Saturday, November 07, 2009

Cloverfield

(2008) ****1/2

At the end of my Yog, Monster from Space review I mentioned a secret burning desire deep in my childhood heart (and probably some of yours, too): the wish that someday, somehow, I wanted to see a giant monster for real. Since last year I have become convinced that Cloverfield exists to remind kids like me that no you fucking don't.

I saw this when it came out and reviewed it here, but as a treat to you the readers I'm slapping down fresh words on the subject, instead of the easy cut and paste I coulda. Who's your daddy?

As I've mentioned a couple of boring times now, I'd intended to theme out on sci-fi horror this year, but I flaked. Instead, immediately upon viewing Destroy All Monsters, I decided to start my own Kaijuthon, which dominated the rest of my October. (From Wikipedia: Kaiju (怪獣, kaijū?) is a Japanese word that means "strange beast," but often translated in English as "monster.") I may even extend this personal 'thon forward, as I've always sort of wanted to embark on a detailed exploration of the many films featuring model buildings getting smashed by dudes in rubbers suits.

Any respectable roundup of kaiju flicks would be woefully incomplete without screening Cloverfield, which in one high-density shot of multilayered innovation left a mark on monster movie history bigger than any giant lizard footprint in the last several decades. And much of that innovation is wrapped up in one seemingly simple idea: the single, hand-held camera. Here's what you get:

First and foremost, it brings the characters to the front of the action. As I've been bitching about in other reviews, the Toho flicks tend to graft human characters to their stories in a rather willy-nilly fashion, some variation of the journalist/scientist/chick combo that according to mysterious alchemy either works okay or has you tapping your fingers waiting for the monster to break more stuff. Producer J. J. Abrams is a character guy; his decree is to nail down who these people are, and the rest of the movie will follow (and he proves this nowhere as well as this year's Star Trek, which could have easily been called Kirk Spock).

And what better place to get to know a group of people than at a big party? Rob's going away bash introduces all the human interaction we'll need to go forward after the night goes where it goes, culminating with a serious talk between Rob and his brother Jason out on the fire escape. The last thing that we hear anyone say when the world is still normal is from Jason: "You've gotta learn to say 'forget the world' and hang onto the people that matter most." Boom. Rumble. Lights go off, lights go back on, the monster's overture has started.

And it is those words that propel Rob into the depths of the disaster to rescue Beth, and there's your movie right there. We don't hang out with the jerks in charge, talking to the president on the phone from the command center in Hoboken, racing against the clock to figure out that the creature's allergic to tuna fish or whatever. We're on the street with these guys, and we don't have to ask why.

And we're on the street! It's so rare to get the monster movie perspective from the actual street. This shot from Godzilla 2000 marks the only time I know of in which Godzilla is actually down the street, not separated by some buildings and a crappy matte line. As you can see, you still get the crappy matte line, but that just brings up my next Cloverfield bonus: a kaiju movie with a CG monster, not some guy in a suit. That opens up all sorts of new possibilities for realistic monster action. (This point does invoke the 1998 American Godzilla, but that's another review for another 'thon.) With contemporary FX power, you get all the dust, fire and glorious destruction you can handle, and maybe a little more.

Another brilliant Cloverfield stroke are the mites, horrible bundles of skittering legs that constantly fall off the big monster. It's an idea marvelous for its simplicity -- the giant monster from beyond the unknown has parasites, like lots of animals. They fall off and scurry away, and they could be anywhere. It makes "on the street" a whole different thing, because it doesn't matter if you manage to avoid the big loud monster, you're still in danger. That functional menace is echoed in the malevolent personalities of the damn things -- while the monster's raging destruction is more likely to kill you as a side effect, those fuckers will go after you.

So basically, Cloverfield is great stuff, a monster movie revolution on one memory card. Why did I not give it the full five star monty? Well, in order to get into that I have to discuss the Cloverfield monster itself, with images, and if you haven't seen this and don't want to know what it looks like, you should stop reading (I say you should go ahead and look, but that's me).

The picture below has nothing to do with Cloverfield, I don't know what the hell it is, but it's your last barrier between you and unwanted knowledge.

So, in conclusion (for the whimps), go see Cloverfield.

Here's the one problem with Cloverfield. The thing is, I HATE the monster's design. HATE it. I hated it even more watching this a second time. I hate its face and I really hate its fucking ridiculous front legs.

This is a shot of the toy, which really illustrates my point. What the Gojira's name is going on with those front legs??? Does the monster have polio and those are its crutches? They're terrible! First you get this sense of creature's awful weight, made viscerally clear by the earth-shaking sounds of its steps -- and then it's completely undercut by these silly, reed-thin popsicle sticks!

My feelings about this make watching this movie a strangely polarized experience. Our first glimpse of the monster is fantastic, you get no hint of its anatomy, just the implication of something impossibly huge and alive. Those bits I love; they work just fine for me. There are even full-on body shots in which the action is exceptional. And I love the mites' design. But shots like the one above are just so damn confusing, like you're in M.C. Escher's house all of a sudden. What is that thing looming forward, bending backward? It doesn't help that its fingers are usually tucked inwards, like a big backwards foot.

Here's a picture some art student drew after seeing an early screening. Basically correct but without the sucky, ludicrously thin forelegs. I guess the designer was trying for something alien looking, and maybe the idea was that the visual confusion of its structure might add to the feelings of chaos and disorder. But for me, the design itself is an epic, tragic failure.

This isn't a problem for everybody; in fact, the only folks I know who share my opinion are fellow model builders and animation people. A friend of mine told me he had watched the dvd featurette on the monster's design and pretty much disagreed with every choice the guy made. I'm not saying my friends' profession makes them right, but it is nice when people agree with you.

Also, they're totally right. Nevertheless, everyone should check out this movie. It's great.

Below are some alleged images of the Cloverfield monster design that popped up on the web before the movie's release. I would rather the monster look like any one of these than what they went with.





9 comments:

Catfreeek said...

The second to last picture would have been an awesome monster. I didn't like the front legs either, I thought it made the monster look kinda dumb. Loved this film though, the street level perspective worked great for me.

DCD said...

Awesome review! Go StayPuf Marshmallow Man!

I loved this movie.

Jordan said...

I reviewed Cloverfield when it came out. I loved it; I've watched it a few times since. (I could provide a link to my review, but I don't feel like it, since I'm on a bus and it would be too much trouble.

Anyway, the monster design. I love the monster. Obviously there's no accounting for taste etc. but key me provide some reasons:

1) It doesn't look like a movie monster. It doesn't look like anything anybody already thought of or drew over the centuries (unlike those other pictures). That's what you want from a Tolkien movie, or Star Wars: you want the creatures to look evocative; reminiscent of something legendary. But this monster looks really weird, which fits the movie's realistic vibe.

2) The turned-around legs and strange feet/hands suggest something from deep beneath the sea; it's got a crab-like quality.

3) the scariest movie monster ever is the Ridley Scott/H. R. Gieger "Alien," right? The alien has NO EYES, which is brilliant; it looks do scary because it doesn't have a conventional "scary monster" glaring facial expression (like, for example, the Balrog). You're not going to be reasoning with it or connecting with it or distracting it. You can't anthropomorphise it at all; it's got no eyes. The Cloverfield monster's face is similarly alien and expressionless; for me, that adds to the fear level.

If you don't like the forelegs, fine, but do me a favor and watch the helicopter shots again, when it gets bombed and runs its hand down the side of 9 West 57th. Anyway, I like the monster.

HandsomeStan said...

I cheated a bit on Cloverfield. I held off seeing it in the theatres until I could get an online sneak peek of a money shot of the monster, and decide if my time/money/inner constitution would be wasted.

(I sometimes have vertigo/claustrophobia/nausea issues in theatres if the action and camera movements are too sweepy and dizzying, and if I'm sitting too close. Hence my apprehension with a movie that has a warning label at the ticket booth for those very things..."If you're pregnant or think you might be, don't even look at the Cloverfield POSTER, etc. etc.")

Anyway, when I finally did get my first look, I remember feeling a combo platter of Octo & Jordan's reactions. I was expecting the thing from Conceptual Drawing #1, which I thought looked cool and was really looking forward to, and I was surprised at what they ended up doing.

Initially, before I saw the whole film, my knee-jerk reaction was that the creature was kind of lacking in the overall Heft department. It's tall, to be sure, but the lack of the sense of Mass made me a little ehh. It seemed...scrawny, in a way.

With both the creature and the movie, however, everything works. Cloverfield definitely stomped all over and destroyed 98's Godzilla. The characters and camera work sucked you right in, and the monster was appropriately destructive and pleasingly kick-ass. It was a pleasant surprise and a nice example of having a preconceived notion about how I expected to feel turned around 180 degrees.

Monstrous review, Octo! And I was a big fan of the Yog review, too. It was kind of...endearing, like a dad proudly talking about his son's First Prize in the Science Fair. Your love and admiration for the genre were palpable.

Octopunk said...

Thanks, Stan.

The shot Jordan mentions is the epitome of my schizophrenic reaction; it's really damn cool -- but those spindly legs! (etc.) The aerial perspective of that shot takes advantage of the long limbs without really exhibiting the missing heft that Stan mentions.

One of the worst shots IMO is when Beth first sees the monster ("What's that?" "Something horrible."). It's coming straight up Broadway towards camera and it looks like the creature's torso and head are entirely supported by the front legs. Looks ridiculous. Hate that shot.

I think the idea to go for originality is a good one; that horned creature I posted, for instance, is pretty boilerplate. But I would've preferred it.

The loathed legs remind me of the arms on the alien bio-suits from Independence Day. So, original for giant monsters, but in general kind of a retread.

Octopunk said...

In other news, I just found out today that one of the guys I'm working with built the "Colonial Movers" ship from the original Battlestar Galactica. How cool is that?

HandsomeStan said...

Serious street cred for that.

And with regard to the two Conceptual Drawings: I was a huge fan of the first one, because the head suggested something whale-like, and the body something dinosaur-esque, with the implication that maybe HERE is what Star Trek IV was trying to get at: King Of The Whale Species is coming to fuck us up for good for all the bullshit we inflicted on the species over the years.

With the Statue of Liberty in the schematic, I can TOTALLY believe the notion of this semi-intelligent monster ripping the head off our symbol of freedom Just To Show Us.

Therein lies the ehh with Scrawny McGee. But it's still cool. (I agree with the comparison to the ID4 exo-suits. It forces me consider how I would walk around supported only by my elbows.)

Truth be told, it's a quiet night here for MrsX and myself, and I rented Cloverfield cuz she hasn't seen it.

Good job stimulating the local economy, Octo!

Johnny Sweatpants said...

I really have nothing to add here but that's never stopped me before so here goes. First I also "hate" the design. Hate is a strong word but here we are.

I shrugged this movie off at the time as another shaky cam hoo ha with annoying characters. I think I need to see it again.

nowandzen said...

Jordan, I tend to agree with you. I liked that it had a quality that kept you guessing and was other worldly. "The Cloverfield monster's face is similarly alien and expressionless; for me, that adds to the fear level." Similar to what you said about Alien, which still remains one of my top atmospheric movies.

Although at the same time I agree with octo's thoughts that the very thin legs, once I finally did get a shot of it, were a bit of a letdown. They definitely went for the Ridley Scott/Alien effect of just show em glimpses till the end.

I just saw the movie once and thought it was a fun romp. I never considered it much more than that. I think if you go to just have a good time with it that it works just fine. I didn't find much depth nor do I need to see any others but it was a visceral good time. I would say it had atmosphere, which since we mentioned Alien, was the ever looming star of the show. Movies with great atmosphere get props from me.