04 February 2008

Review: Cloverfield

Genre: Thriller (Apocalyptic)

Cloverfield is the latest attempt at an uncommonly popular subgenre of the thriller. Like past attempts (e. g., 28 Days Later, Godzilla), it follows the same basic structure of the subgenre, in which a contemporary, perhaps somewhat idealistic, reality is relatively early in the film shaken to its very core and practically thus upturned entirely by the sudden and fatalistic intrusion of an mal du force outsider into it. Whether that outside force be creature, illness, or even environment (e. g., Deep Impact), the resultant plot details are always the same: People freak, panic ensues, and tragedy generally befalls anyone - and everyone - involved. Yet Cloverfield, unlike its predecessors, attempts to go rogue on this apocalyptic quest, by ushering in a first-person, though largely narrated, camera as the sole vehicle for filming. Furthermore, it abandons the typically wide array of character types and cast members, in favor of a more concentrated and tidy four - five, at most. These two tweaks, as well as the utilization of (for the most part) realistic/credible dialogue, do to distinguish the film from its fellows; however, they are not enough to fully bring the subgenre out from B- - even C-movie hell. The novelty of the slight redesign diminishes completely as soon as the apocalyptic outsider arrives and, instead of expanding and becoming more complex, the characters too diminish, winnowing down dimensionality to its flattest and simplest, as the plot drags on. Thus, predictability quickly emerges, out of a plot also eschewing dynamism, and tone and balance are shaky at best, despite the obvious attempts at jokes to, if only for a moment, "keep it light, keep it gay, keep it fragrant." The argument of the film becomes halved, half focus on the 'carpe diem' motivation and the other half on the question-of-the-greater-good motivation, and the dichotomous ending does in no way resolve the two. Subtexts about a subconscious Zeitgeist of terror for potential impending doom(s, on various fronts and for various reasons) are premature at best, and the metaphor of the intrusive outsider does not congress well with any of the options (e. g., the demon inside oneself that is irrational anger and/or reticence, the pressing of a moral question, the general need for catharsis), with the slight exception of its auxiliary creatures (that attack people as individuals and whose bites force 'expression'). Finally, does no one get it that films in this subgenre are always less powerful (i. e., both less significant and less scary) when the impending doom, the intrusive threat, is completely revealed?? (Hello, M. Night Shyamalan!) All that said - and despite its intrinsically apocalyptic bend - Cloverfield falls short of utter catastrophe. Its special effects are some redemption and its quick, yet fixed, instants of focused photography are at times significant. Plus, the acting was certainly above the level usually found (though less frequently of late) in films of this subgenre (or genre general). Nevertheless the bottom line remains, in a word: prosaic.

Grade: C+/C

(After writing this review, I checked out Manohla Dargis' review of the film on the Times' website. I felt compelled by the insight of her words to post these few extractions here:

"For a brief, hopeful moment, I thought the filmmakers might be making a point about how the contemporary compulsion to record the world has dulled us to actual lived experience, including the suffering of others — you know, something about the simulacrum syndrome in the post-Godzilla age at the intersection of the camera eye with the narcissistic “I.” Certainly this straw-grasping seemed the most charitable way to explain characters whose lack of personality (“This is crazy, dude!”) is matched only by their incomprehensible stupidity. Smart as Tater Tots and just as differentiated, Rob and his ragtag crew behave like people who have never watched a monster movie or the genre-savvy “Scream” flicks or even an episode of “Lost” (Hello, Mr. Abrams!), much less experienced the real horrors of Sept. 11.

And, so, much like a character from a crummy movie, Rob hears from an estranged lover, Beth (Odette Yustman), who, after the attack, begs for help on her miraculously working cellphone. Against the odds and a crush of fleeing humanity, he tries to rescue her (unbelievably, ludicrously, the others tag along), which is meant to show what a good guy he is. But heroism without a fully realized hero proves as much a dead end as subjective camerawork that’s executed without a discernible subjectivity. Like too many big-studio productions, “Cloverfield” works as a showcase for impressively realistic-looking special effects, a realism that fails to extend to the scurrying humans whose fates are meant to invoke pity and fear but instead inspire yawns and contempt.

Rarely have I rooted for a monster with such enthusiasm."

Manohla, I completely understand.)

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