Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Some Kind of Monster

Back to the movie reviews.

Cloverfield (d. Matt Reeves)

In 1954, nine years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Ishiro Honda made the original Godzilla. To much of the world (and especially to American eyes) it looked like a silly movie where a man in a rubber monster suit stomps around on an HO scale Tokyo. But for the Japanese, the gigantic fire-breathing lizard was the embodiment of a very real nightmare, a nuclear horror unleashed by the American bombs.

Now in 2008, about six and a half years after the terrorist attacks of 11 Sep 2001, comes Cloverfield. And here, too, is a film where a devastating attack is given monstrous form.

It all starts in Manhattan with a going-away party for one Robert Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) -- significantly, he's going away to Japan. As his best friend Hud (T.J. Miller) documents the party on his brother's video camera, something happens off in the distance. As the film continues, we will learn that some sort of monster has risen up out of the East River, decapitated the Statue of Liberty, and cut a swath of destruction through the streets.

(And a sidebar about that decapitation: It provided the movie with a great poster image, to be sure, but how does this monster accomplish the feat? It's a tentacled, spidery, amorphous thing that for the rest of the film, only seems capable of crashing into stuff and biting. How does it rise up out of the river, reach the head -- and only the head -- of Lady Liberty, tear it off, and fling it down the street?)

Everything we see comes from Hud's video camera. The tape, we're informed early on, was found in "the area formerly known as Central Park."

When a film makes a bold stylistic choice like that, I always ask the same question: What does this add to the story that wouldn't be there with traditional camerawork? In the case of some movies (like say, Beowulf), I have a hard time finding an answer. In the case of Cloverfield, I think there are benefits. The "found video" gives an immediacy to the story, a "You Are There" quality. It also enables the film to tell the tale of one small group of friends, rather than trying to thoroughly convey the broad overarching plot; a plot we've seen once or twice before.

But there are detriments as well. The conceit is terribly and frustratingly limiting. Some of that frustration is endemic to the concept; it would, after all, be frustrating to be in the middle of a monster attack, fighting for your life without really grasping what's going on. But all too much of it comes from directorial choices. The camera turns off when there's no story reason for it to turn off, almost as if the filmmakers felt like they had to remind you of the concept. Also, Hud often points the camera where no one in his situation would. If you could shoot the giant monster fighting the army as it knocks over legendary New York landmarks, would you choose not to, and instead film Michael Stahl-David standing in a room? That's what Hud chooses.

The acting troupe is made up of relative unknowns. Of them, only Lizzy Caplan stands out as Marlena. Caplan was the best part of CBS's late, lamented (by me) sitcom "The Class" last year, and she has the face of a silent film star, with big, expressive, haunted eyes and a way of conveying a secret, inner life to her characters that draws a viewer in. One wishes that if Hud wasn't going to get some decent shots of the monster, he could at least devote more videotape to Marlena.

The problem here, as with all of these virally marketed films, is that once you know the premise, you pretty much know the whole movie. Snakes on a Plane had a snappy title, but once you've had your chuckle, there wasn't a movie there. With Cloverfield, once I've told you that there's a big monster attacking New York and it's all shot on some guy's hand-held, you've got everything the movie has to offer.

I admire the premise of Cloverfield, but a movie needs to be more than a lab experiment.

2 stars

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