Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Cloverfield: Godzilla '98 Redux

The opening of Cloverfield asks us to believe that we are watching a restricted Department of Defense video, recovered after sightings of the mysterious "Cloverfield" incident. Unfortunately, this also gives viewers a pretty good clue about the outcome. When the introductory text mentions "the area formerly known as Central Park" (italics mine), viewers should take the hint.

When we start watching the "video", it starts out as the document of a going-away party being thrown for some guy named Rob who's taking a job in Japan. An observant viewer will ask, "Why is this being classified? What happened to these people?" Viewers with a memory at least as far back as The Blair Witch Project will probably even recognize the technique.

Unfortunately, Rob's endless going-away party subjects you to the confessions of self-absorbed, drunk yuppies. This isn't the cast of Friends here. They couldn't be attacked fast enough for me.

Once the attacking starts, though, Cloverfield really begins to dissapoint. It breaks one of the major conventions of monster movies--it doesn't present a God's-eye view of the carnage. You lose the ability to project yourself into the monster and enjoy the destruction of major landmarks. This is part of the enjoyment of the older, giant monster movies. (There has been everything from video games such as Crush Crumble & Chomp to the rubber-costume wrestling of Kaiju Big Battel that feed this urge to flatten cities.) Cloverfield shows everything from the victim's P.O.V., which may create more suspense but doesn't allow you to root for the monster.

As much as Rob and his friends annoyed me, watching them die painfully at the hands of the big or baby arachnoid creatures wasn't fun at all. The humans are shallow and immature, but they do nothing wicked enough to make their slaughter enjoyable. There's no self-aggrandizement or outrageous vices on their part which would make us cheer when they "get theirs."

For a movie which is is trying to present a "naturalistic" approach to a giant monster attack, its own internal logic doesn't even hold up under the weight of the monster. The arachnoid is undoubtedly strong. Its babies, however, can be dispatched with blunt instruments. So, when the full-size creature is being hit with tank shells, Stinger missiles, and cluster bombs, it should be similarly dispatched. These weapons are made to go through concrete and armor plating--this thing is organic. Depleted-uranium jacketed rounds should shred it. Asking us to give us the same suspension of belief that we grant, let's say, Godzilla, doesn't work in this film.

The Big G deserves further mention here, for it was a decade ago that Roland Emmerich tried to present a similarly "naturalistic" presentation of Godzilla in the unfortunate remake. Trying to present a more "natural" monster ruined the major thing that's special about Godzilla, which is that he is an anthropomorphic monster. The big spider-beast of Cloverfield reminds of of some of the monsters in Japanese anime--well-designed, but there's no sense of personality.

One other thing that made fellow audience members complain as they left Cloverfield was that we learned NOTHING about the beast. "We never even got to find out what it was." I understand this complaint. In giant monster-related Japanese shows such as Ultraman, there is a convention where each new monster is introduced with a still frame and title clearly spelling out its name. When I asked a Japanese friend why they did this, he said, "It's a new monster and it would be rude if they didn't introduce them." He was only half-joking. Cloverfield denied us the scientific speculation and (usually ineffectual) countermeasure.

It could be said that Cloverfield uses the monster movie to address the horror of 9/11, much in the way that the original Godzilla, King of the Monsters dealt with the fears of a nuclear holocaust. It might be more accurate to say it shamefully exploits those images, such as people running from the cloud of debris, evacuees leaving Manhattan over the bridges, or the "ash" fall. They aren't disguised at all. The head of the Statute of Liberty landing on a Manhattan street has more to do with the iconography of Planet of the Apes than any serious social commentary.

I guess there is a way Cloverfield might be made more watchable. Perhaps when the DVD comes out in several months, some enterprising kid will re-cut it with dance tracks for background music. The street battle would look pretty good mashed up with Fatboy Slim's "Funk Soul Brother".

No comments: