I’ve spent the last few hours thinking over my reactions to Cloverfield as well as gauging that of others. I’ve heard anecdotally that there’s been a lot of disappointed audiences — friends who really liked the film mention being surrounded by people booing and complaining at the end — because, as friend Nicole put it on ILX, there’s no ‘bullshit happy ending.’ (Which is doubly amusing that people would complain because the first minute of the film pretty much confirms there isn’t, with talk of the site formerly known as Central Park and all.)
So it’s a good thing it doesn’t have that kind of happy ending — this is definitely a top-notch horror/disaster film with a downer conclusion, and on many levels I really enjoyed it, and would happily recommend it to anyone interested. Also over on ILX, Slocki noted that “it didn’t do anything startlingly NEW but it did stuff that ppl have been fucking around with for a while now a whole lot better,” which is spot on. It takes advantage of current technologies and attitudes towards them very well — not just in the visual effects, which are very good if not always perfect (perhaps the eternal problem with CGI — we’ll see about the future), but in the fact that there can be mass documentation of a tragic disaster via cameras, cellphones and so forth, a democratization of image retrieval. If there has to be a suspension of disbelief involving the camera always being on and filming what needs to be filmed, it’s no more a problem than, say, a pulp era horror narrator writing out complete sentences in a diary about the evil creature about to nibble his limbs off, and is in fact a lot more logical. (Blair Witch Project obviously dealt with that some time back as well, but more on that film and one part of it in particular later.)
That said, there’s a big problem of squaring the circle that the film must wrestle with and which I ended up wrestling with even more, perhaps — on the one hand, it uses plenty of tropes and situations that are familiar and even expected, with two main arcs: the love story, conventional enough at the start, and then the horror/disaster story, which then knocks the love story for a loop and shapes it towards a new end. Now, none of this is new, as Slocki noted, so there’s no point in criticizing it for that! In fact that’s part of the joy of the film, in seeing how that aspect must work with what’s on the other hand: verisimilitude as much as possible. The conceit of the film is that it’s a documentary record of ‘what really happened’ and as such the idea is that the actions, the actors, everything seen in the film must seem as unforced and as logical as can be demonstrated in order to fully succeed — and again, nothing new here either.
In the end, the filmmakers got very, very close with making this fully work for me. But not quite, and I’ve been in some back and forths with folks about why that is, and my post here isn’t probably going to spell it all out to my satisfaction, but it might explain why I left the film being impressed by it, thinking it was very admirable, still falling short of what would have been a grand slam. It’s probably all been said before by others about other films and works of art, for that matter, but anyway:
In this very good article with comments from the filmmakers, the author notes, “Rather than focusing on the attempts to battle the monster, the film settles in with the individual dramas of those caught up in its destructive wake.” This is echoed in various comments in the article, while friends who really liked it have mentioned how much they appreciated that focus, finding that the love story was the center of the film without which everything else doesn’t make sense.
Now the thing is, I agree with this take — it is exactly what the film aims for, and the structure of the story fully plays this out. However, in order for it to work emotionally, there has to be a resonance with the characters in question for the viewer, a putting yourself in their shoes to imagine the kind of things you might do and think were you them. There’ve been a lot of complaints that this falls flat because the characters are ‘just New York yuppie scum’ or the like — rubbish, that’s a pointless objection. I had no problem with the characters at all, many had a slew of good lines and the actors played them quite well.
But neither was I invested in them all that much. I think this has to do in part with the squaring the circle problem I mentioned above. To explain this further — where I think the film most succeeds is in its depiction of confusion, panic and fear. The combination of jerky camera motion, chaotic sound design and screamed dialogue, sheer instability all around and the inability to figure out what exactly you’re seeing beyond some horrified guesses (for me done with no greater impact than the scene in which Marlena dies) results in some perfect fusions of script arc, acting, filming and editing. Even quieter moments can convey this as well, as when Hud, the cameraman, confesses he’s doing all the bad jokes because otherwise he would freak out completely.
However, when the film is doing calmer and more lower-key set-pieces, from love’s travails to shock and sorrow — as much a pause for breath for the audience as for the characters — I inevitably found myself thinking about how those scenes were just like any other number of similar scenes in other movies, just filmed differently. To repeat Slocki again, this isn’t a criticism per se because they’re not meant to be doing anything new with this film in terms of subject matter. But I ended up thinking about how it was interesting to watch, say, the ‘Army guy tells hero “I shouldn’t do this but go get your friend and be back here by this time or else”‘ scene in terms of how it was framed and filmed, and how a regular steadycam shot would capture the same scene in a much different and more familiar way, rather than caring much about the hero’s plight and how affecting it was meant to be. The very act of trying to make this scene seem like something other than the typical scene it is just called attention to its boilerplate nature all the more, and instead of allowing me to roll with it ended up causing me to trip over it, not thinking about the story but about the film as it was made.
To turn this around a bit, there are some scenes where the personal emotions run high that do work splendidly — for me the highlight is when Rob reaches his mother on a cell phone to confirm he is alive but that his brother has died. All we see and hear is his face reacting to his mother’s reaction, and it is enough. But this gets contrasted with the moment near the end where Rob and Beth are waiting to get into a helicopter, they’re backlit, engaged in a long kiss, and I wondered if Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale looked like this in Pearl Harbor at one point. Too many moments like that crop up throughout the film, while the party scene at the beginning that sets up the dynamics of the main characters — an absolutely necessary scene for the film to work as the filmmakers intended — made me think of how it would have been filmed and shot for a soap opera (primetime WB style, I figure).
Ultimately I couldn’t stop analyzing the film as I watched it, I could never sink into it fully — and sure, you can argue that this means the fault is mine for not letting myself do that, I’d be fully happy to accept that. But I think the film made it hard for me to do so, though I won’t speak for anyone else, of course. I wanted to enjoy the tropes as presented rather than simply acknowledging them as needed points, and where that did work more often is with the monster/disaster aspect. They could be just as obvious but succeeded far more effectively — thus, the lingering shots on the Brooklyn Bridge towers kinda mean that the Bridge was sure to be going down soon enough, and so it was. Similarly the flood of rats in the subway tunnel means something’s about to come out of the dark, and the switch to the night vision in the camera is a solid payoff. And as mentioned Marlena’s final scenes — from the first evidence of her deep bite, which immediately signaled she wasn’t long for the world, to the explosive chaos in the military command center/biohazard area (itself another trope, etc. etc.) — are truly unsettling.
Meantime, as for the monster itself, I agree with general thoughts that it was a bit of a mistake to show so much of it — when the money shot appears at the end with the monster in full daylight, it’s just sort of there. However, avoiding any and all attempts to explain the monster beyond random speculation gets major points — all that needs to be known is that it’s horrifying and there is death and destruction everywhere as a result. (As a result, it’s the wider destruction caused rather than the fate of the main characters which hit me more strongly; I found myself thinking of smashed lives scattered all around.) The smaller parasite monsters were also a good touch, and while I partly agree with a comment on ILX about how just the big one would have been enough, I thought the smaller ones were used just right — seen/dealt with often enough to cause major frights, absent for the most part so that we weren’t always primed to deal with them.
But to conclude on that love story, and to bring Blair Witch Project back into it again — back in 1999, when said film came out, the final scenes in that movie freaked the hell out of me. The film had been developed and edited carefully enough, with the backstory fully in place, so that the image of Michael standing in the corner hit hard, combined with Heather’s agonized screams. It was a perfect example of showing just enough, letting your mind do the rest, as the camera then fell to the ground, showing nothing but a wall and capturing no sound at all before cutting to black. I stayed up most of that night unable to sleep, and typing about it now gives me chills still.
Fully allowing for the fact that it’s not trying to be Blair Witch redux, Cloverfield almost gets to that level of unsettling dread, twice (and I will say I do love the series of fake endings in the film), and does so in ways inevitably calling Blair Witch to mind. First there’s a similar camera lying on the ground part, done after the crash of the helicopter, where for a long while it seems clear that all inside are dead, while a functioning radio includes brief reports about how the ‘target’ is still at large. A number of people felt that would have been a perfectly fine ending and I agree.
Second is when Rob records his farewell message, not specifically an analogue to Heather’s last gasped farewell in Blair Witch but it’s a comparison that can logically be made (and Beth’s own trembling fear and horror isn’t far removed from hers). It’s a very intense couple of minutes and without spelling it all out it clearly ends badly for the two.
But then there’s one final bit, and again I can see how it makes logical sense but still disrupts that squared circle for me one last time. Another conceit throughout the film is that the tape has been made on top of a tape made six weeks prior to the evening’s events where Rob and Beth spend a day together out and about, having just spent a night together, showing a friendship and romance that has collapsed by the time of the disaster. Friend Dan has argued that this chronologically earlier sequence, which starts and finally ends the film, reemerging in brief snippets along the way, is core to the overarching story theme, that one shouldn’t let a chance for happiness pass you by, since nothing is guaranteed.
I can see this as part of the whole logic of the story — in fact I can spell it out one tragic aspect of it mechanistically: if Rob and Beth had been an item or had found some way to make things work by the time of the party, then Beth wouldn’t've left the party, then she wouldn’t've been trapped in the building, then everyone might have gotten away (aside from Marlena) after being rescued in Bloomingdale’s. Etc. etc. but I’ll leave the fanfic to others.
But the effect of having the last clip of Rob and Beth in happier times, talking about how good it was to be alive, conveniently popping up immediately after their final moments were recorded, was another case for me where verisimilitude and standard features collided and weren’t resolved. Instead it just felt like obvious irony, another instance where I acknowledged a story factor but wasn’t moved by it. I sat a couple of seconds, nodded a bit, then got up and walked straight back home.
Now having said all this, let me come back to a key point — I did really enjoy this movie! May sound strange after having spent all this time and effort talking about where it didn’t work for me, I realize. But I’m coming from a position where it got very close for me but not quite close enough, and whether it was supposed to make more effort or I should have been looking at it differently, well, who knows? Yet I’m happy to say that this is a movie where I’m thinking ‘if only it had been a little bit better’ — and I think this without knowing or being confident in any real way to fully address my concerns if I were filming it, so I won’t even try — rather than ranting “SUCKED!” It didn’t, not at all. And I’d rather note a damn strong effort’s impact by seeing how much I’ve been thinking about the flaws I found with it — so to repeat again, if you think you’ll be interested, go. I think you’ll find it worth it.
One thing I must confess, though — I spent way too much time during the party scene trying to figure out what songs were being played. Typical.