January 22, 2008
Cloverfield: really not that bad
WARNING: Some spoilers.
Imagine you're watching TV and a rerun of "Felicity" comes on. It's an episode you haven't seen before, but it seems to be about the usual pretty but sort of bland characters going on about their realistic but sort of bland problems and interpersonal relationship dramas, and they're all hanging out and talking a lot in the nicest dorm room/loft in New York.
Then a monster attacks the city and shit starts blowing up and all the characters start running around screaming and getting eaten and otherwise horribly killed.
You'd watch that, right? You'd say, "Fuckin' yeah! This is the best damn "Felicity" episode I've ever seen!" Of course you would.
The first big movie controversy of 2008 seems to be over the J.J. Abrams-produced, cleverly marketed, and overly scrutinized Cloverfield. Specifically, is it a cool action movie in which Manhattan gets spectacularly destroyed, or is it worthless garbage with nothing intelligent to say about our contemporary consumerist culture and the effects of a 24-hour news media on how we experience real life?
This is a dumb controversy.
Manohla Dargis wrote a surprisingly out-of-touch review in which she mostly complains that Cloverfield lacks "Freudian complexity or political critique" (a phrase the Times readers are having a lot of fun tearing to shreds over at the readers' reviews.) She makes reference to September 11 (twice!) in order to demonstrate that the horrors of Cloverfield pale in comparison to the actual terrorist attacks that happened in real life. No kidding!
She usually knows how to review a movie on its own terms, and since she went into raptures of praise for the remarkably similar The Host last year, I was really surprised at her negative review. The characters in The Host were similarly broad, often caricatures, and the dialogue was no more inventive or witty. Maybe the not-so-subtle anti-pollution, anti-military message of The Host bumped it up in her estimation? Personally, I was relieved not to have any valuable city-obliteration time wasted on meaningless pseudo-science about where the monster came from, why it wants to kill us, what form of ionic gas cloud might neutralize it, blah dee blah.
In Cloverfield, all we know is there's a gigantic really scary monster out there that will totally kill you in a number of terrible and surprising ways. And sure, there were some contrived plot devices and relationship melodramas, but they're all in service of the action. Whatever it takes to get characters into interesting and scary situations in which they will almost definitely get killed, I'm all for it.
There were a few kinder reviews that judge Cloverfield on its own terms. Roger Ebert (3 stars!) notes that it sticks to its structural premise perfectly through the whole movie, and "never breaks the illusion that it is all happening as we see it."
The Boston Globe review says the movie lives up to the hype (which I don't totally agree with--the only problem I have with the movie is how out of control the endless, boring blog speculation got, but that's not really the movie's fault.) The reviewer also points out how suspenseful and agonizingly drawn out a lot of scariest parts were--there's some top-notch audience manipulation in there. David Edelstein in New York Magazine says it's shallow, sure, but still admits he was "blown sideways by it."
Meanwhile, Manohla Dargis goes on about the characters' and the movies' "incomprehensible stupidity", a claim which even for a movie like this doesn't hold much water. Just look at that shot above. It's funny and smart and somebody who knows what they're doing put it together. If you go see this movie, what you're going to get is a relatively unsentimental action movie about a big monster pounding the crap out of New York. It's a tidy 80 minutes, and for what it is, it's good.
Speaking of all the endless internet speculation about different aspects of the movie that mostly just made people sick of it before it even opened, IMDb lists all the fake working titles the movie went through: 1-18-08 (of course), Cheese, Clover, the Spanish Monstruoso, and my favorite, Slusho.
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