Friday, January 18, 2008

Giant Monsters are SCARY again.

A Cloverfield review, if you will ;)

Monster movies, particularly of the "giant" variety, have had tumultuous tidings over the last few years. Godzilla took his third hiatus back in 2004, and things seemed bleak for daikaiju eiga. Thankfully for fans of this somewhat under-appreciated genre, a small but noticeable wave of creature features have been crawling from the darker corners of film-making imaginations, such as Peter Jackson's epic, exciting, and overly long remake of King Kong, the brief return of Gamera, and two new South Korean films: the critically acclaimed The Host and the flashy-but-brainless Dragon Wars. Finally, trailing on the success of Transformers, Producer J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves have unleashed the giant monster genre in a way never seen before. A jarring, abrasive, eye-popping spectacle called "Cloverfield."

Thanks to a brilliant marketing campaign primarily consisting of little tidbits and dangling carrots peppered throughout the vast internet realm, to say that this is a monster movie for the "Youtube generation" is a colossal understatement. What's truly spectacular about the film is that it breaks so many conventions of the giant monster genre, while simultaneously re-introducing time-honored traditions and elements to the teenagers of today.

The story is fairly simple, but genius in its delivery. A bunch of upper-class teens and college students from NYC are living their inane grandly insignificant drama-laden lives (part of the charm, since these are just normal shmucks and not scientists or generals), dealing with breakups, crushes, and awkward sex. In the midst of a going-away party for Rob the "hero," and "crazy horrible shit" happens. Manhattan is turned into a mass of nightmares, with horrible surprises lurking around every corner, all while Hud, our nervously comical cameraman, loyally documents the events.

The camera documentation style is absolutely what sets this film apart from any other monster film. While the Blair Witch Project gets points for inventing the concept and for subtle creepiness, Cloverfield puts you smack in the middle of the confusion, excitement and thrill of confronting a truly terrifying living force of nature, and all the chaos it brings with it. The scariest aspect, of course, is that you DON'T know what the damn thing is. It's big and terrible and it doesn't look like anything you've seen before (from a normal shmuck's perspective). You don't know why all this horror is happening, you aren't a scientist or a general, so you're on the periphery, so start RUNNING.
The human characters are, of course, the center of the story. Though Rob's decision to go on his heroic quest to save his one true love feels the most unrealistic of all...however, we can't deny that, without this "hero's quest," there would BE no real story to be involved in...and if your dearest friend called you, crying and scared, you're a horrible person for not going to their aid, and may it haunt you for the rest of your life.
Acting in general was very good. A few lines felt forced or odd attempts at sounding "hip" or "cool" but these few instances aside the dialogue was very natural and fluid. Each character was also built well enough for the one and a half hour of footage (which, by the way, is all the power the camera had. Those who criticize the camera for being "on" for 10 hours need to remember that Hud was constantly turning it on and off). Rob was a stoic leaderly character, though obsessive in his goals. Hud was disheveled and cracks wise excellently, Lilly was a supportive sisterly character, and Marlena, the sad little introvert, thankfully stayed the sad little introvert.
What's also really interesting about the movie is that no character is truly "sacred." Unlike many of its kind, Cloverfield doesn't coddle its lead teens, at least not excessively. No one is truly safe.

Okay, enough of that crap. What about the question on everyone's lips? What does the monster look like? Well, finding a little time, I worked up a really quick sketch of the beastie:

(UPDATE: I removed the old picture with something a little more updated, more accurate...I'm still a little unsure about the legs, though)
(I'm working on a more detailed pic for G-Fan magazine)

You'll need to make notes of that, because even when you get an eyeful of the big bad antagonist, it's hard to make out what's-what. The beast, designed by the masterful Neville Page, has a very unique anatomy (despite looking somewhat superficially like "Orga" from Godzilla 2000), and on top of that, moves with an awkward grace of a monster not used to walking on land. It doesn't march proudly down city streets like the mighty Godzilla, rather it shambled and crawls, "scampers," if you will, because it's really not sure how it should be moving. "Clover," is an odd mix of characterizations. When it arrives, and if you take time to dissect the events, it's really not being aggressive. It's confused and surprised by humans in general (if you check the various sites, it's never seen humans before, living underwater for thousands of years), and attacks the Statue of Liberty. It isn't until the combination of the military enraging it and the nasty mutant Parasites living on it running off and raising hell that the shit really hits the fan. Now the monster's pissed and annihilating the military where it can find them. It really is kaiju-level of invincibility, which, handled in such a refreshing way, adds to the monster's level of fearsomeness.
The scrambling, horrible parasites that act as yet another threat are a welcomed addition, if a bit superfluous, or even completely unnecessary, but then again, the impact of the film wouldn't be nearly as strong as it is. Taking cues from Starship Troopers and Godzilla 1985, these buggers create a whole new level of chaos to the camera work that emphasizes the quick, deadly nature of what's going on. Horrifying stuff.

No score for the film, with the exception of the wild, monstrously powerful "Roar!" overture theme during the end credits, written by Michael Giacchino, evokes the best of Akira Ifukube and other 50's and 60's monster movie themes. This needs to be online, available for download NOW.

A few friends who had to sit back a few rows (yes, we were unnervingly close to the screen) said they could hear me shouting at the screen various obscenities, depending on what was a-happenin'. Cloverfield had indeed heralded a new era of kaiju eiga, now placed alongside the greats of Monster Movie History. King Kong, Gojira, Them, Gamera 3, Aliens, and The Host had best make way for this sucker. Now if Abrams can only resist making a sub-par sequel, we'll be all set for a Godzilla revival soon enough :D