Above: Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) stuck between the military and the monster.
What a frustrating mess of possibilities and failed opportunities Cloverfield is! It is a monster-attacks-city movie at heart, and an incompetent one at that, but, oh, what it could have been. The first film to really pick up the mantle of The Blair Witch Project and conceptually shoot an entire fictional genre feature on a digital video camera held by one of the characters. The first film that makes an alien attack seem like a relief—almost lackluster, almost comforting—during threats of human terrorism and war. An entirely digital blockbuster film that takes its form as the hackwork that many DV recordings—camera phone pictures and videos, home movies—usually are. A film that almost embraces the accidental suggestiveness of the medium, in the ephmerality of its hard drive based recordings, in the unintended formal juxtapositions—sudden physical bumps corrupting the images, old recordings partially recorded over—and cleverly creating narrative elisions through in-camera editing (or just turning the camera off and on). Or perhaps the first true Mumblecore movie, or meta-Mumblecore movie, a satire of vapid, irritating New Yorker hipsters who are either brain-dead women tagging along with the men, or the men themselves, a poorly characterized hero-doofus duo. This movie has the audacity to literally hand the camera to the most idiotic and wisecracking character in the cast and have him, the non-descript sarcastic everyman, make the movie.
Yes, Cloverfield could have really been fine, could have bitten down into its fairly unique storytelling device of showing a city besieged from a low-level, awkward standpoint. The potential is quite stunning; a film whose form and subject could have worked with such synchronicity. Imagined perfectly, Cloverfield uses the man-with-a-camera angle to tell a lurching survival narrative; this style is as ungainly as the equally awkward social relations of the film’s 20-something youths; and these relationships are as momentarily eloquent, but more often that not just as stunted as the pleasures and pains, subtle, unexpected expressions and dismaying inadequacies of the consumer equipment used to record their travails and tell their story.
Married to an understanding of the youthful milieu it was so attached to (people over 30 in the film with speaking roles are: an untranslated Russian fleeing down an alleyway, and requisite gruff words from an Army commander), we could see a picture of a generation not in their nonchalant questing through life but in panic stricken moments requiring moral courage and physical inspiration. This is all what Cloverfield could have been, if it were not created with the consideration of a television movie of the week. Tragically, Cloverfield is not as ingenious as imagined or even suggested. It is created by a production team that lacks any sense of emotional conviction, or an understanding of New York, or of a good shot, of directing actors, of the power of off-screen terror, of anything really cinematic.
The doofus behind the camera, Hud (T.J. Miller), his best friend Rob (Michael Stahl-David), and two girls, Lily (Jessica Lucas) and Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), turn away from the mob fleeing Manhattan and the unexplained monster attack to track down Rob’s one night stand, who leaves a cryptic message suggesting her survival in her ritzy apartment tower. Immediately it seems clear why director Matt Reeves opted for such a conceptual visual gimmick, as he is stuck with empty, vacant actors moving through the city in search of their own characters just as much as survival. But Reeves’ directing cannot do much with the endless tromping of the script, the grubby, awful special effects, a handheld camera idea used to conjure nothing but the most cursory use of darkness, of suggestion, of worry, or of hope in all the (supposed) madness. The relationships between our youths are likewise cursory. Rob’s insane heroism is not pursued for anything but narrative propulsion, Hud’s slow courtship of Marlena, the film’s only element touching the human, is dismissed in what is admittedly one of the most thrilling, unexpected, and brutally poetic shots in the film, and Lily, supposedly suffering from the recent death of her boyfriend, is just another body in constant threat. Restricting a disaster to the limited view of a few is a fine idea, except when the few are as vacuous and utilitarian as this group.
This is the end of the world as seen by the most boring people in the world, running on an imagination fueled not by convention but by sloppy understanding of conventions derived from overused clichés. For a summation of how Cloverfield so stumbles, observe a rare shot of exquisite conception, of Rob and his girlfriend kissing in the darkness of Manhattan, lights of the military occupation gleaming in the lens flare for just that split second of contact—the only problem is we don’t know who Rob or his girlfriend are, or what their relationship or intimacy is really like, as the film has only given us shorthand indicators of their feelings and their characters. The actors, the script, and the direction simply do not care for such consideration, for conceiving their thrill ride around people. The shot is beautiful but empty, founded only on visual prettiness and remaining untethered to any human feeling. Oh, for just a jolt of the nerve and energy of something like 28 Weeks Later, which has just as shaky a camera, just as jagged editing, but is frantic and terrified, not to mention at least somewhat in tune with, you know, the human characters whose suffering it depicts. We may just have to wait in hopes of a sequel to see that.