If hope, as Emily Dickinson wrote â€œis the thing with feathersâ€, then hype is the two hundred foot tall scaly sea-monster with an appetite for concrete, perched in midtown Manhattan and singing a song of destruction.
It started with a trailer last summer, too cool to even have a name on it. Then months of smoke-screens, secrecy, and a shattered Statue Of Liberty, all hanging out there with the promise of more to come. The opening weekend box offices rang with the delight of seeing Manhattan getting smashed flat by a properly Americanized Godzilla.
But hype is a malicious beast, and Cloverfield, as it turns out, is a small-scale exercise. The promise is a 21st century monster movie, but the execution is neither a satisfying character story nor an exciting monster mash. The central gimmick in Cloverfield is that the film is the unedited playback of a videotape recovered in Central Park after a devastating monster attack. The film is a well-executed gimmick, but the energy expended in keeping the single-camera trick going winds up subtracting from the story, which is slim as a reed to begin with.
The film follows Young Boring Preppie (played by an indistinguishably bland actor), who is leaving for Japan (a nudging reference to the Godzilla movies). At his farewell party, his friend Annoying Preppie videotapes the events of the evening, in the process taping over a semi-romantic liaison that Boring Preppie had with Boring Girl. That way, whenever Annoying Preppie has his taping interrupted, the film can cut to Boring and Boring having a too-cute portentous flirtation.
The opening twenty minutes are coyote-dreary. The farewell party looks like an audition pen for Dawsonâ€™s Creek: The Next Generation. It takes place in a loft the size of a downtown block – if everybody in attendance was living there, then perhaps collectively they might afford the rent. The characters we meet are the too-pretty, fabulously self-assured twenty four year olds that populate Generation Z-targeted car commercials, minus the depth.
Not a minute too soon, the party is broken up by an explosion and the head of the Statue Of Liberty comes flying down the street. For a moment, Cloverfield sustains itself on the echoes of 9/11. The wall of smoke and ash that comes blasting down the street is chilling. The crowds huddling together as they flee are poignant and evocative. Then the Annoying Preppie starts to endlessly repeat that heâ€™s going to â€œdocument whatâ€™s going on, because people are going to want to knowâ€ and turns his camera away from the destruction to watch Boring Preppie trying to get a cell phone signal.
The mis-judgement the filmmakers made here is betting that the human story can hold its own against a massive tableau of destruction. It doesnâ€™t. By way of contrast, the Korean action film The Host took the same setup â€“ the small scale story of a family caught up in a large scale monster attack â€“ and turned it into a moving tale. The Host worked in part because it balanced fear, panic, outrage, panic, and heroism in equal measure. Cloverfield tilts the scales way out of balance balance and the audience is stuck with the wrong side of the stick.
The shame is that the action in Cloverfield is well staged, and the sound design is astonishingly good. It does too good a job of making you want to see more of the fun stuff and is all the more maddening because it refuses to let you turn your head to see it. The whole experience is akin to watching a videotape of someone tying their shoes while riding Space Mountain â€“ all dark spaces, whiplash, and shining lights. It looks like something fun is going on, but the guy with the camera is too fixated on his own feet to show you any of it.
Hype is a funny thing. The best hype explicitly promises very little, but the fragments send your imagination racing. Cloverfield producer J.J. Abrams is familiar with that concept. Heâ€™s an amateur magician, and intimately understands the mechanics of sleight-of-hand – that the magician is manipulating the markâ€™s imagination instead of delivering substance.
Thatâ€™s the principle behind his hit television show Lost. Dangle a tantalizing promise in front of the audience, and deliver a left turn instead. Heâ€™s creating phantoms that will never fully incorporate, and after all the grandiose expectations, there is no satisfying conclusion that can live up to the mystery. The trick with hype is to put out the promise of something, and let the audienceâ€™s imagination run wild.
With Cloverfield, Abrams is having a field day with his fan base. A wide variety of â€œsecretâ€ website sprouted in advance of the film:
An obsessive reading and decoding of hidden â€œcluesâ€ turn the hype into a game, which is nothing more than a never-ending series of puzzle boxes. With enough digging, the story of a Japanese mining company slowly emerges, along with the story of a young, MySpace era couple. Nowhere is there any more information about the monster, or the destruction thatâ€™s looming. Itâ€™s like digging out of a sand pit â€“ you can dig as hard as you like, but youâ€™ll never get anywhere. If you havenâ€™t yet lost your virginity, thereâ€™s probably a sense of fun and adventure that comes from running down an endless series of blind alleys. And if you have lost your virginity, well, then thereâ€™s probably something better you can be doing with your time.
I have a feeling that aesthetically, Cloverfield will neatly divide audiences in half. Most people over 25 will find the Blair Witch camerawork headache and/or nausea inducing and far too claustrophobic for enjoyable viewing. On the other side of that line are the teenagers who have grown up with YouTube, MySpace, mobile video, and every moment of their young lives tucked away on a shelf full of videotape.
The camera technique is akin to having a vise hammerlocked on your head. Your point of view is restricted, not even to just the character but to a specific fixed lens length. The unforgiving nature of the single focal point grows wearying. The cinematographer and director push this conceit as far as they possibly can,, but ultimately it is too limiting.
Thereâ€™s an important distinction to make between the shaky-camera aesthetic of Cloverfield and The Bourne Ultimatum, and itâ€™s not the camera work, itâ€™s the editing. Both films rely heavily on a constantly moving, unstable camera. However, the editing in Cloverfield is arrhythmic and disorienting. Every edit in Cloverfield is disorienting, requiring you to re-orient yourself in time. Every time the film edits, youâ€™re lurched forward into an unknown space and the audience is behind the narrative.
The editing in Bourne is chronologically continuous â€“ even when cutting from one blurred action to the next, time isnâ€™t disrupted with every edit. The action can unfold fluidly, and every edit pulls the audience forward, positioning them closer and closer to the action to create a sense of unremitting intensity.
Bourne director Paul Greengrass uses the floating camera and blurry moves to express a continuing state of urgency or action, but the focus shifts from shot to shot. The film is not fixated on a particular camera lens or focal length but the next piece of the story. One of the strengths is that the film is mostly showing you something you want (or need) to see. There are no extended closeups of Bourneâ€™s nostrils while the next car over is exploding and sliding off a bridge. And that technique is the major difference between “storytelling” and “stunt”.