Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Movie Review #1: Cloverfield

"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are "known knowns"; there are things we know we know. We also know there are "known unknowns"; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also "unknown unknowns" — the ones we don't know we don't know."

-Donald Rumsfeld

That man got a lot of heat for saying that. But there was no reason for it. It was actually admitting we don't know anything. And maybe that's more scary than anything.

And Cloverfield is the best example of that. I think Cloverfield is one of the best monster movies ever made. And i'm not saying it's a very amazing movie. It's pretty good, but not super amazing. It was very entertaining. The reason i think it's one of the best monster movies ever made, is although there are some very different techniques used that separate this monster movie from the original tuff guy, GODZILLA, they share the same heart.

To really understand this, a brief explanation of the themes in a monster movie.

Monster movies are a reaction to unimaginable horror. Godzilla was created after the bomb dropped, Gamera was created when a russian plane carrying nuclear bombs was shot down, and the Ants from "THEM!" were created from underground bomb testing. When these movies came out, the world had never experienced such a devastating weapon, and it took us a few decades to sort of learn to ignore the big Kaiju in the room. Most of these big monsters turned into cuddly human saviors after awhile; even the 1998 American Godzilla, "Zilla", was turned into a saturday morning cartoon. I think it is some sort of coping mechanism.

What is criticized most often about these movies, is that the big rubber suits aren't "realistic" and it is cheesy. But i think that the appeal of the big suits is it's cheesiness. It does two things at once. 1. It collects all the bad shit of war and nuclear holocaust and transforms it into an icon, and 2. by having this sort of not-real, cartoony aesthetic it gets as close to what nuclear terror really was for the world. Not real. And by that i mean, no one really wanted to think of the real implications of such a bomb, or it was extremely unpleasant to examine. The big rubber suits makes these thoughts palatable and as an icon, easier to understand.

The bomb as monster, separates it from the politics as well. The first movies of this kind, these monsters were seen as a destructive force of nature. And nuclear power is. Although there was an arm's race that started wars all over the world, because of conflicting government and economic systems, the bomb (i think and according to these movies) is a destructive force of human nature. By separating the bomb from its political connotations, you can see it for what it is, just a very sad expression of the human condition.

Now, Cloverfield.

I'm not really sure how intentional the decisions were in making this movie. Whether these ideas and aesthetics were a result of direct thinking or just some sort of cultural osmosis, i don't know. I'd like to believe that J.J.Abrams is actually really thinking about this stuff, and the movie wasn't accidental. So i'll believe that, mostly because of this quote:

"We saw all these Godzilla toys, and I thought, we need our own [American] monster, and not King Kong, King Kong's adorable. I wanted something that was just insane and intense."

J.J.Abrams said that while hanging out in Japan with his son. What Godzilla does for post-Hiroshima Japan, Cloverfield does for post 9-11 United States. I read some criticisms about the movie, which basically amounted to "It's too soon for 9-11 references!" and "this exploits the memory of that day!", when really, i think this movie does what no other 9-11 docudrama could do. It doesn't just repeat the same tired "heroic" moments of that day. It does what a movie, and a movie as art should do, it communicates certain ideas and emotions on a higher level. To me, at the end of the day, art is the closest thing to telekinesis, the closest to really speaking heart to heart with someone and connecting. And watching Cloverfield, i saw all the destruction and all the calamity, and amidst that, all the humanity and it connected to me.

The monster in this movie isn't shown clearly until the last few minutes, only shown in shaky news footage from helicopters, and hand held cameras, before it disappeared behind another building. A leg here, a back there. This is where i think the movie was most successful. By resisting the blockbuster-cliche impulse of showing off its CGI beast, it gave the beast a much deeper emotional resonance. Does that make sense? Every glimpse you did see, was almost painful, you wanted to see it, but at the same time, you felt the terror when it sorta began making sense. On 9-11, there was a moment where i thought "This is really happening," I give J.J.Abrams mad props for being able to recreate that same sorta realization in his movie.

And even though this monster was considerably more "realistic" in this movie, it wasn't at all. Since 9-11, movies have become considerably more realistic, more gritty. Action movies especially, have all gone the way of the Bourne Identity films. No more wires, no more useless explosions. Fight scenes are shot on shakey cam, and the actors don't do jump kicks that end in splits on the floor ( a la Jean Claude Van Damme). Even fantasy movies, like Lord of the Rings, no longer involve unicorns and red giant-horned devils. They deal with eugenics and deforestation (the orcs and Sarumon are really a parable for industrialization and Nazis taking over europe..at least to me). This general aesthetic would never allow suitmation for Cloverfield, i think thats what Abrams meant when he said America needs its own monster. And for american cinema, there'd be no way to get away with it. But wisely, also knowing that on the other end of the spectrum lies American Godzilla, he hid this american icon, shrouded in 9-11 atmospherics, and turned the city itself into a character.

The characters themselves i found a little stale. I couldn't decide if it was because of poor writing, or because i really wouldn't like those type of people. But i sort of saw them as the character that yells "GOJIRA!" in a movie. Useful, but useless. These were those characters and we just happened to stay with them the entire time. Its effective because it forces you to be those characters, looking through the shaky cam. But its ineffective because its much more unrealistic to put yourself into someone else's shoes while they're being characterized at the same time. In a documentary, the camera is sort of a necessary evil, an eye that peers into these worlds. But in this movie, you are the camera man, and it sort of peers into you creating a disconnect.

So this movie is one of the best monster movies because, it has taken our current american paranoia, and given us a monster movie filled with subtext. This is what makes it monstrous and terrifying. Terror in the 21st century isn't about scientific knowledge or nuclear war; its about having no idea what's going to happen tomorrow. Not knowing who may be sitting on a plane with you. Not knowing what country to attack. The smallest thing like a cell phone going off, can set off a bomb on a train killing hundreds. The central theme of Cloverfield is not-knowing and nothing explains terror these days than the unknown unknowns.

The monster isn't realistic, our mind can't process it, but we still have to, while watching the movie, you even get queasy. It's forced upon you, and it can't be stopped. Just like the world we live in today. So this is a great monster movie, and great art.