Criticizing Cloverfield criticisms
Cloverfield does not fuck around. It’s a beautiful movie in several ways and I’m surprised by some of the backlash it has received for its first-person civilian camera gimmick, for the supposed unlikeability of its main characters, and for the supposed unbelievable motivations for these characters to head towards the monster instead of away to safety. For me, it’s the way the movie navigates those concerns that makes it so amazing in the first place.
The film begins with a going-away party for Rob. He’s moving to Japan to pursue a new job prospect but more than that — as we learn soon enough — he’s moving away to get a girl off his mind. That girl is Beth, a close friend whom Rob has loved for a long time and shared a night with. We are also introduced to Rob’s brother Jason and his girlfriend Lily. Our camerman is Hud (the film’s conceit it that Hud is filming goodbye messages from Rob’s friends) and Hud has a crush on Marlena. These relationships are established tastefully in about 15 minutes.
The monster hits just as the tensions between Rob and Beth have reached their boiling point. They don’t reach any resolution and neither do we — it’s monster time, and it’s both a beast crashing into the city and another genre of film crashing violently into the one we’ve been watching so far.
Hud continues to film and says “people are gonna wanna see how it all went down.” This is what many viewers have taken issue with but I agree wholeheartedly with Hud and the film’s belief that people such as Hud exist. The amazing amount of citizen footage and photographs from cellphones and point-and-shoot-cameras that make up our evening news is testament to how un-farfetched the film’s conceit is. It’s not just believeable; it’s prescient.
Those who bemoan Hud carrying the camera everywhere fail to note that Cloverfield the film is the entirety of Hud’s footage. The film runs about 80 mins., 20 mins of which is party footage. If the Cloverfield monster attack lasted seven hours (as Rob says) until the camera was destroyed, Hud really didn’t film that much at all.
After Rob’s brother dies in a bridge collapse he receives a phone message from Beth. She’s injured and trapped somewhere in the heart of the city. After some deliberation time that showcases great, nearly silent, acting from all (except maybe Marlena — who looks more drunk than shocked), Rob decides that he’s going back to save Beth. Lily decides she will accompany him and Hud and Marlena reluctantly follow suit.
This is Rob’s turning point. He is no longer running away from his problems (to Japan). Now, he’s running literally towards them. It makes perfect sense for Lily to be the first to step-up and join him. She’s just lost a boyfriend who also happens to be Rob’s brother. If anyone understands the motivations behind Rob’s seemingly crazy mission, it’s her.
Hud follows because he’s a follower not a leader (he’s the perfect choice for our camerman — he’s inactive and passive and two steps behind, exactly the type of person who prefers to film rather than participate), and Marlena follows because she’s now all alone, separated from her friends and scared. Cloverfield, while very much about throwing a monster into the mix and watching “real” people scramble around, is also very much a traditional film with traditional, believable character arcs and motivations. I mention this because it’s what many other monster films fail at, and what the similarly camcorded Blair Witch Project ignored totally.
Cloverfield‘s connection to past monster movies, Godzilla specifically, is of course intended, but its resonance might be a matter of coincidence. The post-9/11 anxieties (mirroring the atomic-age anxieties that make Godzilla so important) that some critics have mentioned are indeed there, but at no point do they become explicit. The only concrete way that Cloverfield is about 9/11 is simply for the fact that it is post 9/11. Reducing cities and American landmarks to rubble will do that nowadays. Why Cloverfield feels to be so much a reflection of that fateful day is mostly due to the fact that it’s so well constructed. It’s a better movie about New York destruction than World Trade Center. Period.
Compare it to the other recent monster-attack movie The Mist. The Mist has a similar premise of a barely seen gigantic monster ravaging “normal” people, but where The Mist fails is in it’s self-awareness as a post-9/11 text. Present is a crazy religious fundamentalist and authority figures who turn out to be liars not acting in our best interest. There are also very obvious racial tensions that develop (and regretfully nonetheless end with the black people dying. Really early. All at the same time.)
But it’s not only that. The Mist, like other movies of the genre, failed because it felt the need to explain. The alarming monster from nowhere loses all power as a symbol once we learn it is from another dimension that the army has opened a portal to. Boring, hokey, stupid and pointless. Cloverfield resists that temptation, which gives the monster and the ensuing carnage a blank page for us to project our anxieties onto, as well as allows the option to just watch a fun fucking monster movie without having it feel like a geeky genre sci-fi flick.
Unlike The Mist, Cloverfield also resists the temptation to indict. The soldiers in Cloverfield are neither evil nor particularly helpful. Their instruments are frightening, the stealth bombers and the guns and tanks are all as huge and ominous as the monster, but never is the army the bad guy as in The Mist.
Likewise, Cloverfield does not in any single frame ever indict its main characters. It is not a movie about watching dumb yuppies running scared, as the Village Voice suggested. Similarly, a lot of Interneters have been saying they enjoyed the film because it depicted stupid, self-centered people receiving their comeuppance (I cleaned that up a bit). I don’t quite get what makes these characters appear so vapid to some viewers — is it because they wore nice clothes? Because they went to a party? Because they went to a party wearing nice clothes? Because they were mostly white and said things like “Bro”? If so, our self-righteous scale for placing judgement on people has significantly lowered.
The film is very much on the side of its characters, and the film itself (by that I mean Hud’s videotape) runs over sympathetic, sincere footage of Rob and Beth the day before the night they spent together. Hud is taping over this bit of nostalgia, but we catch glimpses twice when he rewinds the tape, and again at the end of the film(s).
The two rewinds occur strategically at key points: the first during the party, thrusting us into the backstory of Rob and Beth with efficiency, also allowing Rob to reply that he doesn’t care it’s being filmed over; and the second directly after the monster attacks the city — right when the monster genre crashes into our character play, the film itself (again, literally) reminds us of our characters and their arcs. No, says the film, this isn’t just a monster movie.
Cloverfield ends with the destruction of the camera. No longer able to film, our playing of the tape reveals more footage of Rob and Beth while they were still alive. This is a wonderful play on timelines where the past and the future crash and our characters are finally, fully concerned about only the present (or at least, documenting this new present for a future they won’t see).
I can see how people thought Rob’s end confessional message was hokey, but for me, it’s so important to see Rob willfully taping over that footage of him and Beth, with Beth. The dude who at the beginning of the film was so visibly distressed by the tape being made, is now filming himself, filming over his nostalgic past, moving not just on, but forward.
After they die, the footage switches and we see them at their most alive. This sweet ending will lead to a sexual encounter that later sets our story in motion. Also, in the background as our couple gets cute with each other, an object falls out of the sky and into the water, suppoesedly being the monster, or the object that awakes the monster. Either way, the movie ends as it is beginning, and there’s no way out.
But damn if it doesn’t end with “I Love You,” making it typical of Hollywood formula and yet still entirely original. Cloverfield is blockbuster done absolutely right.