Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Think Piece

I travel the high roads and the low lands of Pop Culture America every day, taking the pulse of the Real Pop Culture Americans out there, getting inside their heads, finding out what makes them tick. It's what I do.

One thing that's come up repeatedly of late is Cloverfield, which I reviewed on Pop Culture America with John and Dave this past Saturday (the written review is available a little further down this page). After voicing my problems with the movie, many of the PCA'ers tell me the same thing:

"John, you are overthinking the movie."

"It's just a monster movie," they continue, "It's just a ride. You're not supposed to be thinking about it; just sit back and enjoy it."

My first thought (there it is again) about that is that I can't help but notice no one is refuting my actual criticism. They're not saying I'm wrong about the movie, just that I'm wrong to point out what I did about the movie. So overthought or not, I stand by my objections.

Secondly, I know that I am perfectly capable of appreciating the "ride" aspect of a movie. If Cloverfield had been a better ride, I wouldn't have sat there taking note of all of its logical inconsistencies. But it gave me time to reflect while the bland characters wandered around through endless subway tunnels. Whose fault is that?

No. I submit, with all due respect to my fellow Pop Culture Americans that in this case, they are underthinking the movie. There are lots of ways to enjoy a film (or a book, or a song, or a TV show) and one of the better ones is to think about it. If you're just going to settle for any old light show that gets shoved in front of you, you might as well go buy a lava lamp and be done with it. And if swirly globs floating around in cool, unthought-about patterns floats your boat, I say, "Hooray." Enjoy.

But movies are stories and stories are made to engage us at a number of different levels. First and foremost, they should hit us emotionally, and when the Cloverfield whatchamacallit first attacks off screen and the camera shakes and the lights go out and the head of the Statue of Liberty comes bouncing down the street, it does. But I saw all that in the trailer and it's only three or four minutes worth of a ninety-minute story. Am I being so unreasonable to think (there's that word again) that it should have something to follow up?

Stories also engage us at an intellectual level. They help us make sense of the patterns of our lives. They help us grasp the unknowable. And that's where Cloverfield falls down. It promises an idea (what would it be like if you were really in the middle of a monster attack in a big city?) and then doesn't deliver. That's a flaw; a major design flaw.

Let me put forward an alternate scenario to the one the movie uses. At the beginning, a couple of people ask Hud (the guy with the camera) why he's still filming in the middle of this desperate situation. A reasonable question. He says he's doing it because he wants to document what's going on. He says, "People will want to know." Good enough. Suppose instead of what actually happens in the movie where he follows around his self-absorbed friends on their asinine rescue mission, he actually takes his own words to heart. Suppose he spends the rest of the movie trying to get as close as he possibly can to the action, as close as he possibly can to the monster. Suppose he sets out not just to document it, but to study it, to learn about it, to discover a weakness that can be used against it. Suppose he takes an active role.

Might that have been a better movie? Might that have been a better ride?

I think so.

But then, I think too much.

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