Friday, May 6, 2011

The Blair Witch Project Meets War Of The Worlds: What Makes Cloverfield A J.J. Abrams Project?

The Good: Moments of character and pace
The Bad: Nonexistent plot, Generic character elements, Camera work makes no practical sense.
The Basics: In a pretty blase "monster attacks" film, New York City is attacked by a creature and captured on film by the best-looking slightly-intoxicated, non-sweating young people ever!

It is a rare thing that I go into a film almost completely ignorant, blind if you will, to what I am about to see. Because I am a big fan of Star Trek and the latest Star Trek film projects are works that J.J. Abrams are involved with, I learned about the existence of the film Cloverfield. Abrams was held up producing this very hush-hush project before moving on to the Star Trek reboot film (reviewed here!) and it struck me as odd as the credits rolled in Cloverfield that this film is cited as a J.J. Abrams project; he was a producer for it, but it was written by Drew Goddard and directed by Matt Reeves; Abrams is not even an executive producer on the film!

In fact, Cloverfield is remarkable in that in addition to going into the film blind, the film featured a predominately young cast made up of performers I had not seen in anything else. The only person who was recognizable to me was Chris Mulkey who appears in the film just long enough to be recognizable as a marine and who I've been enjoying in Twin Peaks in his role as Hank Jennings (what are the odds?!). But outside him, the film is comprised of people I've never seen before.

And that works quite well for Cloverfield. It's about the only thing.

It is late May in Manhattan and Rob Hawkins is preparing to leave for Japan to become a Vice President at a company there. His brother, Jason, and Jason's girlfriend, Lily decide to throw Rob a surprise going away party with all their friends. Lily wants to make a video commemoration to Rob and Jason pawns the job off on his friend Hud, who begins to capture the melodrama of people saying good-by to Rob on camera as well as his own lame attempts to chat up Marlena, a disaffected twentysomething who does not appear even remotely interested in Hud.

And just when the film is beginning to look like the ultimate hoodwink in that Hud becomes preoccupied with the most obvious romantic subplot possible involving Rob having had sex with his roommate Beth, there is what feels like an earthquake. As soon as power is restored, Jason, Rob, Hud, Marlena and Lily run out onto the streets of Manhattan to witness tremendous explosions and what appear to be projectiles launching from an area of the city that is ablaze. As chaos ensues, the quintet makes a beeline for one of the bridges off the island only to be on it when the bridge itself is attacked by a tentacle. The efforts to flee for the group become instantly complicated when Rob receives a phone call from Beth indicating that she is alive and trapped in her apartment. Rob, feeling especially heroic out of love, rushes into the maelstrom of a giant monster attack on New York City accompanied by his terrified friends and acquaintances (who apparently have nothing better to do), all documented by Hud and the camera from the party.

Cloverfield, which has been kept pretty well secret since it began filming, is essentially a monster attack movie seen through the eyes of people who have no idea what they are encountering. There is no science here, no explanation, just giant monster attacks, shedding little nasty baby monsters along the way. This, actually, is the high point of the concept. Like films like 28 Days Later that present ordinary people in apocalyptic events or scenarios, Cloverfield keeps tight on the action of running, yelling and dodging as opposed to making sense or developing character.

I wanted Cloverfield to be good; I wanted it to be better than the vague Star Trek movie trailer that was shown twice before it began. I wanted it to be something truly different and wonderful, but it did not take long before I realized that the reason I was not enjoying Cloverfield was because I had seen it before. And recently. The Blair Witch Project (reviewed here!) which is not one of my favorite films, used the same cinematic conceit; recovered video from the site of a mystery. Unfortunately, the opening text that accompanies Cloverfield guts the potential of the film. Words used in the first image that comes on screen clearly defining what the video moviegoers are about to see revealed two critical pieces of information that gut any genuine emotional resonance to the film and - unfortunately - establish a franchise.

It's pretty pathetic when one is working at creating a film that they feel the need in the opening frames to set up a sequel. For those who might wonder, alas, both pieces of information revealed exactly what I suspected they would and led the film to an ending that was so predictable as to insult the intelligence of anyone who has seen any sort of invasion film before.

But in this case, the real problem also comes in the execution of the concept. I can dig the whole idea that there is a malevolent entity that no one (we see) knows anything about and is just wrecking everything and reproducing like mad. It was, in fact, the only truly decent function of Steven Spielberg's latest crack at a film like this. I have no problem with the senselessness of an attack and the film simply being about how a small group of people near it react to it.

The problem is that the execution buggers suspension of disbelief. The camera idea is interesting and I can even buy the idea that the camera has both a light and night vision capabilities because of how wealthy the young hip crowd in Manhattan seems to be. I'll accept those somewhat big stretches (though I'm going to be checking out the internet later to see just how many actually have the equivalent of nightvision goggles!) for now. But the problem is that the camera angles make no sense. Hud is chasing after his friends and they run away from the beast and its little offspring, yet the bulk of the shots have decent images of the backs of his friends.

Hud is characterized as the least fit of the group and he is almost constantly out of breath, as are the others. Yet we are meant to believe that he spends approximately six hours running up and down stairs, running through the subways, running through the streets holding a camera up at eye level. This after an evening of drinking.

Yes, to be young again! Cloverfield is predicated on the idea that it is remotely believable that young women who weigh little more than a feather each can consume multiple drinks on more or less empty stomachs and then run around for hours, in many scenes without perspiring. One of the few redeeming things about The Blair Witch Project was that at least there was the scientific interest of watching tears form and roll out of someone's eyes. Cloverfield does not even have that. At best, it has mussed hair.

As for the creature itself, those concerned that the film will simply be a tentacle here, a giant foot there need not worry; there is ample footage of the invading creature. Those dazzled by spectacle will find this to be one of the better created computer-generated giant creatures, complete with mysterious sound effects that rattle the theaters.

But mostly, the movie is a lot of running and what anyone with any sense of reality - which is what director Matt Reeves seemed to want by shooting it as an awkward handheld first person point of view project - would note is that it ought to be a lot more shots of the outside of Hud's thigh or stomach (which is what the camera would catch if it was being held in the hands of someone who was just flat out running).

But ultimately, it's a lot of running, people nearby shooting guns, monster nearby thrashing and whapping things. Not so much happens in Cloverfield as it is largely about the spectacle of being in the middle of a cataclysmic event. It's a run across Manhattan with the occasional stop for people to talk. And by the time Beth enters the film, the viewer will have stopped caring. Indeed, by that point, it's difficult to muster up the cynicism to note that a woman who was impaled on a metal bar for hours and was unconscious is now up and literally running.

But that, we are meant to assume, is the power of the characters in the movie. Rob loves Beth just that much that he is willing to risk his life for her. Beth loves Rob to such a great extent that when the world is essentially coming to an end for them, she can overcome massive internal injuries (twice!) to run for her life with him. But the problem is, the evidence on that front is as flimsy as Hud's theories as to what the beast might actually be. Beth comes to the party late, with a date and leaves almost immediately after she and Rob have a heated conversation.

Or perhaps it is more of an acting issue. Michael Stahl-David (Rob) and Odette Yustman (Beth) have no real on-screen chemistry. In fact, even in the footage that precedes the monster attack, Stahl-David and Yustman have nothing captured on camera that indicates any genuine sense of attachment to one another. In a similar fashion, Jessica Lucas (Lily) and Mike Vogel (Jason) do not portray any attachment that is truly deep and that acting problem leads to a serious character problem with Cloverfield.

Cloverfield is all about keeping things moving; running around the monster to get to Beth to get her out of New York City with the marines and any members of the group who are not killed by thing or its various spawn that are spreading out from it. Lily is excited - in the opening - about the possibility of someday soon being Rob's sister-in-law, which implies a deep bond between her and Jason. The problem is that Jessica Lucas says the lines, but doesn't show the viewer that level of emotion in her performance. And her reaction to the events on the bridge dumbfound anyone who has ever been in love.

The acting in Cloverfield is almost homogeneously weak - though I'll admit I was pretty convinced that the actors had been running through the night whatwith the way Stahl-David's hair is not at all sweat-plastered and Lucas still looks pretty amazing and remarkably unsweaty after hours of running. The bright spot on the acting front is Lizzy Caplan, who plays the off-put Marlena. Marlena makes the least amount of sense as a character - after the bridge is knocked out, she has the least attachment to anyone in the group and the best reasons to just flee with the rest of New York behind the protected lines the Marines have established. Caplan has moments where she is convincing, especially as she depicts her character in pain, that saves this from being entirely b-movie schlock.

The problem is, it's not enough. Cloverfield looks and sounds good on the big screen, but it's just not a good enough film to justify shelling out theater prices for. If there's a $1.00 theater that plays films on their way out or if you have a great television system with and a free video rental from your local library or video shop, then maybe Cloverfield is bearable to take in on a night when you want to watch something fairly senseless and loud.

Now out on DVD, Cloverfield includes a commentary track that quickly degenerates into explaining what ought to be obvious on screen and the director simply watching his own film. There are four featurettes which repeat some of the behind-the-scenes information and four deleted scenes and two alternate endings which are still not as good as the one I came up with for the film. The extra scenes do not add anything critical to the film or the characters.

Ultimately, this is the "shiny object" type movie that seems to be very popular among young people, but not real cinephiles. We've seen the elements of this film before in The Blair Witch Project, War Of The Worlds and Godzilla, the problem here is that putting them all together does not yield anything especially new or interesting. The film is largely unengaging and for those who love the works of J.J. Abrams, this is another disappointment from his post-Alias, post-Lost adventures.

But then again, if we are meant to believe that an out of shape guy who spent the night drinking can chase people much more fit (but probably more intoxicated) around for hours while holding a camera up at eye level, I think because I didn't see Greg Gruenberg in the entire film that this does not qualify as a "J.J. Abrams movie." I think I've got the better case here.

For other invasion/apocalyptic battle/people running wildly films, please check out my reviews of:
Battle Los Angeles
District 9

For a far more cerebral invasion film, check out my review of V!


For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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