Director: Matt Reeves
“What is that? / It’s a – It’s a terrible thing.”
It’s night #5 of the series with blog friend Mike’s Take on the Movies as we count down to Halloween. Tonight’s theme is post-2000 horror, and I chose one that I find scary and effective, one that captures the fun, the terror and the scale of kaiju movies and combines that with anxieties, technology and a style of filmmaking common in the post-2000 era, Cloverfield (2008).
The movie begins with a disclaimer informing you that you are about to watch footage the Defense Dept. found in an area formerly known as Central Park. That video and the story starts and ends with Rob (Michael Stahl-David) and Beth (Odette Yustman) who we meet the morning after they’ve spent night together, and by that evening Rob is the guest of honour at a surprise party thrown by his girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) and his brother Jason (Mike Vogel) to celebrate Rob’s new job in Japan. The video is used to collect friends’ greetings and good wishes, and it ends up eavesdropping on the romantic complications and juicy gossip sparked by Rob’s cheating on Lily with Beth. These revelations help pass the 20 minutes of party time and establish the main characters, but like most everyday dramas in the face of unprecedented disaster, all these concerns will soon seem petty and insignificant.
In the middle of the party there’s a massive tremor and lights flicker all over NYC. The curious partygoers turn on the news and are dumbfounded to see a capsized oil tanker. From the roof they hear the panic and sirens below, feel further tremors and witness a massive explosion that pelts the city with debris. Next they run down to the streets where they catch sight of Some Thing (as the movie’s poster teased it) moving between the skyscrapers just blocks away. The rest of the footage and movie captures the group’s efforts to stay together, get out of the city, follow Rob as he looks for his beloved Beth (trapped in their condo) and just try to stay alive.
As expected in disaster movies, New York gets it bad, and the poor Statue of Liberty is an early casualty, her head a projectile bouncing toward the characters, rolling down the street and landing on her side to gaze vacantly at the camera. It’s more disturbing than my description sounds, and is the first sign that this is more likely the result of some creature’s pitching arm than a terrorist attack. Terrorism concerns are voiced immediately, and this film, inspired and informed by the chaos and footage of 9/11, effectively captures the confusion and street level fear during a large-scale terror. The streets fill with fleeing crowds who outrun and dodge clouds that look like tidal waves and cower in stores as the billowing smoke and dust turns everything black outside. When they venture out, they see a city changed forever, and massive structures imploding and falling or leaning precariously against each other. The images are impressive by any standard, but have the added impact of tapping into a very real and recent horror.
One set piece has everyone on the Brooklyn Bridge, guided by helicopter spotlights, when the creature’s slimy appendage slaps down hard and the bridge heaves and collapses behind those lucky enough to make it off. The looters at an electronics store stop in their tracks to see on the news that it’s not just one giant monster but also scads of deadly little arachnid-reptile babies (actually the monster’s shed parasites) skittering about and overwhelming the Army. By ducking into the subway, the characters get a brief breather before the chilling sight of an exodus of rats, followed by close combat with a group of the smaller monsters. As all this isn’t bad enough, we learn that getting bitten by the creatures means quarantine followed in seconds by a grisly, splattery demise (adding some Ebola fear into the mix).
The monster was conceived by producer J.J. Abrams, and though it’s never named in the movie, it’s come to be known as Clover. The scale of the monster and the destruction are very well done and teased so effectively, that for me the mystery and buildup is far more frightening than the reveals. Clover is terrifying as a blur glimpsed slouching and thundering about, or as long, knobby double jointed limbs or a flailing tail. From those parts your imagination assembles a scary whole, but having said that, the whole picture does not disappoint, showing Clover to be a skull-faced, dead-eyed menace approaching with an eerie lumbering crawl and bending down close to examine its prey. Refreshingly, the monster’s origins, weaknesses and motives are never addressed, and that racks up more points for realism since I doubt I’d give a rip about science and environmental issues when a hungry 100-story tall wendigo is gaining on me. In that way Cloverfield is a video game, a Godzilla movie with the boring parts cut out, all spectacle, blind panic and beating or bombing the stuffing out of this thing.
So it’s fitting that the characters, who only hours before thought their worries were so important, are now frozen in wide eyed shock, their minds reeling with the implications and challenges: what did I just see, what to do next and how to exit Manhattan. The piling on of horror and death and extraordinary new sights has them each go numb or hysterical at different moments, expressing the most inappropriate and ridiculous concerns one second, then recording their last words and messages to loved ones in the next, all of which helps distinguish and humanize them in such limited time and plotless mayhem.
The jerky handheld camera won’t be for everyone (Roger Ebert called it Queasy-cam) but it does the trick, giving you just enough vertigo and random imagery to feed the terror– an Army truck speeding by, mangled bodies being wheeled by, things exploding far away. Then there are welcome little rest breaks where the video reverts to happier footage, or the camera settles down while people get their bearings and stop to watch the news. It’s surreal to see them watch events on tv, then see that same battle happening just down the street. Clearly I really like Cloverfield, it’s my favourite “POV genre” movie, at 84 minutes it moves fast and packs a lot of scary new FX and fears into the classic monster movie format.