The Reeler


January 17, 2008


The secret of J.J. Abrams's clunky commercial vehicle is that there isn't one

The first thing you need to know about Cloverfield is that the movie isn't that great. After months of annoying PR stunts, trailers devoid of titles and titles devoid of context, questions about the actual quality of the damn thing almost seemed irrelevant. Now that it's here, the outer layers of producer J.J. Abrams's commercial machine have fallen to the wayside and we can see the final product as it is: a clunky, occasionally frightening monster-takes-Manhattan adventure that's hardly worth all the presumptuous hype.

Having shrugged off the marketing, I feel compelled to mention that the promotion of Cloverfield was its sole unique ingredient. Considering the narrative flair of its design -- a single hand-held camera follows the experiences of 20-something New Yorkers fleeing the onslaught of a hideous beast -- director Matt Reeves (this is his second feature and first since 1996's The Pallbearer) still relies on a slew of action movie contrivances. Before a single image touches the screen, ominous thumping noises (a direct rip of the T. Rex stomps in Jurassic Park) echo across the pavilion -- and then we settle into a pretty unimaginative series of escalating occurrences. Pretty boy Rob (Michael Stahl-David) gets a surprise going-away party from a handful of hipster buddies on the eve of his departure for a new gig in Japan. Then the lights go out and shit gets crazy -- fireballs in the streets of Manhattan! Buildings collapsing! Urban landmarks sinking to the ground!

Everyone now: Oh-no-they-didn't! Yep, the 9/11 content is a major factor in Cloverfield's unsettling power, from the horrific onslaught of the city's destruction to the pedestrians constantly photographing it. Abrams clearly knew where the parallels would emerge, and sometimes they're strikingly distinct. Shortly after the massive creature (which we don't see for the first half hour or so) begins its attack, our doleful cameraman (Rob's jovial buddy Hud, played by T.J. Miller), captures a quiet street shrouded in shock, people covered in dust coughing ceaselessly while papers gradually drift to the ground. The similarities to a certain dark moment in history are beyond accidental.

I'm not the sort to take immediate umbrage when a filmmaker tries to stuff the bleaker elements of contemporary history into a pop-art framework, but the references in Cloverfield aren't particularly astute -- they don’t say anything new. It's like reliving the news of that historical day before switching to another channel and catching the tail-end of Godzilla. At this point, referencing 9/11 in an action movie has already become something of a cliché, and Steven Spielberg did it much, much better in the early, successful moments of War of the Worlds.

The monster in Cloverfield looks like a larger, more unruly version of the fish-like creature in The Host, with cold dead eyes and a bug-like mouth that must have been fun to create. At this point in the blockbuster lifespan, we need something cooler than that -- a creature that really challenges the imagination. Thing is, we never learn the origin of the beast and it doesn’t look like anything in particular (Alien? Fish? Fish alien?), so there's no way to really engage with its wanton destruction other than hoping our heroes survive its perilous trail. With comic relief Hud behind the camera, watching Cloverfield often feels like playing a first-person shooter with bad controls: We get constant shots of people's feet running from place to place and tons of off-screen sound, which makes you realize that viewing the events is a lot more difficult for us than it is for the characters involved -- a potentially interesting reversal that ultimately doesn't serve the story.

Drew Goddard's screenplay is written like a television episode, replete with obvious monologues, lame pontifications and a whole lot of yelling. Early on, when Rob moans about a woman he has fallen for prior to rescuing her from a collapsing building, his pal tells him, "Forget the world and hang onto the people you love most." Uh, duh. There’s a monster on the loose. Sullied by a constant lack of inspiration, Cloverfield's big secret is that there isn't one.

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Comments (5)

I just saw it last night and I still don't understand what the hell "It's alive " means. Even the character who says it has no idea what he's talking about.

Jessica Lucas is in this movie, and she is a HOTTIE!!! movie was alright, I like the monster and the concept wasnt that bad.

One one level, the footage resembling 9/11 is unsettling precisely because of the resemblance. On another level, the whole film is an extended 9/11 metaphor.

The vapid partying teenagers represent the sleeping America of 9/10. The monster's attack represents 9/11 itself. The military's uncaring attitude, mercy killing of the bitten, and ineffective strategy against the monster itself represent the PATRIOT Act, Guantanamo Bay, and the Iraq war. The final sequence represents the question that half of America is asking: who will kill us first, the terrorists, or our own government?

I offer this metaphor, not as what the movie is about, but as one possible interpretation on a level of abstraction.

Yes the metaphoric similarities between this movie and are sickening.

I agree whole heartedly with the post regarding this.

The attack of the monster represents the 9/11 "terrorist" attacks.

The monster represents the "threat" of terrorism. The statue of liberty head being cut off represents the attack on civil liberties.

Shortly after this, Martial Law is declared and the people are rounded up and taken away to "safety".

In the last couple of minutes in the movie, the film jumps to Rob and Beth at coney island. In the upper right area of screen something can be seen falling into the sea unnoticed. I think the implication is that the creature fell to earth and into the ocean on what Rob calls a "Perfect Day"

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