How Cloverfield beats the handheld challenge

CloverfieldIf good horror movies are all about timing, then The Blair Witch Project missed the beat. Had the film been released 10 or 20 years earlier, it would have been an underground hit, the sort of movie that’s passed around from home to home on bootlegged VHS tapes (not unlike the 1980 “found footage” movie Cannibal Holocaust). Had it been released today, the channels of social media that are available would have allowed for more organic digital word-of-mouth.

But the film was released at exactly the wrong time: too late to contain the Internet gossip, but too early to allow that hype to move beyond industry websites and into the grassroots. I loved The Blair Witch Project, but it was more a film experiment than a “movie” and never had a chance of living up to the “scariest movie ever” hype train that preceded its release. It’s no wonder that it’s been largely forgotten in the years since.

Cloverfield doesn’t make the same mistake; hell, I don’t think there’s been a popcorn movie in recent memory that so perfectly captures the current zeitgeist.

See, the challenge with “found footage” movies, where the characters are in control of the camera, is explaining why the characters keep filming in moments of crisis. The solution that both The Blair Witch Project and Cannibal Holocaust found to this dilemma was to make its protagonists filmmakers; it’s just their nature to keep filming. The creators of Cloverfield, in contrast, don’t need a solution: the 21st century has done all the work for them. My favourite moment in the whole film comes immediately after the scene that closed its awesome teaser trailer. With the Statue of Liberty’s head lying in the middle of the road, a small crowd of onlookers choose not run away or move to find shelter immediately; they stop to take pictures on their cell phones.

I don’t want to overthink or overanalyze Cloverfield, because it has no pretensions about being anything more than a postmodern twist on the classic monster movie. But there’s plenty to admire about the way that Matt Reeves, J.J Abrams, Drew Goddard have taken the genre and updated it for the 21st century. In fact, it fares even better than its closest point of reference – Steven Spielberg’s 2003 remake of War of the Worlds – because of its willingness to embrace of the modern era.

Not only does the film play off of our modern media environment, but it makes no bones about placing its events squarely in a post-9/11 world. The characters presume a terrorist attack when the explosions start, but it’s more the images that Reeves chooses that stand out: collapsing buildings, walls of dust and ash, hundreds of sheets of paper floating slowly to the ground. There’s a scene towards the end of the film that is harrowingly similar to Paul Greengrass’ United 93, and every bit as unsettling. Yet like with its take on our voyeuristic culture, Cloverfield doesn’t bash you over the head with its 9/11 connections, and it’s a better movie for it.

Because ultimately, Cloverfield is a rollercoaster ride. While The Blair Witch Project’s slow pace left many viewers disappointed, Cloverfield is about as trim and refined as you could possibly expect. Its opening 15 minutes – setting up the party where shit goes down – isn’t exactly a masterpiece of acting, but it’s believable enough to allow the audience to buy into the film. From the first explosion that follows, the movie rarely stops to take a breath, moving quickly from setpiece to setpiece. You do end up seeing a fair bit of the monster, but always with just enough shrouded to keep us still uncertain about what exactly New York is dealing with. Some viewers will have trouble believing the film’s plot motivation – that a small band of survivors would go back into Manhattan just to try and save one woman – but surely, ordinary people have done much stupider things in a crisis in real life.

Best of all, by bringing the “found footage” approach to the disaster/monster film, Cloverfield remedies one of the crippling flaws of the genre. Filmmakers feel the need to make at least some of their characters “regular Joes” so that the audience has someone to relate to, but that’s often at odds with the broad, epic story that they want to tell. So in order to tell two stories at once, they build in some awkward scenario where, somehow, these regular characters end up side-by-side with the military or the government, working together to stop the menace or save the city/country/planet. It’s about as phony as you can get.

Cloverfield doesn’t fall into this trap because it knows exactly what it wants to be as a film. It doesn’t make one of its main characters a military officer, it doesn’t have its characters single-handedly solve the secret to defeating the monster, and it really doesn’t explain anything at all about the monster’s origins or motivation. The movie is concerned with one thing and one thing alone: survival. Ironically, for a film whose characters are thrown into the dark, covered in ash, shakily filming a monster they can barely see, Cloverfield’s greatest asset is its clarity of vision.

Watch: Cloverfield trailer

Addendum: Obviously, Cloverfield’s home video approach means that there’s a lot of shaky camera work, which apparently isn’t to everyone’s taste. Upon leaving the theatre, I found a long line of vomit along the exit ramp, followed by this pile of un-stomached goodies just outside the door. Photographic evidence after the jump…




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