Shiny Shelf


Cloverfield

By Mark Clapham on 04 February 2008

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Remember ‘Signs’, M Night Shyamalan’s slow burning, low-key version of ‘War of the Worlds’, where an alien invasion is seen entirely from the perspective of one rural family hiding in their basement? At the time, I recall joking about what other sub-genres Shyamalan could take-on next, and how the end result would turn out. The best of these was his take on ‘Godzilla’, which would be about a Tokyo hot dog vendor hiding in his cabin from the monster. There’d be a lot of banging and crashing in the distance, and at the end you’d catch a glimpse of a scaly foot, but that would be about it. I was actually joking at the time.

Well, ‘Cloverfield’ isn’t quite ‘Godzilla’ in the style of ‘The Sixth Sense’, but it is a monster movie that avoids the usual widescreen, God-like perspective of city-wide destruction and instead tightens in on the ground-level experience of a group of normal bods trapped in a bad, baffling situation that’s never explained to them. The stylistic conceit is close to that of the ‘Blair Witch Project’, with the entire movie ostensibly being a recording of the event found in the ruins after the fact, and presented to us unedited, shaky camerawork, lack of editing and all. The camera through which events unfold belongs to Rob, a guy about to leave for a job in Japan. His best friend Hud is given the camera to record messages for Rob at his going away party, but instead uses it as a pretext to try and pick up a girl and spy on private conversations. When the party is interrupted by a power-cut and explosions in the city, Hud takes the camera into the streets and records the attempts of a core of partygoers to get to safety as a rampaging horror begins to smash the hell out of New York. The movie unfolds predominantly in real time, with any ‘edits’ being due to the camera either being paused, the wrong button being pressed, or some other interference with the equipment.

On the whole, this conceit works incredibly well. While the ‘Blair Witch’ comparisons are valid, this is a very different type of movie – while the camerawork is shaky, thankfully we’re seeing the action through a top-spec, pin-sharp digital colour camera rather than the black and white fuzzmaster wielded by the ‘Blair Witch’ kids. Furthermore, there’s nothing lo-fi about the actual production – this is a big effects movie with explosions, destruction and a tangible threat that, while initially concealed by the smoke and dust thrown up by its actions, is frequently and satisfyingly seen later in the movie. Even without the unique perspective of the handheld camera, this would be a far better US-set, CG version of ‘Godzilla’ than the Devlin and Emmerich one ever could be, with a better monster and a punchier approach to the carnage. With that street level view, it’s a whole different experience to watching a normal SF/monster film – the layers of picturesque distance created by well-composed long shots of the action are stripped away, and instead we’re there with the characters, flailing around in the chaos and catching the occasional glimpse of something we really don’t want to get close to. Most of the time the presence of the beasty is sold by the often underrated art of sound design, with distant bumps, roars and explosions.

Sure, it’s a conceit, and doesn’t actually make it any more ‘realistic’ than a man in a lizard suit punching out a giant puppet moth – but it’s an effective one. Not only does it have the slightly disconcerting effect of reflecting how a normal person would see something fantastical, but it means that there’s never any ’safe’ view of the monster – if we can see it on screen, then it’s too damn close and the characters are in big trouble. There’s a real sense of being small, vulnerable people in a big, collapsing city, with some impressive effects set-pieces and a large number of effective shocks. Director Matt Reeves hits the tone just right – there’s action and scares, but the very normal characters never get put into the position of doing anything superhuman or unnaturally heroic. Scriptwriter Drew Goddard, previously of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, ‘Smallville’ and ‘Alias’, feeds a talented cast of unknowns dialogue which is believable but has enough naturalistically funny bits to keep the film from sliding into a grim agony-fest where bad things happen one after another with no release.

‘Cloverfield’ is by no means perfect – the pacing issues involved in telling a feature-length horror film in real time means that, even at 85 minutes, the movie feels that it’s a little too long sometimes, and these moments come just as often from over-extended tension as they do from quieter linking scenes. The lead characters, while well played and far from being a bad bunch of people, are a slightly annoying group of achingly hip, well-off and good looking young people who hang around in spacious, tasteful apartments listening to a demographically appropriate combo of tasteful recent dance music and obscure Canadian indie-rock. For some of the audience this will just increase the satisfaction as various horrible things happen to the characters, but other viewers of a more bitter disposition may just find them unwatchably annoying from the start.

You wouldn’t want every movie to be like ‘Cloverfield’. The realtime, handheld trick is one you can only get away with every so often, and would get very old very fast if used frequently. However, when done right a change of perspective and shift in aesthetic can find a new way into an old genre, reinventing a familiar story and catching audiences by surprise. That’s what ‘Cloverfield’ does for the giant monster movie, and it does so very effectively.


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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named markclapham.com.




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