's a testament to the actors that they make everything they say believable and genuine in the moment. My favorite character by far is the cameraman, the person through whose point of view we experience most of the film, appropriately named Hud.

Hud is the main character's best friend, and he's the kind of guy everyone knows -- kind of dumb, a little bit too literal about things sometimes, but fiercely loyal to his friends. He'd never be the leader, but he'd follow them anywhere, and he does as he's told which makes him the perfect cameraman.

You never question why on earth this guy is still running the camera, because at the beginning of the movie he's told to record the events of the night, and we all know this kind of guy well enough to know that that's exactly what he's going to do, no matter what, until the battery dies or he does. He's also the comic relief character, and giving that kind of personality to the camera is an inspired choice.

As the monster goes, I will say that you do see it. Personally I thought it might be cooler to never actually get a clear look at it, but the movie puts the characters in the middle of everything4, and so you do see the monster quite up-close and personal. But what it is, where it comes from, what it wants are never explained.

Ultimately, this movie is a character drama in a monster-movie world. They used a device that the events of the movie are being recorded over another tape from a much different time in the characters' lives, and the occasional "timecode break" drops us into that other footage. The juxtaposition is powerful, and I really like that the filmmakers took advantage of their "found footage" structure to tell a story more intimate than the monster attack. I know a lot of people will hate it, but I thought it was great.

What it comes down to, though, is that you need to see this movie in theatres, with other people around you, if you're going to have any chance of appreciating it fully. This is the kind of movie that you can't just watch, you have to experience it.

  1. I know a lot of people who didn't get the ending because the set-up was so subtle and they missed it; if you saw the set-up, the ending was amazing.

  2. Blair Witch, of course, practically invented the viral marketing campaign singlehandedly.

  3. Although John Rogers makes a great point: if a thousand rats are running away from something, you don't stop to find out what it is, you outrun those fucking rats. I probably would have handled THAT differently.

  4. Admittedly it does sometimes stretch the limit of the suspension of disbelief, that they should have such poor luck as to always be right where something significant happens, when it happens.


John Seavey said...

I saw 'The Blair Witch Project' in theaters, and you're right, it was very different: Because it was dark, I was able to nod off in a way that I never would have been able to at home in a brightly lit room. :)

Daniel Broadway said...


I was so happy when Hud died. I hated him.