It’s hard to pack any excitement into the horror genre nowadays. In the wake of 9/11, the war(s) in the middle east, 70 years lived with the specter of nuclear annihilation, urban crime, and even the fact that most commuters pass a horrific car wreck on their way to work once a month, horror permiates our daily lives. Horror ranges from the calm tones of a doctor giving you your biopsy results to the tallest buildings in New York collapsing. Fuck a vampire, yesterday I passed a woman crushed to sausage on the way to work. Please let me meet a vampire, I’ll take the hickey of death over a doctor with the hidious “look of sorrow” plastered on his professional face any day.
I’ve seen a few terrible horror movies lately. THIRTY DAYS OF NIGHT was boring. ALIEN VS. PREDATOR II was tedious. Ghosts are assurance of an afterlife, not something to be feared. The Mummy is scary unless you can escape a monster who needs the services of a good physical therapist. Werewolves are feared only by mailmen. And Frankenstein is looking more like a cryogenic utopian vision than something you’d be afraid of. What is there left to scare you that isn’t too real or anachronistic?
CLOVERFIELD is high-concept and high conceit. I finally saw it yesterday. The hype had put me off so I wanted to wait until there was a little distance between the movie and the marketing. A few weeks later (June 8) would have allowed me to see it on Blu-ray but I’m not sure it would have made much of a difference on any level other than seeing what the Prosumer cameras were really capable of. As it is, the DVD is just fine for viewing this movie (and that may be the last time you hear me say that).
The high-concept is, of course, what if you made a Godzilla movie from the point of view of the little people running around trying not to get stepped on. The high conceit is to tell the whole movie as if it was a found artwork. In this case a videotape confiscated by the government after a natural disaster, shot by someone who just happened to be filming when the excrement hit the air conditioning. The result is a non-interactive videogame. A first person perspective that persists during the whole narritive. A movie made expressly with the YouTube vibe. The result is a truly involving film that allows the viewer no distance from the horror. It’s the 21st century equivalent of the epistolary style that Bram Stoker used in Dracula.
The filmmakers are highly aware of this. There's a scene when the head of the Statue of Liberty tumbles to the ground and immediately the crowd gathers with cell phones aloft to take pictures. It's a bit of self-referential comedy. (BTW, according to IMDB the head is twice the size of what the actual Statue's noggin would be because initial viewings found audiences unable to accept the size the head really was.)
Critics have found numerous nits to pick with the film. They say the perspective is dizzying if not nauseating (which reminds me of DOOM motion sickness syndrome). I can’t imagine this being a complaint of the current generation. To me it sounds more like an audience complaint that might have been leveled at D. W. Griffith for not shooting a film like a stage play. Jump cuts and time compression were revolutionary 80 years ago. At first they confused audiences. Nowadays they are part of the lexicon of film. I don’t think first person POV is going to revolutionize film, but I don’t think audiences are unable to deal with it.
Much has been made of the idea that the characters are not fully realized. I feel this is motivated more by critics who need to be critical than an actual flaw in the film. It’s a slice of life because of the very nature of the storytelling. The idea of using shots from a previous recording on the same tape is nothing short of inspired. At almost random moments in the film the viewer is given snippets of the back story. The idea that the main narrative is recorded over a tape that was made earlier is a way to juxtapose normal life into a story where nothing is normal. A single 90 minute videotape is the only window to these people’s lives. Still they seem like real people. They aren’t fully realized because anyone you might get to know from a single home video can’t be. The characters are sometimes banal, sometimes superficial, but filled with veracity. Just like most of the people you know in real life. And that’s the whole idea. I felt like I knew these characters. Though I was only able to see the tip of the iceberg I got the sense of the large unseen weight that was below the surface.
Some critics have said that the film is frustrating because you often can’t see what you want to see. Again, have you never watched a home video? That’s a common frustration. Shooting in real time is an exercise in trying to capture the essence of what is going on. And in this case, it adds to the ambience. The most remarkable thing about this movie is that it never deviates from its central idea. The horror comes from the audience being a character in the movie.
The last critique is that the introductory scenes at the party last too long. Again, I think it’s a mistake that only a film student could make. The viewer has to be lulled into a sense of normalcy and the time has to be taken to establish the banality of the characters. The party scenes do just that.
So, CLOVERFIELD is a success on a number of levels. It has real people in an unreal situation that anyone could imagine themselves being in. The special effects are invisible (a nod to the Phil Tippet Studio, and if you don’t know who Phil Tippet is then you haven’t seen a Star Wars movie). The characters aren’t the normal film heroes, just regular people. And the result is that everything the filmmakers were going for- a horror movie that makes the viewer a participant.
J.J.Abrams has gotten all the credit for this film. With his stint on ALIAS and LOST, and his upcoming revamp of the Star Trek franchise, he’s the Hollywood wunderkind. But he didn’t write or direct this film. He’s a producer, a position on movies that is usually not the kind of hands-on position it is in television. Here he seems both the creative force and the enabler of his creative people. In this case he deserves a lot of the credit but lets not forget director Matt Reves and writer David Goddard. Even the cast, who aren’t asked to do much more than run around and look scared, step up and add reality.
CLOVERFIELD is a short movie and doesn’t overstay its welcome. See it, and turn the lights in the room down low. And get ready to be taken away.