Cloverfield is fun, perhaps not as fun as the brilliant hype around it would have us believe--no Cthulhu-like creature evoking H.P. Lovecraft's complex mythology, more's the pity--but if disappointed fans can bring themselves to settle down and relax and actually watch the damned thing, they could appreciate it for what it is--a clever little of meditation on the different forms of modern media and communication and how they interact with each other, presented in the form of a monster movie.
As a creature feature it's not all that much--the brute doesn't change the way the creature in Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) does, and it doesn't have that creature's faintly erotic biomechanical look (thanks to H.R. Giger) or fairly fascinating reproductive system (lifted from the 1939 story "Discord in Scarlet" written by A.E. Van Vogt--who in turn had borrowed the idea from digger wasps). It doesn't unbend from beneath a bridge with all the grace of an uncoiling acrobat (a la Bong Joon-ho's Gwoemul (The Host, 2006)), or lope gracefully on the ground like a herd of antelopes (or rather, a herd of antelopes monstrously fused into a single agile mass). Actually, it's not much of monster, period-- it's got a massive hunched back, a complex-looking series of inset mouths (a la Giger), and rather malevolent life-forms dripping from its shoulders (Are they tadpoles? Parasites, maybe? If the monster had been some kind of biological fractal, constantly generating smaller and smaller exact reproductions of itself, we might have had something). Easily the most compelling aspect about the big mother is that we don't see it--or that we only glimpse parts of it, in between collapsing buildings, along Manhattan's shadowed streets, swinging a tentacle up out of the East River to swat at the Brooklyn Bridge. When the whole thing finally lurches into view, you can't help but feel let down---it would have been better off skulking around in the dark, pretending to be more than what it was.
Actually, the entire movie was better when it pretended to be more than what it is, by turns a cunningly marketed, internet-driven teaser campaign (complete with puzzles and dark hints) worthy of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's 1999 horror mockumentary The Blair Witch Project (from which this movie borrowed much of its camerawork); the latest production by TV wunderkind J.J. Abrams (Lost); a possible tie-in to Lovecraft--but that's part of the fascination of this sort of project, the way buildup can be achieved early on, and the eventual, almost inevitable, disillusionment (in a movie all about metatexts, couldn't the whole thing--from provocative previews to fairly successful commercial run to ultimate critical backlash--be seen as the film's ultimate metatext?). The final product is unsatisfyingly short of context, explanation, exposition, not because we need the picture to make narrative sense, but because we'd like a potent metaphor--unexplained monster trashing New York City--to at least try carry more than its weight in poetic and philosophical baggage. Even Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) paused briefly to allow its characters to thresh out the significance of what's been happening (even if all explanation is cut short--dismissed in effect by Hitchcock and his characters as being for all intents and purposes useless--by yet another attack). Cloverfield tries to get away with even less than Hitchcock did, but it doesn't quite fly; you can only get so much from a bunch of people running about and screaming in the dark. Director Matt Reeves and writer Drew Goddard should at least have made their characters a few I.Q. points smarter, so that they could speculate intelligently while on the run--it's not impossible; the good Doctor (David Tennant in his latest TV incarnation) does this all the time.
I haven't forgotten saying that I did like the picture, even if I've spent most of this article poking holes in it and pointing out where it (and even its sources) lifted its (their) best ideas; I do like it. I don't think it's superior--that it beats the haunting, otherworldly beauty of Alien, or the poignant melodrama (and offhandedly fluid bestial loveliness) of Gwoemul, or that it presents the kind of precision-tooled escalation from unaccountable event to apocalyptic terror that The Birds did, but it's a welcome addition, a sort of shakier, grimier, newly-born cousin to its superior predecessors.
And it does have a fascination uniquely its own. If, nowadays, a monster is not content to stick to its own initial form (Alien); if a monster movie is not content to stick to its own genre (Gwoemul, with its combination of creature feature, family tearjerker, and slapstick comedy), Cloverfield does do its own serious morphing--not so much in genre, as in the terms in which it tells its story. The picture starts out as found footage--titles declare to us that this tape was found in the sector "formerly known as Central Park," which implies a number of things, not many of them good. It turns into a POV documentary, initially of a pair of lovers going on a subway trip to Coney Island, then of a cocktail party full of beautiful young things--I'd call them "yuppies," only that term is so '80s--ostensibly a farewell shindig for one of them, who's about to leave for Japan. When the creature attacks, the documentary turns into a reality show, with its own set of basic challenges (Run Brooklyn Bridge without falling into the East River! Walk a subway tunnel while being hunted by spider creatures! Evade U.S. military with orders to detain and deport you! Climb a building leaning at a 45-degree angle!). The movie finally devolves into a video testimonial, with the heroes identifying themselves for future generations that might find the footage (which, as the opening titles suggest, is what happens--yet another idea lifted from Blair Witch).
Cloverfield is not entirely without sting--perhaps the most interesting shot in the whole picture is of the cameraman gaping at a news broadcast of the monster, realizing where it's happening, and stepping outside to witness the real thing (talk about a shift from representation to reality, and the paradoxical loss of realism (he had a better view from the news broadcast)); perhaps the most poignant are the insert shots of the lovers on their summertime idyll, idiotically innocent and unaware of the heartbreak and horror to come. It would help if we actually get a better sense of the lovers and their friends as people--as is, Cloverfield is eighty minutes of watching a group of youthful supermodels getting mussed and muddied--but even the sight of plastic mannequins being slaughtered is not entirely unmoving. I approve.
(First published in Businessworld, 2/1/08)