Late to the party, as always, I went to see Cloverfield tonight. I’ve seen it get some stick around the place, which quite surprises me as I really liked it, and felt it did exactly what it said on the tin and then some.
For those of you not in the know, and without giving too much away – an improbably beautiful cross section of Manhattan folk with complex interpersonal relationship problems are enjoying a fashionable loft party when the city is attacked by colossal monsters. Handheld camera chaos ensues complete with lots of shattering glass, rattling M16s, exploding power transformers, blood, screams, death, angst, and a real shit-load of dust. Everyone is very, very dusty. I even felt a bit dusty in the audience.
There are quite a few moments that stretch belief – where do all the soldiers come from and how did they get tanks into Manhattan so quickly? The motivations of the characters are, on the whole, not terribly convincing. (My god! A giant army of aliens is destroying the upper east side! Let’s run towards them!) They seem to get very badly injured then shortly afterwards run up 69 flights of steps without much trouble. The female characters stick to negligible party wear even when there are perfectly good work clothes available. But, for me, the film had just enough of its tongue in its cheek to more than get away with it. There are enough little gags to lighten the mood without damaging the suspense. It’s a slantwise look at the monster film, so it has to include all that stuff that a monster film should. Smashed up statue of liberty. Massive foot clomping down and crushing a tank. Skyscraper being demolished etc. And the fact is they do every one of these things very, very well. To bitch about realism seems to me to be kind of missing the point.
At the heart of the film is the notion that “it’s all been filmed on a home movie camera so it’s all handheld and wobbly and that.” This device ain’t especially convincing, if you really think about it – I mean, there are about 15 moments where no-one in their right, or even their wrong mind, would have held on to their bowels let alone a camera. But I think once the device is set up you kind of accept it – going back to grab the camera on occasion even becomes an in joke. And it’s strangely involving since it puts us in mind so thoroughly of the wobbly, filmed on the camera phone stuff we’re so used to seeing these days of 9/11, or 7/7, or the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Then there’s some interesting commentary on the ubiquity of filming and photographing in our society, as ‘our’ cameraman competes with everyone else to get pictures of the chaos. The statue of liberty’s head crashes out of the sky and a few moments later the survivors are taking pictures of it on their mobiles.
And, bottom line, the way it’s all shot and edited is bloody effective. Effects and action all merge seemlessly – the grainy wobble-o-vision is forgiving to the monsters and the carnage and helps them look very real (if with slightly odd elbows). We can cut from one scene to another with a jerk and some static just like we get on You’ve Been Framed, which means the pace need never slow and the film need not outstay its welcome. And it doesn’t. It’s beautifully done, from a technical standpoint. You feel stuck right down there with the action, in amongst the nitty gritty, the little people, and the destruction looks truly massive and genuinely terrifying. My heart barely stopped going for 90 minutes, and that’s a hard trick to pull off.
Admittedly, I saw this in a good cinema with good sound. At home on your mom’s old black & white it might not work quite so well, but hey. To me, this film achieves exactly what it set out to achieve in spades. No pseudo-science bibble-babble, no striving for deeper issues, and above all mercifully free of the unforgiveable Hollywood soft-centredness that made I am Legend such a disappointment. Just edge of the seat action and really pretty people looking really scared. That’s always a winner, right?