Friday, October 1, 2010

Okay, just to be clear here, our options are: die here, die in the tunnels, or die in the streets. That pretty much it?

No 394 – Cloverfield
Director – Matt Reeves

Ah I remember the day so well. The mystery. The concern. The general air of chaos. The day that the Cloverfield teaser trailer was released.


This is a film that was an internet rarity. A film which hadn’t existed on any radar until they had enough footage to release a trailer. It was a film that took everyone by surprise. It was going to be EPIC.

….and it is good. Don’t get me wrong. In fact, as I dissect the film in this blog, I’m going to discuss the dozens of little bits which make this film exciting and dynamic and different. It is just that despite some wonderful touches and some inspired ideas, Cloverfield leaves me cold. I just don’t think it is as good as the sum of its parts. But the parts are pretty fucking tasty.

This is a film about a monster invasion, told through the eyes of the civilians. It helps to create some amazing moments. Arguments in the streets are violently interrupted by the army – turning the screen into a mess of screams and smoke. Night vision mode revealing the man-sized creepy insect monsters in the subway tunnels. The violent beheading of the Statue of Liberty which was seen in the first attention grabbing trailer.
What are good about these epic set pieces are the little details. The fact that we’re watching them from within a group of terrified normal folk. We aren’t the army, or the kick ass agent/superhero/cop bought out of retirement. We aren’t the detached camera floating above and finding the best angle as the players act for our amusement. We’re in the thick of it and we’re jostling and bustling.

This same attention to detail is there in the few occasional quiet moments amongst the screams and blood and running. I was particularly impressed with the inspired simplicity and the effectiveness of a shot, where as the camera is dropped it constantly refocuses, not knowing whether to focus on the grass in the foreground or the face in the background. For a few brief seconds all you hear is the whirr of the camera, a strange moment of calm, until it is picked up again and the chaos begins.

There are many more great little moments but I don’t just want to sit there listing them all, so let’s focus on the film’s real star. The Cloverfield monster. I love that freaky beast. I love that nothing really explains its arrival (although there is a small clue in the background of the last shot) and I love that throughout the film we just get the occasional glimpse of the monster. Be it a screaming head looming through the rubble or a claw smashing into a building, or the few rare moments where they can watch a TV and see the news helicopter overhead shots.
This builds an enigma around the monster, and it becomes far more terrifying – after all nothing is as frightening as the depths of our imaginations. So, when the action moves to more open spaces and we see the monster in its entirety, it does feel like a let down. I can see why Matt Reeves did it; he wants to show off his otherwise top secret creations…. But still….. Meh….


It is the culmination of these little flaws which tar the film. Whether it is them busting their load and showing the full monster or whether it is that Hud, our guide and camera man, is the most annoying gimp of a human ever. A man who has to reiterate everything that happens and litter it with ‘Totallies’. He ruins every moment by giving his stupid pointless opinion. What a twat.
But actually, he is more than just annoying – he puts in the final important flaw of the film. A flaw which is directly linked to what makes this film special. The flaw of ‘found footage’. There are moments in this film that don’t make sense in the Found Footage camp. There are little things (if you are spreading gossip about your best friend, would you leave the camera on when the tape your filming is his going away gift?) and there are big things (after a while you’re going to say ‘fuck all this filming’ – as your friends and your home are destroyed around you, you’re going to ditch the camera and just run) that challenge your suspension of disbelief.
Paranormal Activity’s static camera shows that you can do realistic Found Footage and make it effective. Cloverfield occasionally seems to push its luck a bit.

Which leaves me with my final two points.
1) Cloverfield is short. Like really really short. The whole thing comes to about 81 minutes, but about 11 of those minutes are credits. So we’re talking about a film which is shorter than a lot of TV shows out there. At least the credit music is suitably epic. Check out Roar!
2) Watching shaky-cam Found Footage on a Virgin Pendolino is possibly the wobbliest thing you can do ever. Seriously vomit inducing.