First We Take Manhattan

Ron Gilbert at Grumpy Gamer stole my thunder with his succinct post on the monster movie Cloverfield. However, while he was pleased that it was a film that features a giant monster killing annoying hipsters/yuppies (do yuppies still exist?) I was annoyed that it didn't happen fast enough.

As always, spoilers, blah blah blah.

Cloverfield is that rare film that dare asks the question, how long can it really take for a monster hundreds of feet high, sporting teeth the size of intercontinental missiles and towering over midtown Manhattan, to eliminate half a dozen annoying twentysomethings.

The answer, unfortunately, is too long. The problem is that while the message comes through clearly: do stupid things and you're going to die-- the movie lets these people get away with stupid thing after stupid thing, and then kills them later, usually when they aren't doing something so stupid.

Some of these stupid things, of course, are caused by the fact that the people in question are in a movie, and people doing the smart thing when a giant monster attacks-- finding a quiet and secure place to hide and then not fucking moving for any goddamn reason whatsoever until it is killed, goes away, or issues its demand to be taken to our leader-- would not make a compelling drama.

That's my real problem with Cloverfield, though. It wasn't supposed to be a drama at all. It could have taken the bold step of actually following through on its promise, delivering what was supposed to have been "found footage" of the monster attack event, taken by an amateur and preserved by the Department of Defense. It could've been presented as a mockumentary, built on multiple sources of such footage. It could have dared to be authentic in handling such footage.

Instead we got a film that only played lipservice to that idea.

I can almost credit the filmmakers for being clever with the way they first shoehorned the traditional dramatic elements into the footage. The video we're viewing has supposedly been recorded on top of an earlier one. So we see some pretty boring introductory scenes so that we care about the characters by the time the monster hits. At the end of the film, we see a bit of the earlier footage that was recorded over, to deliver the final ironic happy moments of the freshly deceased and put the other bookend on the experience.

The problem is, I was rooting for these jerks to get eaten a good twenty minutes before the monster showed up. I was beginning to wonder if I was in the wrong theater. Wait. Annoying twentysomethings? Check. Huge Manhattan apartment? Check. Nauseating shakeycam? Check. No, I guess this is the flick. Maybe the surprise is there is no monster.

However the film starts compromising on its faux found footage angle almost immediately. Since it's already introduced us to its main character, the guy with the camera, we can't have our protagonist be behind the camera where the audience can't see him. No, that would be too much to deal with. So the camera gets pawned off on some other schlub. You quickly grow to hate him even more than the first guy. Nevermind that this jerk has no reason whatsoever, besides a passing interest in another member of the cast, for following our hero from here to hell and gone to rescue his girlfriend, an endeavor that eventually costs him his own life as well as that of his love interest. Nope, it's just natural selection at work, selecting for elimination everyone in this picture who either is grotesquely stupid or is not a giant monster.

Despite being awkward around girls and never having held a camera before, this guy shows some serious chops with a camcorder. Nevermind some of the amazing technical feats, like completely eliminating the grainy image due to low light in one scene that was there in the scene immediately before. When our heroes make the questionable choice to climb up a crooked, crumbling skyscraper to rescue the protagonist's girlfriend-- who has already been run through by a piece of rebar and laying immobile and presumably bleeding in her high rise apartment-- he manages to leap from building to building and then climb to an access doorway, all with only one hand. He's last in line, of course, so we can see the other characters, and they are climbing hand over hand, and struggling to do even that.

Does the film even bother to give you credit for wondering about that? No. Either you're too dumb or you don't care. So while there are edits in the film where apparently filming starts and stops, it's never done where somebody would actually need to do it, because all of those things are just too dramatic not to include in the film.

The pile of implausible events just keeps getting higher. The impaled girlfriend who couldn't move is lifted off the rebar that pierced her, and within minutes she is running at full speed. Not long after that, she is actually helping other people. She's got a hole at least an inch around going right through the middle of her chest, but apparently it affects her not in the least. If she was really that tough why the hell couldn't she have pulled herself up off the rebar and saved the others the trouble?

Time after time you're faced with moments that scream "this is a Hollywood film" in what is supposed to be found footage. At one point our heroes are walking down a darkened subway tunnel, lit only by the camera. Nevermind that the camcorder we saw earlier didn't have an integrated lamp. Nevermind that if it did, it'd eat up batteries like nobody's business. Those are the kinds of things one can ignore for the sake of suspending disbelief.

What one cannot ignore is that for the entire scene, the camera is still trailing behind the other characters-- so it can see them-- instead of being in front where the light would be of most use.

I could've bought a traditional monster movie that introduced me to some interesting characters who have to deal with an invading monster-- something like the 1953 George Pal version of War of the Worlds. You cared about the characters because they cared not just about each other, but also about what was going on, and could do something about it.

The characters in Cloverfield are just ordinary jerks. They can't do anything about it. They aren't supposed to try. The film could have made itself interesting by being an uncompromising, documentary-like look at what it would be like for a range of ordinary people to have to deal with a cataclysmic event like a monster attack. Instead it shies away from that, trying to deliver something half-baked in between schmaltzy Michael Bay-style action-drama and a mockumentary, without most of the good points of either (few as those might be).