Tuesday, August 18, 2009


It is easy to see why this is so divisive a movie. From its photographic style to the lack of information given to viewers about the exact nature of the threat, this is a broad deviation from traditional American filmmaking.

Cloverfield is the story of a group of ordinary (by design) vapid twenty-somethings, whose going-away party for one of their group is interrupted by an attack on Manhattan by a giant creature of unknown origin. Once the action starts, it becomes a struggle to survive and escape. The point of view for the film is one of the party-goers, who is given a digital camera to document the festivities. He then uses the camera to record the effects of the attack, and the fate of the surviving members of the group.

The film is shot in a cinéma vérité style, with a herky jerky, up-and-down camera motion, with frequent sharp cuts, much like a standard home movie (there have been reports of some patrons becoming seasick from watching it, but this seems like hyperbole to me). This can be frustrating, as we are used to standard camera work remaining focused on exactly what we want to see; instead we are at the mercy of amateur camera operator “Hud” (Head Up Display, get it?).

There is also a big lack of traditional exposition (you know, the scene where the learned guy comes on and explains exactly what’s happening. If you watched Buffy, think Giles in the library.). The characters only know bits and pieces of what’s going on, and never learn what the creature truly is or how it came to be in Manhattan. This irritates many viewers, but I found it very effective. Part of the terror of being at Ground Zero for a catastrophe would be in not knowing what the hell is going on. You can’t get CNN, and all the cell phone towers are down. The closest they get is asking an army officer what the creature is. The reply: “I don’t know. I only know it’s winning.”

There is also a highly effective set piece, in which the erstwhile party-goers flee through the subway tunnels, only to find they are being chased by dog-sized parasites from the giant creature’s skin. (Helpful hint: If you see all the rats fleeing, you should run in the same direction.) It is a spooky and creepy sequence, with fateful consequences.

There is no escaping Cloverfield as a 9/11 metaphor, with Manhattanites fleeing from an unexpected attack, but this is common to horror movies. King Kong was a metaphor for the passing of the natural world in favor of the new technological age, and Godzilla (which Cloverfield is most closely modeled after) was a metaphor for the atom bomb.

You may love Cloverfield or hate it, but if you want to see a fresh take on an old concept, you should give Cloverfield a chance.

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