After taking the Red Line Subway to Hollywood and Highland, we hurried down the walk of fame, passing Godzilla's star on the way - a double reminder for me: ten years ago, I suffered through the disappointment of seeing the American GODZILLA on opening night in Hollywood; four years ago, we were fortunate enough to enjoy the world premier screening of GODZILLA: FINAL WARS in the Chinese Theatre. Those two films set the outer limits on my spectrum of expectations for the evening's experience, but in the end CLOVERFIELD was very little like either of them, despite being a giant monster movie.
Outside of the theatre was a ten-foot-tall miniature mock-up of the film's iconic advertising image: the decapitated Statue of Liberty. We entered to find the seating crowded but not sold out. During intermission, there was some annoying video programming on the big screen that could not be seen clearly because the house lights were on and could not be heard clearly because the audience was buzzing - so why bother?
Thankfully, when the lights dimmed, the real buzz began - that of eager anticipation. The traditional THX clip (designed to impress the audience with the theatre's sound system) consisted of a humorous bit with Barry B. Benson (from the animated BEE MOVIE) doing some foley work that blasts out the amplified sound system of the on-screen control room. As with the promo spots that preceded the release of BEE MOVIE, this was funnier than anything actually seen in the film.
Up next was a handful of trailers, which were appropriately matched to the subject matter of the feature film. I am sure I have mentioned somewhere, probably more than once, that I do not find the "Starfleet Academy" premise of the upcoming STAR TREK feature to be particularly promising, but I have to admit that the teaser trailer does raise a pleasant sense of expectation: It consists of shots of outer space construction, with Leonard Nimoy's voice supplying the familiar narration, finally revealing that we are seeing the Enterprise. Based on the preview footage, I cannot say I have high hopes for 10,000 B.C. Whether or not the movie is any good, sabre-tooth tigers and wooly mammoths do not have the same appeal as dinosaurs. THE RUINS looks like low-budget horror junk. But on the positive side - the really positive side - the trailer for IRON MAN is one of the best I have ever seen - a little mini-movie that stands on its own as a work of art. That strategy of the preview is based on surprise: you don't know what you're seeing until the title character makes its appearance, accompanied by the familiar strains of the titular Black Sabbath song. That kind of surprise revelation, obviously, cannot exist in the film itself, where people have paid for their tickets knowing what they will see. I just hope the film itself has its own qualities that will live up to the preview. In any case, the trailer certainly does its job: as it faded out to the title card "Coming May 2," the young woman in the seat next to me whispered in frustration, "Why couldn't it be coming out tomorrow?"
By the time the main feature began to unspool, the audience was primed and ready, and for the most part they were not disappointed by what followed. CLOVERFIELD is far from perfect, but it proves that a good concept can focus a movie in a way that blurs the flaws around the edges, keeping audience attention on what's right instead of what's wrong.
WARNING: THERE WILL BE SOME MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD In this case, the concept is to tell the story of a monster movie from Ground Zero, seen through the eyes of civilians who barely have an clue of what is happening. This is achieved by filming all the action as if it were seen through a camcorder - a dangerous gambit that pays off. Yes, the sloppy hand-held work can grow tiresome and even give you a headache, but it keeps the action believable and locks the director into a point-of-view that precludes a lot of the usual manipulative Hollywood filmmaking techniques: there are no Michael Bay montages, no crane shots or Steadicam moves.
Most important, the conceit forces the director, except for some brief moments (e.g., on board a helicopter) to keep the camera at ground level, which means that the monster, when it is glimpsed, looms high above, emphasizing the sense of gargantuan size. (This is often a problem in Japanese giant monster movies, which fell into a habit of filming Godzilla, Gamera, etc. at eye-level, destroying the sense of perspective that would have made them seem huge.) The blurry shakey-cam technique serves one other purpose: it keeps us from getting a clear look at the monster.
As frustrating as this is, it is probably a good thing, because from what we see, the monster design is not particularly impressive. It's a fairly generic ugly beastie, unimpressive in itself, and the film wisely allows the destruction it causes to upstage the actual creature. Although not overly impressive, the monster does have one good moment near the end, when it confronts one of the major characters (sort of a sinister spoof on the eye-contact scene with Matthew Broderick in GODZILLA). Unfortunately, even this scene has problems, but more on those later.
Deliberately referencing September 11, 2001, CLOVERFIELD captures a chilling sense of ordinary people going about their ordinary lives until something catastrophic intervenes to rupture the well ordered calm, throwing them into pandemonium. In this regard it supremely trounces the recent THE MIST, which tried a similar strategy but succumbed all too easily to bad computer-generated imagery and a silly, manipulative twist ending. Unlike THE MIST, CLOVERFIELD actually knows how to make its monster action frightening (which is all the more impressive when you realize that, unlike Frank Darabont, director Matt Reeves did not have the option of using slow-motion, insert close-ups, cutaways, and other standard elements of film technique).
Again, in this regard, CLOVERFIELD trumps most of the famous giant monster movies of the past, such as the clumsy 1998 GODZILLA, which tend to emphasize spectacular destruction at the expense of genuine suspense. This is definitely not an "ain't it cool" movie, wherein you cheer on the special effects; you really are on the edge of your seat, afraid that the characters will not survive the night.
Despite the mostly convincing verisimilitude of the approach, the film does succumb, especially in its last act, to some cheap manipulation, one or two bad stereotypes, and some cornball Hollywood schmaltz. The first sign of trouble occurs shortly after evacuation from Manhattan has been cut by the monster's destruction of the Brooklyn Bridge: we see a bunch of black people looting an electronics store.
That's right, folks: in a disaster, African-Americans are less interested in self-preservation than in grabbing some free merchandise. Rather conveniently, the broken doors allow our white hero to step in and get a new battery for his cell phone, so that he can make contact with his estranged girlfriend. Whether accidentally or intentionally, the contrast between the two behaviors (one from greed, one from altruism) feels like an echo of media coverage of the Katrina disaster (in which photographs of black people were captioned as "looters" while photographs of white people were captioned as "scavengers").
The next doubtful moment is the result of a scary subway encounter. The Cloverfield monster sheds smaller, arachnid like creatures; although the film never specifies, they seem more like parasites than off-spring. The nimble little monsters are not as impressive as the big fella, but they do generate some creepiness in the subway confrontation. Unfortunately, we get the first "exemption pass" of the movie: although our camcorder jockey has previously captured televised footage of fully armed soldiers being overwhelmed by the parasites, our nimble band of civilians manages to fight them off with nothing more than a few improvised clubs.
However, one of them is bitten, and the payoff is handled in a way that is deliberately confusing. Although this is part and parcel of the film's overall strategy - with the characters swept along by events and unable to take stock of what's happened - it is nevertheless frustrating, especially because there is a hint that the rescue workers on hand have some idea about (or at least some expectation of) what is happening. It seems a like a bit of a cheap ploy, leaving unanswered questions to be sorted out in a sequel.
These early missteps are not enough to send CLOVERFIELD stumbling; one easily overlooks them as the film sweeps along. Only in the final act does the movie stagger and drop like a rhedosaurus after being shot with a radioactive isotope. The plot thread motivating the characters (besides survival) is that Rob (Michael Stahl-David) has alienated the affections of Beth (Odette Yustman), who is now lying wounded in her apartment in midtown Manhattan. Driving by a combination of guilt and love, Rob risks his life to get to her, leading to some hair-raising moments inside a high-rise building that has been reduced to the modern equivalent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. When he finally reaches her, we are treated to this dialogue exchange (quoted from memory, so it may not be word-for-word):
BETH: You came back for me. ROB: Sorry it took so long.Frankly, it sounds uncomfortably like the intentionally bad Hollwyood dialogue from the film-within-a-film at the end of THE PLAYER:
JULIA ROBERTS: What took you so long. BRUCE WILLIS: Traffic was a bitch.Suddenly, and irrovocably, we have left the world of convincing pseudo-cinema verite behind, and we are not in Hollywoodland, where all kinds of crazy things happen just because the screenwriter says so:
In spite of all this, the film ends up on a reasonably effective somber note that seems pretty directly lifted from the 1988 sleeper MIRACLE MILE (another ode to seeking out your true love in the face of apocalyptic disaster). Staying true to its concept, the film ends with the end of the camcorder recording, offering no day-after denouement to make sense of anything.
One has to give the filmmakers credit for not copping out, but the effect is frustrating, and you could feel the sense of disappointment settle over the audience in the Chinese Theatre. Nevertheless, they applauded appreciatively as the credits rolled, willing to forgive the flaws in favor of celebrating the successes of the film.
As one might expect in Hollywood, it seemed as if discrete chunks of the audience were friends of some of the filmmakers: as obscure names in the cast and crew slide by on-screen, there would be small spatterings of exuberant shouting and hand-clapping from different corners of the theatre. My own personal reaction is that CLOVERFIELD is the second film in in little more than a month that is three-fourths great, only to fall apart in the final reel (the previous being I AM LEGEND).
In an era when junk like THE MIST is treated as if it were the best the genre had to offer, even three-fourths of a good film is nothing to sneer at. It's not a masterpiece, and I doubt it will go on to become a classic, but it does much right that other films of its type do wrong. In a way, I almost look forward to a sequel that might take a different approach to the material, expanding on the limited point of view used in CLOVERFIELD and answering some of the nagging questions.