Monday, 4 February 2008

Film Review: Cloverfield

J.J. Abrams sure likes to make a fuss. Over a year after the tantalisingly sparse trailers debuted and having left us attempting to piece together its mystery from phoney news reports, soft drink adverts and blurred photos, the film formerly known as 01-18-08 has finally arrived.

Lesser films would be left embarrassed and flailing after such a hulking viral campaign. Not Cloverfield. This is an intimate perspective of disaster on an impossibly grand scale that succeeds at nearly everything it attempts.

We learn all we need to know inside the first fifteen minutes. The recording we’re watching was found on the site “formerly known as Central Park” and, at first, shows Rob and his secret love Beth spending an April day together.

From there, we skip forward a month and watch a group of hipsters with great hair and better music taste host a bon voyage party for Rob, who is leaving to start a new job in Japan. Here, control of the camera is passed to Rob’s best friend, the hapless but likeable Hud, who becomes our eyes for the next hour. We’re introduced to Rob’s brother Jason, Jason’s girlfriend Lily, and Marlena, whom Hud fancies. Beth and Rob fight and she leaves the party.

Shortly after, Manhattan starts to go to fuck. Deafening primal roars are heard, an oil tanker is capsized, skyscrapers are levelled and the head of the Statue of Liberty smashes into a midtown street.

Our protagonists start to leave Manhattan but Rob gets a message from Beth telling him she’s in trouble and needs his help. So the gang head back into the path of the beast to rescue her.

And that’s the story.

But it’s enough for Cloverfield to state its modus operandi beyond doubt: this is about characters, not catastrophe. And while it’s tempting to criticise the motivation of our admittedly shallow heroes, the message is clear and, actually, quite sweet: when the world turns to shit, you instantly think about the people you love.

Abrams, screenwriter Drew Goddard and director Matt Reeves clearly understand that the thrill is in the tease of monster, but Cloverfield goes further. Knowing that it’s hard to stretch mystery if you keep explaining it, not only do we rarely get a good look at the creature, it’s given no background, no name, no personality and no pathos. In this monster film, the monster itself is a bit player.

It’s easy to snipe at film-making this bold. Maybe the footage is too slick to appear authentic, maybe the characters are too lucid, maybe they don’t swear enough and it’s almost implausible that not a single person would compare the events to 9/11. Yes, it’s unlikely that the camera would survive, that the battery would last, that Rob’s mobile would work in the subway, and an SD card would almost certainly never scramble the previous recording like the footage we watch does. But, really, who cares? There’s a colossal monster that is destroying New York and you are going to have to suspend your disbelief.

Besides, there are more than enough trademark Abrams subtleties and omissions to generate a great degree of verisimilitude. What is Cloverfield? What falls into the ocean in the film’s final scene? What are we told is alive during the radio transmission that follows the closing credits, the people or the monster? Perhaps some of these questions will be answered by the inevitable sequel, but I wouldn’t count on it.

When it comes to giving the audience everything but telling them nothing, Abrams is the master. Cloverfield is his masterpiece.

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