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January 20, 2008

Brief Cloverfield Review

Having seen it, I guess I have to review it.

Let's call it three stars and the best giant-monster-destroys-a-city-movie ever, though there aren't too many worthies in that category.

The actors were decent and the characters non-annoying -- which makes it unlike the Blair Witch Project.

I'm not sure why the movie works, though it does. It's not exactly scary. In fact, it's not really scary at all. Giant monsters aren't really horror monsters. There is some spectacle -- later in the movie you get a good look at the monster -- but I wouldn't call it a big spectacular popcorn movie like Independence Day either. While the characters were likable enough, I didn't really care if they lived or died (probably because the opening chyron, stating that the videotape was recovered from "Site US-447, Formerly known as "Central Park," hints that only the video recording, and not those shooting the video, survived), so it's not really an apocalyptic drama either.

There's not even a Lovecraftian sense of the dread of a world gone mad, as the heroes behave too heroically to sell the idea that we're all helpless before this alien aberration (they're puny but brave, and bravery is inconsistent with helplessness), and the film is leavened with a fair amount of humor. I liked the humorous notes, but you can't sell fear and loathing when the Comic Relief is tossing out the silly laughs the same as he would in an Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick.

Still, despite it not really pushing any of the typical buttons, it works very well. Having the camera right in the middle of the action, held by a frightened civilian, makes it seem more visceral and intense than a movie shot in the typical fashion. One sequence, for example, has the camera man ("Hud') caught between soldiers and the creature; rocketry and tracer bullets scream overhead while the monster tosses cars and trucks at his harassers. It's about as intense a sequence as you're likely to see in this sort of flick (or even a genuine war movie).

Three issues I or others have had:

Shaky camera. I think they oversell this in the beginning; some may feel motion sickness. I'm not sure if they restrain themselves later (having made the point it's a handheld camera) or else you just get used to it. But either way, once the attack begins, the camera isn't as distracting.

9/11 imagery. This didn't bother me but I know it bothers a lot of people. After a building is knocked down, the street fills with screams and a gray tsunami of pyroclastic ash. It would look precisely like the streets after the towers came down if not for the fact it's occurring at night. Again, your mileage may differ, but I didn't mind the metaphor.

The monster. No, it's not Cthulhu. I didn't particularly like the the monster design -- it's got a strange body that didn't work for me, but a head with the standard arrangement of eyes, nostrils, mouth, leaving me to wonder how such a terrestrial-type brain-box wound up on an alien chassis -- and liked the creature a lot more in the early going, when I barely saw it and it was little more than suggestions in the darkness and ash. As the film goes on you see more of it, until you really see pretty much the whole enchilada. If they were going to show the monster, I wish they'd made it more bizarre and disturbing. As it is, it's merely ugly and ungainly.

The ending. The movie ends abruptly. The main characters don't witness the military executing the "Hammerdown protocol," which is basically "destroy the city to kill the creature." We hear some of it happening but don't see it, and are left to guess if "Hammerdown" actually succeeded in taking the monster down. (I'm told that at the very end of the credits a filtered voice over the radio answers that question, but I couldn't make out what was said myself.)

I have no real problems with the ending, given the fact that it would have violated the central stylistic choice of the director to make them far-off witnesses (mostly) and collateral damage, and I don't think a conventional ending where you see the final fight would have worked. So I didn't mind this, but be aware, you're not going to get a typical climax. One reviewer said the screenwriter had turned in only the first two acts of the script. (Scripts typically have three, where the third is the climax and resolution.)

You're also not going to get an explanation. There is no backstory provided whatsoever; no wounded and half-mad scientists show up conveniently near the end of Act II to describe the abomination they discovered under the sea while drilling for oil, and no government broadcast pops up on tv to explain the nature of the menace. I liked that myself. Any explanation they could have provided would have been trite or stupid or both anyway, so what's the point? At any rate, the action all takes place over the course of eight hours, so pretty much no one would have been able to figure this out during the movie's timeframe anyhow.

Those nits aside, I give it an unqualified recommendation. It works the whole way through, doesn't drag, and has a sense of wit and wonder about it. And the movie is so short (like 84 minutes) it doesn't have time to overstay its welcome.

Not an all-time great, but an interesting experiment that works well.

Related: David Thompson posts a strange BBC documentary on CIA research into the paranormal.

A Synopsis: Pretty funny.

Thanks to the Rat King.

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posted by Ace at 03:25 PM

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