26 May 2010

"Cloverfield is grassroots Godzilla."

Written by Drew Goddard, directed by Matt Reeves.

Cloverfield is grassroots Godzilla – a monster movie utterly determined to preserve its human perspective on disaster. The film achieves this chiefly through the use of handycam-style photography, presenting the ’story’ as a Reality-Show-Gone-Wrong as opposed to Epic Disaster Movie. I say ’story’ in inverted commas because it doesn’t feel like something somebody’s made up; rather it feels like something terrible just happens to unfold as someone is making a home video. The entire film is framed in this light – at no point do we see what the character behind the camera does not see - and it is this consistency that makes it seem so authentic.

Cloverfield cleverly opens with a surprise farewell party, and it is at this party that we are able to drink in the characters, their personalities, their relationships, and their motivations. By the time disaster struck, I was already invested in the characters and their drama. In particular, I felt a deep connection to ‘Hud’, the film’s fictional photographer. In many ways, he is the main character – the lens through which we perceive the group’s travails, the voice that guides us through the rubble and trauma – even though he’s the one we see the least. I wondered whether the name ‘Hud’ was an intentional play on the term ‘HUD’ or ‘heads-up display’, given to describe his role as framer and interpreter...

Cloverfield anchors its humanity, firstly through the believable performances of its ensemble cast. Each character faces loss and trauma (physical and mental) in uniquely valid ways. (This is best exemplified when protagonist Rob receives a call from his mother. How do you break the news that someone very close to you has died? What do you say to a friend who has just lost a loved one, when you’ve really got to keep moving just to survive?) And secondly, through Matt Reeves’ stubborn refusal to show the creature in its entirety until the final act. At no point is it allowed to steal the focus – it is an immovable force of nature – only when the beast poses a direct threat to the group do we finally see it in full.

The destruction of Manhattan is earmarked with several powerful moments, the first of which is the severed head of the Statue of Liberty wiping out a city street. How many Hollywood blockbusters has this magnificent structure survived? Even Planet of the Apes spared Lady Liberty! It took someone with the gall to destroy her to instill that tangible sense of hopelessness. From that point on, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Cloverfield was more than just another disaster/monster movie. Without spoiling anything, the most powerful moment comes at the very end, when we catch a glimpse of the video that these events were accidentally taped over (this was alluded to by Rob during the opening party scene, and throughout the ‘recording’ one can see snippets of this video interspliced with the disaster footage) – of a date on Coney Island, no less. It becomes a point of reference for these characters whose journeys we’ve shared – how traumatic events can shape and change people, how they can redefine their relationships.

By focusing on what is real – that is, people and their reactions to personal loss – writer Drew Goddard and director Matt Reeves have crafted a thoroughly believable work of fiction. And though I keep telling myself that all this can be found in a monster movie, I can’t help but disbelieve it.


 (out of four)

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