Turn the camera on.
Why is it when we think of monster movies, we remember the larger-than-life creatures more easily than we do the main characters? For instance, we don’t remember Ann Darrow as easily as we remember King Kong. We don’t remember Hideto Ogata over Godzilla. It’s simpler to remember Frankenstein’s monster rather than Dr. Frankenstein himself. And it’s easy to see why too: the monsters are more interesting than their human co-stars are. We all know someone like Ann, Hideto, or Victor because they’re all human beings, just like us. King Kong, Godzilla, and Frankenstein’s monster have never existed and can never exist. Perhaps that’s why they fascinate us so much: because they play on fantasy rather than reality.
Let Cloverfield, then, be the monster movie to flip the genre on its head. Not only do we not know the name of the monster that is tearing apart New York City, but our focus is poured almost entirely into the human survivors. It’s just as well too. Cloverfield is one of those rare movies that blends entertainment with art, method with innovation, fantasy with reality.
So yes, if you happened to miss the highly talked-about teaser trailer before the movie’s release, Cloverfield is another monster movie. There’s a big baddie, there’s a city, and chaos and destruction ensues. That’s how far the similarities extend. The difference in its approach this time around lies is its execution. While King Kong and Godzilla are framed and staged on a massive scale as monsters clobber each other and throw each other into buildings and landmarks, Cloverfield instead focuses on a smaller scale as found footage off of a New York City regular’s camcorder. This New Yorker is named Rob (Michael Stahl-David), and he is accompanied by his friend Hud (T.J. Miller) and his lover Beth (Odette Annable), of whom he has a complicated past with. Great time to have relationship problems, isn’t it? In the middle of a destroyed New York City while a monster is obliterating everything in sight.
Here is a movie that succeeds more as an experiment than it does as a film. Cloverfield is a movie that takes genre conventions and throws them out the back window, taking any direction it wishes as it propels its humans through the chaos of a quickly collapsing New York City. The risks it takes both pays off for itself and then doesn’t. Most of the time, the movie’s intentions shine clear and have a strong payoff for its audience. At other times, it’s shaky and unstable, much like this movie’s handheld shooting method.
I’ll start with the positives. First of all, it’s different. That much is a compliment you don’t hear too much nowadays in corporate Hollywood, which pushes out sequels and remakes like the happy meals at McDonalds. Yes, Cloverfield’s overall premise has been used and reused, but it’s originality comes from its forced perspective towards these human characters. Here’s a question for you: out of all of the horror movies you’ve seen, how many characters have you been able to relate to on a personal level? No, I’m not talking about relating to them in the sense that they’re running away from giant monsters or psychotic axe murderers. Sure, we like to root for Ellen Riply in Alien or Sally in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but take them out of their own movies for a second. How many of them can you relate to as people rather than as movie characters?
Cloverfield is one of those rare movies that understands its characters before it understands its visual effects. This is in credit to both screenwriter Drew Godard and cinematographer Michael Bonvillain, who both understand that for this story to work, we need to relate to the characters as regular people rather than as survivors. Them taking the time to change their focus and build on exposition works. After a very brief introduction, we understand who these characters are, their motivations, and their relationships to each other. When they die, it’s genuinely heartbreaking. It means something when they’re killed, as opposed to being just another number for the monster’s kill count. Because of our investment into Rob, Beth, Hud and others, we’re scared for them and with them as they’re running through a violently torn apart New York City, desperately searching for the people they love most. By making that the focus, Cloverfield works not just as a horror or monster movie, but also as a tragedy. Such deepness is rare for disaster pictures nowadays, but Cloverfield pulls it off well, unlike most of today’s big-budget blockbusters.
Of course, with this “found-footage” method of shooting, it also raises some problems for this production. For one thing, there is not a single steady shot in the movie. The camera is always shaking back and forth, which didn’t bother me as much, but I know it will cause motion sickness for some unfortunate viewers. Another problem is that with this shaky-cam method of shooting, some of the action flow is incoherent, or sometimes, lost altogether in a tense disaster scene. Most of the time, Bonvillain handles the camera well enough to capture important moments, like to focus on the tail of the monster or on a character when they are wounded. Sometimes though, Bonvillain’s method of shooting exceeds his talent on the camera. For instance, what do you see during a chase scene? A lot of the camera rocking back and forth between the motion of a character’s legs as they’re trying to get away.
The sad part is that Bonvillain is almost powerless to do anything about this. Making this a steady shot would do nothing to convince us that this was really happening, considering the camera is being supposably held by a movie character that A) Doesn’t know how to shoot, and B) Is in the middle of a literal disaster. But then again, the shakiness doesn’t do any favors for our eyesight either. You’re screwed either way.
I’ve repeatedly went back and forth on this movie, bobbling the pros and cons around in my head, trying to decide on which element beats out the others. There’s good cases to both sides. We identify with our heroes as people rather than as movie characters, and that humanity makes their crusade all the more important to us. The sense of mystery, eeriness, and hopelessness plays out perfectly like an H.P. Lovecraft novel. The scares and the thrills are all there. That much the movie has going for it. On the opposite end, though, we have a shaky camera that makes people want to vomit, a few genre cliches that the movie can’t escape from, and a pathetic, lackluster ending that just suddenly cuts off and leaves an empty, unfulfilled feeling for its desperately hungry audience. I have no problem whether a character lives or dies for the sake of drama, but when you’re stuck not knowing, that’s just dangling a hook in front of your audience that they’re never going to reach.
I’m giving the movie a thumbs up for one reason: it tried. It experimented. It did something different, and it partially worked out for itself. That’s a thumbs up not for the movie itself, but for the movie-making business.
Years ago, aspiring filmmakers dreamed of big visions in their heads. They experimented, they failed more times than they succeeded, but they took steps towards creating their visions, and their reward was seeing their beautiful, breathtaking ideas playing on the big screen. Filmmakers these days lack that creation or that aspiration, and they prefer piggybacking off of other people’s creations just for the big buck. The creators behind Cloverfield need to be honored not necessarily for their movie, but for their aspiration to create. They sought to make something all their own, and whether you like it or not, that’s exactly what they did.