*Spoiler Alert* There are spoilers ahead. Lots of them. If you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read any further. I mean it. Don’t even glance down there, because you will inevitably see something that you didn’t want to know, and all through the whole movie you’ll be wondering when that part is going to happen, sitting on the edge of your seat thinking, “Is this it? No, no, I bet this is it coming up…” etc. No fun. Suffice it to say, I liked this movie. A lot. And if you are my cinematic kindred spirit, so will you.
Just like that, it was over. Abruptly. Paul and I sat there for a stunned second, just breathing in and out and trying to stop the room from spinning, before I leaned over to him and whispered in his ear: “I think…I think I loved it.”
Not everyone did, though. Just a few seats down the row from us, a couple in their forties got up in what was very clearly a huff and stomped off down the stairs. In their wake, the man left these words echoing in the strangely quiet theater: “Well, that was a waste of time.”
It’s been a long while since I’ve seen a movie that provoked such vastly polarized reactions. How delightful!
Cloverfield, a small budget monster movie, careens through one thrill after another over its eighty-four minute run time. It incorporates the single handheld-camera technique we’ve seen elsewhere (see The Blair Witch Project), and the effect is incredibly visceral and engaging.
Here’s the setup: We’re watching an unedited videotape, recovered by the government from the site of some event that’s been codenamed simply “Cloverfield”. The video opens with a few minutes of silly morning-after pillow talk between some guy (Rob) and some girl (Beth), and then suddenly cuts away to a group of twenty-something young professionals who are throwing a surprise goodbye party for one of their own: Rob just got a new job and is moving to Japan. Rob’s best friend, a lovable dope named Hud, is enlisted as amateur videographer of the party and given the assignment of recording goodbye messages from all of Rob’s buddies. As events unfold, Hud keeps the camera rolling, giving us a front row seat for the seriously unsettling action to come. Unfortunately, the camera belongs to Rob himself, and the night’s events are being recorded over a previous taping of Rob and Beth at Coney Island, a fact established by small snippets of that happier day which break through cuts in the tape at intervals throughout the movie. By the time of the party, something has obviously separated Rob and Beth, and a passionate argument ends in Beth leaving the party early and Rob and his brother Jason having a heart-to-heart talk on the fire escape. Here’s where the true theme of the movie is expressed for the first time, when Jason says, “Forget the world, and hang on to the people you care about the most.”
And then reality shatters and New York starts shaking apart like some badly made toy.
Cloverfield isn’t like other monster movies. There’s no explanation of where the monster comes from or why it’s angry (and believe me; it’s definitely hacked off about something.) The protagonists aren’t packing Uzis and concocting heroic plans to save the world. They’re just trying to survive. And we, the viewers, are along for the ride. We only know what they know. We only see what they see. So when a relatively quiet city street suddenly explodes with screaming artillery rounds and otherworldly roaring, we are caught in the crossfire, too, sharing the small group’s sense of panic and terror. When they’re standing in the abandoned subway station, trying to decide between running down the blacked out subway tunnels or taking their chances up top with the big monster, we honestly don’t know which way they should go. And even though the military-types don’t tell us exactly what’s happening to our friend Marlena as a result of the mini-monster-spider bite she got, we deduce that it’s nothing good by the way they drag her off behind that quarantine curtain just before we get the hazy, silhouetted visual of her body contorting and swelling in a way that bodies just aren’t meant to contort or swell.
It’s chaos: glorious, terrible chaos.
So I guess this is the part where I say, “Go see Cloverfield! You’ll love it!” But considering the wide range of opinions I’ve heard, that might be a little disingenuous. Instead I’ll say, “Go see Cloverfield! You’ll love it! Or maybe you’ll hate it.”
You might get dizzy. Sit in the back half of the theater; it helps. Maybe it’s part of belonging to the YouTube, camera phone generation, but the jumpy camera work didn’t really bother me. Rather, it added to the illusion that I was there, on the ground, watching this unbelievable thing happen all around me. And that sense of authenticity was only enhanced by another noticeable perk of seeing it in the theater, with its state-of-the-art Dolby surround sound: I could feel every roar, every stomp, every earth-shattering explosion vibrating through my seat.
I should also tell you that if you like your story endings happy, fully explained, and tied up with a neat little bow, you might be disappointed. This film leaves you with a lot of unanswered questions. Some of the answers can be found or guessed at by exploring the online materials that were part of the viral marketing of the movie, but a few of the plot threads were left completely flapping in the wind. Unlike many people, I appreciate that.
Paul and I discussed the movie all the way home, and in the end, we decided it isn’t so much a monster movie as it is a love story. Two people overcoming obstacles to find one another in this crazy world.
Except in this case, the obstacle in question is the size of a skyscraper, covered with deadly spider-like parasites, and wreaking havoc on a major American city.
Love conquers all, right?