Critiquing Cloverfield in 3 Easy Steps

Normally I don’t discuss modern films here at Cinebeats, but after seeing Cloverfield on Monday night I’ve been thinking about the movie all week. I decided to follow up my viewing by reading some of the criticism the film has been receiving, which probably wasn’t the smartest idea since much of it left me cold. Thankfully I’m not alone in my excitement about the film since Tim Lucas seems to have enjoyed it as much as I did and I figured I’d weigh in myself.

As a lifelong horror fan and monster movie enthusiast I found myself reserved, but excited when the ad campaign for Cloverfield started. Compared to the boring and often redundant advertising that typically prepares you for a new film’s release (quotes from well paid critics or highlights from an otherwise lackluster production), Cloverfield used an abstruse marketing campaign designed to keep audiences in the dark about the film and its giant monster. At the same time it also borrowed from the golden age of horror movie marketing that was mastered by directors like William Castle back in the ’50s and early ’60s. I was thrilled by the mere fact that Cloverfield was an original film. At a time when remakes and sequels are the norm, and audiences have a library of classic films on DVD at their disposal, a good original horror or science fiction film should be celebrated and Cloverfield is well worth celebrating. Instead of appreciating what the film does get right, many critics seem to enjoy pointing out what they consider to be the film’s three main flaws, so I thought I’d address them in three easy to follow steps.

Step #1: How dare they exploit 9/11 imagery!

Unfortunately it seems that many modern critics have absolutely no understanding of the important cathartic effect that horror and science fiction films can offer viewers who are willing and able to completely give themselves over to an experience. Cloverfield is often being dismissed due to the way it plays with or “exploits” American fears surrounding 9/11 and the destruction of New York that fills almost every frame of the film. Cloverfield also unabashedly taps into deeper fears about the destruction of our civil liberties and constitutional rights in a world now ruled by monstrous “others” in and outside of the country who are out to destroy us and everything we stand for. The sad truth is that anyone who actually pays attention to America’s desolate political and social landscape often feels utterly helpless. In a country where we’re now greeted by military recruitment ads before watching a film in our local movie theaters, where the government is allowed to lie our country into war, and where your daily news is controlled by powerful corporate interests, what else is there to do but stand by idly and watch?

The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that a good dramatic stage play fraught with violence and tragedy could result in a great catharsis, which would help heal a receptive audience suffering from the results of a national or personal trauma. I couldn’t agree with him more. Good films, like good art, good music and good books, have the power to shake up the collective unconscious in ways that are often impossible to measure or fully appreciate immediately.

Critics who want filmmakers to treat 9/11 and the events that have followed it with kid gloves should be ashamed of themselves for calling for a form of censorship masquerading as “sensitivity.” If Cloverfield is merely “exploitive” then President Bush’s State of the Union speeches must be downright pornographic. How can a society possibly begin to heal itself, much less understand what it’s suffering from, if filmmakers and artists are berated for confronting it head on unless it’s done “respectively” according to some vague standards outlined by a bunch of film critics? Since most critics have refused to treat horror and science fiction films with any kind of respect for decades, they’re naturally more than willing to attack them when a filmmaker decides to use horrific elements in an artistic or creative way to explore current events. In other words, its okay to make a film with 9/11 imagery that’s laden with social commentary if – and only if – it isn’t a horror or science fiction film, which are by their very nature exploitive according to most critics. I would argue that the film critics who propose that kind of narrow view are just carrying water for the current administration and frankly, I find that much more destructive to our democracy then a well-done giant monster movie that features collapsing buildings and terrified citizens running from an unknown threat.

Back in 1954, when Ishirô Honda unleashed Godzilla on the world, some critic’s attacked the movie for exploiting the nuclear related horrors that the Japanese public had witnessed during and after WWII. I suppose I shouldn’t be that surprised by some of the ridiculous critical responses to Cloverfield that I’ve read, but I am. After all, Godzilla was made more than 50 years ago and now it’s celebrated as one of the greatest films that Japan produced after the war. Will critics be saying the same about Cloverfield in 50 years? It’s possible.

In some ways the negative criticism of Cloverfield seems reminiscent of the poorly constructed criticism I read of Eli Roth’s Hostel: Part II last year. Roth stated the obvious and pointed out how his film could be directly linked to current events related to post 9/11 America and the war in Iraq, which he wanted to explore in his film. Unfortunately he wasn’t taken seriously since Hostel: Part II was merely a “horror” film and even worse, something some ridiculous critics like to call “torture porn.” In some of the worst and frankly most toxic film criticism I’ve come across in years, critic after critic berated Roth for his attempt to comment on current events using the trappings of a modern horror movie. In the end, their negative criticisms were far more offensive then anything you’ll find in Eli Roth’s movie, which I was a staunch defender of and still consider one of the most interesting horror films I saw in 2007.

Besides Ishirô Honda and his film Godzilla, which Cloverfield makes more then a few references to, countless other directors such as Don Siegel and George Romero have directly or indirectly used science fiction and horror cinema as a medium to explore the political climate or social issues eating away at society. Unfortunately, it usually takes decades before critics start appreciating their efforts and the casual horror fans that flock to these films often have no interest in seeing them as anything more then pure entertainment. Thankfully Cloverfield manages to entertain above all else.

Step #2: The shaky handheld-camera work is awful and makes me queasy!

Complaints about the use of “shaky handheld-cameras” and documentary style techniques used in modern films now are just plain laughable to me and not really worth addressing. But since critics keep pointing them out I’d like to remind them that unlike them, some of us haven’t lived under a rock for the past 20 years. Popular television shows like COPS, which debuted some 20 years ago, took audiences on similar journeys. And 10 years ago The Blair Witch Project was a huge success, so why point out the obvious now? Americans are watching reality shows nightly and we’re also filming gunmen on our college campuses when they start shooting at students or pointing our home video cameras at bridges when they collapse. The makers of Cloverfield are clearly well aware of this bizarre aspect of modern culture and I thought they did a terrific job of using what looks like actual video footage to tell their tale.

Horror and science fiction fans have seen countless monster movies shot from typical film perspectives, but rarely are we brought right into the action the way we are in Cloverfield. After a rather dull beginning that wouldn’t be out of place in plenty of romantic dramas, Cloverfield takes audiences right into the “belly of the beast” and doesn’t let go until the credits roll. I found the personal perspective taken in Cloverfield fresh and exhilarating. Instead of continually focusing on a giant CGI creature, the audience is left wondering what exactly it is that they’re looking at for a long time and when the monster finally appears, it doesn’t disappoint.

Step #3: I hated the vapid and undeveloped characters in this film!

Finally, critics have pointed out that the main characters in Cloverfield are mainly white, attractive and privileged “yuppies” who whip out their cellphones and snap photos of the decapitated statue of liberty instead of responding to the horror of what’s happening all around them. I thought it was rather obvious that the filmmakers were critiquing the main characters of the film, as well as allowing the audience to follow them on their journey through an American city being destroyed by a giant monster. Sadly, a lot of film critics seem to be so class consciousness themselves that they can’t make that leap (or maybe they don’t enjoy looking at a film that mirrors them?).

Like most Hollywood films, the main protagonists in the film are mostly white and privileged, and they can also afford an expensive video camera with night vision and batteries that never die while they flee from a giant monster. Their backgrounds also make them stupid enough to feel safe and secure in a terrible situation, which in turn enables them to keep filming the horrific action. If you’ve actually experienced real danger and real threats to your life in the past, it’s highly unlikely that you would be wasting your time filming the events that take place in the movie and even if you wanted to, you probably wouldn’t have the money for a decent camera and a good cellphone. Without these types of wealthy and sheltered characters, would Cloverfield actually work? I’m not sure it would. It’s clear that the main characters in the movie are in some ways part of the monstrous problem they’re dealing with and their deaths often follow as a result of their own actions.

Rob (Michael Stahl-David) is the hero of the film and he’s in love with a pretty girl who happens to also be his best friend, but his passive behavior puts an uncomfortable wedge in his relationship. Instead of doing anything about his feelings for her he just seems concerned about his new job in Japan and the wealth and respect that his new position will offer him. After the monster attacks the city and he losses a family member in the following chaos, Rob is suddenly forced to reconsider the choices he’s made. His urge to make amends for past deeds is the underlying force that propels the film forward, but the passive and seemingly disconnected behavior of the main characters in the film is hinted at over and over again. These privileged twenty-somethings who are fresh out of college with the world at their feet, appear somewhat disconnected with the city that’s crumbling all around them. Sound familiar? It’s impossible to separate the horrific events America has faced following 9/11 and eight years of a destructive right-wing presidency have left many Americans feeling utterly powerless. With that in mind, I personally found Cloverfield to be one of the most interesting and well executed film I’ve seen that is willing to explore the trauma that has seemingly engulfed the country. As well as examine the ways in which we collectively appear to be responding to terrible events in our media saturated culture today.

Am I injecting logic into a movie where there is none? Probably, but in the final analysis I’m reviewing a GIANT MONSTER MOVIE so logic should take a backseat the minute you buy your movie ticket. In the end, Cloverfield can be enjoyed purely for the crazy ride it takes its audience on. It’s an extremely entertaining and at times very frightening film that had me laughing as well as shaking in my seat. Naturally the movie has its faults and it’s got plenty of detractors who are more than willing to point them out. Believe me when I tell you that undeveloped characters and plot holes the size of Godzilla’s head are typically found in giant monster movies. Pointing them out in Cloverfield seems utterly silly and pointless. And as I said over at The Horror Blog’s Weekly Roundtable, If you can’t enjoy Cloverfield for what it is, you should probably have your giant monster movie watching privileges revoked for life because giant monster movies don’t get much better than Cloverfield.

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28 thoughts on “Critiquing Cloverfield in 3 Easy Steps

  1. Gareth says:

    I haven’t seen the movie, so it’s difficult for me to respond to your meaty commentary, but in case you haven’t already seen it David Bordwell posted what seems to me a pretty intelligent take of his own, engaging with the film on its own terms (a hallmark, I think, of his writing): http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=1844. I think it might provide some counterpoint to the other critical writings you link to.

    Gareth

  2. Kevinj says:

    Hands down one of your best entries yet. I’ve been holding off on seeing the movie because I wasn’t too sure I really wanted to if the movie had much more to offer me than “average man’s view of a giant monster rampage” but your post is finally the one that made me come around to wanting to check it out.

    Critics who get all huffy about genre movies consciously echoing modern concerns puzzle me as even a most general survey of film history that they would have to have done will tell you this is nothing new.

    The last time I remember such weird hypocrisy on the critics’ part were those decrying the 9-11 imagery and parallels in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. Regardless of the quality of the movie, aren’t these people aware that Spielberg was doing nothing that his predecessors George Pal, Orson Welles leading all the way to the original novel by H.G. Wells hadn’t done themselves in terms of using the invasion narrative to deal with their own contemporary fears?

  3. cinebeats says:

    Gareth – I hope you get the chance to see Cloverfield soon and thanks for pointing out that link (just a warning to my blog readers – it’s got plenty of spoilers so be forewarned before you visit it). I like the detailed information about the camera work that Bordwell focuses on, even if I got a little lost a few times (too much tech talk tends to do that to me – yes, I’m a bit of a fool in that regard!). I also liked the quote David Bordwell shared from the Cloverfield director (Reeves) where he said:

    The fun of this movie was that it might not have been the only movie being made that night, there might be another movie! In today’s day and age of people filming their lives on their iPhones and Handycams, uploading it to YouTube. . . .

    I could see countless Cloverfield films being made from the perspectives of different people caught up in the events. I sort of figured Cloverfield II would follow the point of view of soldiers who are fighting the monster, much like James Cameron’s Aliens, which could be really interesting if it was done right.

    Kevin – Many thanks and I’m glad you enjoyed my take on the film! It’s really a movie that has to be seen and experienced in a theater so I hope you get an opportunity to see it soon. Spielberg did get a lot of ridiculous flack for his War of the Worlds. I’m so damn sick of critics telling me I’m not “sensitive” enough because I often like my political/social commentary dished-up with a bit of horror or science fiction.

  4. AR says:

    I haven’t really been jonesing to see this one, but some of my friends saw it last weekend and really liked it. Robert Butler of the KC Star gave is a solid review. It sounds like a well executed twist on a familiar idea, which is always good to see.

    The 9/11 thing strikes me as really weird. I agree with what you’re saying. Horror is one of those genres that lets a culture confront its own monsters and Shadow, and as far as I’m concerned that’s a good thing.

  5. Andrew Monroe says:

    Hi Kimberly,
    Saw CLOVERFIELD today, so nice timing with that typically thoughtful and spot-on blog! Short version – I agree with your sentiments (as well as Tim Lucas`s – the final push I needed to see it), it`s a devilishly smart monster film that takes our post-9/11 fears and the film-everything culture we live in and damn well delivers the goods. Loved the tunnel sequence, as well as the glimpse we get of the consequences of the spider bites! I`m already looking forward to the dvd so I can freeze it and take a nice long look at the face of that giant beast. Never had a second of problems with the “shaky cam”, a tempest in a teapot if there ever was one.

    Oh, and the trailer for IRON MAN had this life long DC fan excited about that too.

  6. Mike says:

    I just saw Cloverfield for the second time in theaters today, and despite my general resistance to most contemporary horror and sci-fi I (obviously) loved it. I think Tim Lucas is on to something when he comments about how this might be the most “important” genre film since The Exorcist or Cannibal Holocaust “…because it gave me the same apocalyptic feeling those films did when I first saw them — a sense that movies, as I knew them, would never be the same again.”

    While I think you’re post is mighty insightful, I think it’s a little dangerous to simply allow plot-holes because it’s a monster movie–that is, I think that’s a bit dangerous because making the assumption that the monster movie is allowed to have plot holes pretty much gives the negative critique the freedom to dismiss it as simply a monster movie, which like the best example of the subgenre, I’d say it far surpasses.

    I agree with the comments on the political allegory too–I would call it remarkably subtle rather than vulgar (like one of the reviews you’ve linked to says)– what worked for me is it wasn’t remarkably heavy-handed in it’s social criticism (say, for instance, the way the recent The Mist was)… of course, I mean no condescension to the general American public with the following statement; but it’s annoying to me that people applaud the obnoxiously heavy-handed political/social commentary (another example would be Joe Dante’s Masters of Horror episode “Homecoming” which literally had me groaning in annoyance, despite the fact that I ostensibly share the same point of view that Dante as a director is presenting) and either totally miss or ignore the more subtle commentary that slips into film as something that merely makes it *better* rather than taking over the plot.

    Another thing that’s worth noting: this might just be due to the fact that I am a 20-something almost out of college who hangs out with 20-somethings almost/just out of college, but all of the character in the film struck me as remarkable accurate. It might be a subjective thing, but all of the characters motivations seemed remarkably genuine, in terms of where the characters were coming from (I don’t come from exactly the same social strata, being more simply “middle class” than what I suppose the film’s characters would be as “upper-middle class”).

    It also always blows my mind that people bitch about “vapid” characters in movies… the conversation that the group of people sitting directly behind me in the theater today was a lot more vapid than what occurs onscreen. Since people seem to be hellbent on the whole sentiment of something “not being realistic enough!!” (which I blame on the so-called “reality” television), then they need to stay damn consistent. Most kids that are (that I’ve encountered) are vapid– I preferred knowing less of their history because it allows the narrative structure of the film to be more about revealing the actual event that’s occurring– if we were given too much information about the characters it would elevate the “romance” subplot (which is already bordering on overly-sentimental) to ridiculous…

    Speaking of the narrative structure, that is what I believe the high point of the film to be (aside from the intensity of course!). Taking the “found footage” approach has been done fairly well before, but what elevates this is the way that the “found tape” occasionally cuts back to the month before with Rob and Beth’s adventures in Coney Island. It’s a parallel narrative that establishes connections and enough motivation, while placing a remarkably emotional resonance at the films core, without being (once again) heavy-handed or blatant.

    These are just sort of half-hashed out ideas that I’ve been meaning to write about anyway, so sorry for unloading them all into your comments section 😉

    But, one more thing
    DON’T READ THIS NEXT PART IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM YET
    (unless you’re like me and don’t really mind knowing ending details all that much):
    At the end of the film, after the camera under the bridge in central park gets covered with rocks and the tape cuts back to Rob and Beth a month before hand on the train (?) back from Coney Island, there is a shot that is probably close to twenty seconds long of the water off the coast. At some point, near the left edge of the right third of the screen, you can see *something* fall into the water. I didn’t notice it upon my first viewing, but a friend of my roommate’s told her about it, so I made sure to try to catch it this time. I didn’t see *what* fell into the water, but I’m pretty sure *something* does fall into the water.

    In terms of personal aesthetics I’m hoping this isn’t the “beginnings” of the monster (an egg that takes about a month to “grow” underwater or something) since that belies the idea that the monster has always been living under the surface, suggested by Hud (a la the ever-beloved Cthulu). An interesting detail none-the-less, as it keeps a sort of enigmatic resolution that recalls the (as-you’ve-mentioned) brilliant viral marketing scheme that got me excited several months ago.

  7. cinebeats says:

    AR – I hope you catch it in a theater soon. I think the film might loose a little bit of it’s power on DVD, but that’s probably because the big screen experience adds to the “giant” feel of the monster and action happening. Like the television show Lost that J.J. Abrams also produced (which I know we both enjoy) there’s a lot of underlying stuff going on in the film that I think you would appreciate.

    Andrew – Glad to read that you enjoyed the film and thanks for the nice comments about my take on it. Cloverfield truly is as you so perfectly put it, “a devilishly smart monster film that takes our post-9/11 fears and the film-everything culture we live in and damn well delivers the goods.”

    Mike – I think Tim is really on to something with his thoughts about Cloverfield too! As you know (and I know about you) I’m extremely critical of most modern horror films or modern films in general and frankly, I haven’t enjoyed a film as much as Cloverfield in YEARS. It really floored me and I do think it will change the way filmmakers approach horror cinema for years to come.

    I also loved the whole “found footage” approach that was reminiscent of Cannibal Holocaust and I think you’re totally right when you say that the parallel narrative in the film “establishes connections and enough motivation, while placing a remarkably emotional resonance at the films core, without being (once again) heavy-handed or blatant.” The way the movie used the video footage to also tell its back-story was really something!

    As for:

    I think it’s a little dangerous to simply allow plot-holes because it’s a monster movie–that is, I think that’s a bit dangerous because making the assumption that the monster movie is allowed to have plot holes pretty much gives the negative critique the freedom to dismiss it as simply a monster movie

    Well, my point was that I think you have to suspend disbelief to really enjoy a giant monster movie to begin with and I find critical comments about the film such as “the battery on the camera never died” or “a subway tunnel in Manhattan would never be empty in an attack like that” and finally “the Manhattan geography used in the film is way wrong” (which could all be considered “plot-holes”) rather ridiculous in the scheme of things. Cloverfield uses fantasy, sci-fi and horror elements and at no time did I think the filmmakers were interested in 100% technical or geographic accuracy. I don’t understand why critics would demand that from a film like Cloverfield? Of course, it could be argued that more accuracy would have made the film better, but I don’t personally agree with that.

    As for the “vapid characters” I couldn’t agree with you more. Plenty of people (of all ages and colors and backgrounds) are just as vapid as the characters in Cloverfield. I think what bothers me the most about some of the harsh critical responses to the characters in the film I’ve seen is the way in which it so obviously points out a critics own class conscious prejudices. It’s as if they can’t possibly relate to the characters in a film in any way because they’re “white and wealthy.” Give me a break! Countless films feature white and wealthy characters and I have no problem sympathizing with them on some level because I’m human in the end above all else. Tyler Cowen nailed something really important when he said the following in his brief review of the film:

    I can’t recall any other movie that so completely devastates its intended demographic.

    I totally agree with him and I can’t understand why so many critics don’t appreciate that aspect of the film.

    I really hope I can see it again soon since I think I’d even enjoy it more a second time. It really impressed me and I think it will probably be the best film I’ll see in 2008.

    ****SPOILER WARNING****
    ****SPOILER WARNING****
    ****SPOILER WARNING****

    I’ve read that the filmmakers did want viewers to notice that something had fallen out of sky, but instead of an egg, it’s supposed be a satellite that helps “waken the sleeping beast” deep in the ocean floor. (very Lovecraftian)

  8. Jeffrey Allen Rydell says:

    I don’t know if this “3 Doors Down” video is the recruitment ad to which you refer:

    http://www.1800goguard.com/movie/index2.php

    but boy howdy am I tired of paying admission to be pitched to like this for ‘3 Minutes Straight’. Sheesh.

    Also wanna mention that I feel CLOVERFIELD will definitely lose a good portion of its effectiveness on most people’s home viewing set ups. Aside from the size of the screen, the large sound field of theatrical viewing is essential to achieving the film’s immersive goals. Even most home 5.1 systems will be too intimate to truly replicate its impact in the cinema. Definitely not designed for viewing in an old mono, ‘shoebox’ auditorium either. Sound should be the deciding factor in choice of venue.

    There’s a definite frisson in the way that, as spatially panicked as the footage may become, the more omniscient sound mix keeps you oriented, often achieving a sickening disconnect between onscreen chaos and a certain foreboding about where the next threat is coming from – and arriving at.

    The initial rooftop scene put me uncomfortably in mind of my stay in Baghdad (as a civilian contractor) on the occasions when we got mortar fire in the green zone, usually in threes – after the first hit, you’re listening for the launch of the next one, knowing that while it will give no indication of trajectory, it’ll be good for a few seconds of soul-sucking dread all the same…

    -Jeff

  9. Jonathan Lapper says:

    Great post! I have now heard all I need to convince me that Cloverfield is worth seeing. Since I haven’t seen it yet that’s all I will say. Oh yeah, and I linked this over at SynchFish – hope you don’t mind.

  10. Mucubed says:

    I’m glad to see that someone pointed out that The Blair Witch Project is not the first film to build its plot around “found” documents-this technique has been around for decades in films and centuries in literature. I also agree that the shaky camera shots made me nauseous, but I think that made the film more urgent since those moments usually occurred when I really wanted to see what was happening on the screen. It also meant that we were forced to concentrate on the characters more, which I think made for a better movie experience.

    Speaking of characters, I started the movie out hating them. I remember telling my wife that I couldn’t wait for these vapid and anemic characters to start dying. They were selfish, immature people who led frivolous lives and needed some great catastrophe to help them prioritize their lives and concentrate on what was really important to them. These privileged wastrels were all very different people by the end of the movie. Horror movies (and plenty of other genres) tend to neglect character development for a steady stream of thrills and chills.

    The last thing I would like to add is that, yeah, this movie gave me honest to God nightmares. I can’t think of a better recommendation for a horror movie than that.

    Thanks for letting me blather.

  11. cinebeats says:

    Jeff – Thanks for sharing your thoughts. That ad you posted a link to isn’t one I’ve seen before (but good grief is it bad), but a recruitment ad for the Marines was shown right before Cloverfield and I can’t begin to tell you how much I hate having to sit through that crap before a film. It’s one of the reasons I hate going to the movies these days.

    The sound design of Cloverfield was definitely one of the best things about the film. It really was powerful and effective and I do agree that some of that will be lost if you only watch it on DVD at home. I think the film was also helped by the fact that there was no distracting soundtrack playing over every scene. That added to the realism of the movie in my opinion.

    Jonathan – I really hope you’ll enjoy it once you see it. I personally went into the film blind besides seeing the web/TV ads and I think that helped add to my enjoyment of it and I don’t know much about J. J. Abrams except he produces one TV show I find interesting (Lost). I also tend to avoid reading a lot of reviews before I see a film because I don’t want other people’s opinions/ideas about a movie clouding my own view of it and going in with expectations can sort of ruin a film for me. Anyway, I really hope your expectations will be met!

    Mcbud – David Bordwell (link posted above by Gareth) did a great job of detailing the way Cloverfield uses first-person narrative and documentary style photography. The only time I felt a little “off” was probably when they were climbing up the building towards Beth, but it was nothing more then a few butterflies in my stomach and I’ve experienced much worse when I’m in a boat, on a roller coaster or flying in a plane.

    I do think the audience can see Rob change and transform as the film goes along and frankly his character is allowed to develop in ways that you rarely see in any type of horror or sci-fi film these days.

    Finally, the “fright” factor is one reason I enjoyed the film so much. Unlike more recent giant monster films like Starship Troopers, etc. Cloverfield doesn’t rely on too much comedy to soften the impact of the film and make its point. It also didn’t go for a warm and fuzzy “feel good” ending like Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds did. (Edited to add: I do want to say that I actually enjoyed Spielberg’s War of the World remake even if some aspects of the film and the ending bothered me. I actually thought it was the best thing he’s done since Empire of the Sun)

  12. cinebeats says:

    Just wanted to add that it’s also important to keep in mind that the “found footage” is actually supposed to be shot in something like 7 hours, so how much character development do critics expect to see in that time? I don’t understand when “liking” the characters in a film was a given. There are plenty of movies I enjoy where the characters are totally repulsive (btw – I did not think the characters in Cloverfield were repulsive. Some of them reminded me of people I know or have met).

    I also noticed that Tim Lucas has suddenly back-pedaled a bit on his previous response to the film and he seems to want to see more “gravitas” or drama related to the death and destruction that takes place in the movie, but I don’t really know what people expect considering the narrative structure and time frame of Cloverfield. It’s a completely different film than Godzilla, even if they share some obvious similarities.

  13. David Bordwell says:

    Thanks to Cinebeats for writing such a thoughtful piece on the film, and for hosting the many commentators with sharp ideas of their own. Thanks also for linking my blog post, which I’ve updated with some more comments on post-9/11 films and a link to this site. Like Tim Lucas, I think that CLOVERFIELD will be important historically, and if I were teaching a class, I’d send the students to the discussion here. It’s a great place to start thinking about the powers and limits of popular filmmaking.

  14. cinebeats says:

    Patrick – Plenty of other cities like Los Angeles, London, etc. have all had their fair share of being destroyed in films by disasters, but New York is the biggest city in the U.S. so it’s not surprising that it’s been featured in plenty of disaster movies.

    David – Many thanks for the kind words about my post. I truly appreciate them. I find the critical divide over the film really fascinating and so I had the urge to weigh in and rant a bit after seeing the movie. I’m really fond of horror and science fiction cinema, but both genres often get beaten up by critics. Thanks again!

  15. Kiki says:

    Hi Kimberly,

    thank you for this excellent entry, which I took liberty to quote from in my blog. I noticed you’ve tried to have my entry auto-translated, but the output probably didn’t make much sense to you, so I thought I’d stop by and explain it. 😉

    I hadn’t planned to see Cloverfield, since I loathe Horror movies. The poster art reminds me of the terrible “Day after Tommorrow” cheesecake, and I’ve asked myself: which filmmaker in their right mind would want their work to be associated with that terrible waste of celluloid?

    The whole exploitation discussion hasn’t arrived in Germany yet and neither has the movie, but I’ll go and see it and then come back here and let you know what I thought (if you’re interested, that is).

    Cheers,
    – Kiki

  16. cinebeats says:

    Thanks for the comment Kiki! I was surprised to see my Cloverfield post mentioned on your blog, but I’m happy that the web makes it so easy for people from around the world to share their thoughts about a film.

    Since you don’t like horror films there is a high probability that you probably won’t enjoy Cloverfield very much so I thought I should warn you to be really cautious about viewing it. If you decide to see it, I’d be curious to hear what you think of it. I also recommend watching some similar films like the Godzilla films, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, etc. before Cloverfield so you have some idea of what to expect.

    It’s kind of funny, but lots of American science fiction films and pulp novels seem to enjoy using pictures of the Statue of Liberty being destroyed such as Escape from New York. I recently came across this blog post by someone who collected a bunch of images that are similar to the Cloverfield ad campaign here.

    I think the Statue of Liberty is a symbol that many American’s hold dear so it’s not really too surprising that filmmakers, writers, artists, etc. feel the urge to use it to represent a of of different ideas.

  17. Keith says:

    I haven’t seen this film yet. I wasn’t sure if I would see it at the theater or wait until it hit dvd. It sounds really cool. I know the trailers that came out really psyched me up about seeing it. Seeing the head of Lady Liberty on a New York street was something that shocked me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. Made me think of the scene in Planet of the Apes when we see the Statue of Liberty in the sand. I think the idea of having the characters tend to be white and affluent probably works well with what’s going on in the movie. I have no problem watching a movie that features people that are different than me. I might be white, but I’m sure not well off. I can watch movies that feature primarily minority characters with no problems at all. It’s nice to see something different than yourself at times. If I wanted to see a movie with people like me in it, then I would film myself. I do like when movies have some sort of message in them. Many films of today can’t be bothered with it or think the audience is too dumb to get it. I do think we are in a dangerous time in this country. The post-9/11 world could head us into a situation that remakes America and the world into something we don’t know or what. I think we were already headed in that direction as it was, but 9/11 has been used as an excuse by many to speed up the process. It’s something that’s done by the right and the left. Big Brother and the destruction of civil liberties knows no party affiliation. This is a fantastic blog post. Thanks for sharing your insights with us on this film.

  18. greg says:

    One of the most well-written takes about this film yet… great writing!

    I thought the movie worked pretty well…

    My only “problem” with your take is that Hostel II is worth anything more than used toilet paper.

    Easily my least favorite major theatrical release I’ve ever sat through. I wouldn’t see another Roth film if it was being screened across the street and was free…

    G

  19. cinebeats says:

    Keith – Cloverfield really should just be enjoyed as a super fun monster movie first and foremost. Naturally like any film, you can project all kinds of heavy-handed theory into it if you want to, but instead I would recommend going into it as blind as possible (like I did – which obviously can’t happen since you read my thoughts about the movie before seeing it and I read no reviews before seeing it) and you might have yourself a really great time at the movies. Frankly, I feel really sorry for anyone who can’t enjoy Cloverfield for what it is.

    Greg – Thanks. I was really just responding to the ridiculous reviews I’ve read by critics who clearly have no love for giant monster movies or have some personal vendetta against the filmmakers, but I’m glad you enjoyed it. As for Hostel II, I have yet to read one smart and effective argument against the film and why it’s as awful as “used toilet paper.” But if you want to point me towards one, I’d be happy to read it. Of course, you should also keep in mind that I think Massimo Dallamono’s Dorian Gray and Honda’s Latitude Zero are works of art.

  20. Mike says:

    Haha, responding to your comment to Greg, I’m another one that thought Hostel II was trash, but I find it useless to write about movies that I hated because I end up ranting and become really frustrated. I’d offer to write a piece for you detailing why I disliked it so much but then I’d have to actually sit through it again 😉

    However, I agree 100% that Dorian Gray is a work of art !

  21. LRobHubbard says:

    Good analysis – but after having seen the film, I can’t jump on the Abrams bandwagon. The movie is more clever than actually good – imagine how much scarier and affecting it would have been had you actually cared about the characters, like in THE HOST and MIRACLE MILE (from which CLOVERFIELD cribs from quite a bit).

    It’s a thrill-ride gimmick film – fun to watch during the duration, but it’s pretty forgettable after the lights come up… Hell, even most monster movies have a little bit of substance to them.

    This is being way overpraised, like BLAIR WITCH – it’s merely an OK film, rather than anything classic.

  22. cinebeats says:

    Mike – Feel free to rant about Hostel II in your own blog and I’d be happy to read it as long as it was actually thoughtful criticism instead of ad hominem attacks on Roth and anyone who enjoyed his film.

    LRobHubbard – Glad you liked my take on it. I tend to prefer old-school monster films myself where drama/characters took a backseat to the action/monsters. I actually think Cloverfield would have been predictable and probably as dull as that awful Godzilla remake if it had spent much time with the characters. And frankly, what kind of character development can you possibly expect from a sci-fi/monster movie that spends only 7 hours in the characters lives?

    As for The Host, I actually thought the film was rather overrated and I didn’t find it scary at all. I’m afraid I’ve never had much interest in seeing Miracle Mile. If you want to compare Cloverfield to anything, why not mention the recent Gamera films which Coverfield borrows a bit from? Of course the recent Gamera movies tend to spend too much time on characters/drama in my opinion

    I guess it all depends on what you want from an action/monster movie. I like complex drama and character development and that should be obvious to anyone who reads my blog, but I don’t expect it or really want it from an action/monster movie.

    Lastly, the film has received an equal amount of negative and positive reviews from critics (not to mention plenty of lukewarm reviews) so I wouldn’t exactly call it “overpraised.”

    At this point I think I’ve spent way too much time talking/thinking about this film and I’ve said everything I want to say about it, but thanks to all who have commented. Que sera, sera…

  23. Marilyn says:

    I just saw this film yesterday and, like you, I was thrilled by it. The best monster movie since The Host.

    Honestly, the handheld camera did bother me. I had to walk out of The Blair Witch Project because of it, and this one sent me to the bathroom to throw up, but I came back. It was just so thrilling that I found a way to manage my nausea. The camera movement was absolutely essential to the realism of the experience these young adults. I think you explained the holes fairly well, too, as not being essential to experience the moments as real ones.

    I did not find this group vapid. They seemed very real to me with the types of concerns people their age and socioeconomic group would have. I totally bought the folks using their cellphones to send the head of the Statue of Liberty out into the world. Weren’t cellphones a major part of the information we got about 9/11 (particularly its victims)? These folks were probably victims, too, but they had a new way of documenting their distress and despair. The decapitation of this symbol of liberty definitely made a subliminal statement about the world under the neocons and Bush/Cheney. I know the urge to run away has often been on my mind–just get out of this country or as far away from the centers of power as possible (entertained a job offer in Hawaii, for example).

    I think the attacks on the film have more to do with its fairly overt political implications. People in power and among the culture elite of film criticism DO remember what Godzilla represented (including a recreation of an eyewitness of the firebombings in Tokyo–director Honda himself!). The general populace isn’t afraid to confront the criticisms these images suggest. They know the code instinctively. It’s no wonder this film has been an enormous success right out of the blocks. I’d see it again if I weren’t worried getting sick again.

  24. cinebeats says:

    I swore I wouldn’t talk about Cloverfield anymore, but I couldn’t resist saying that I’m glad you enjoyed it Marilyn, but I’m sorry you got sick. I saw The Blair Witch Project in a theater when it opened and I wasn’t effected by that, and I had no problems with Cloverfield. I’ve also traveled in planes a lot and taken lots of of boat trips and I love riding roller coasters (the more extreme the better!) so I guess that’s why I wasn’t bothered by it.

  25. Emyr says:

    Nice summary and review. But a few points I want to pick up on.

    Cloverfield also unabashedly taps into deeper fears about the destruction of our civil liberties and constitutional rights in a world now ruled by monstrous “others” in and outside of the country, who are out to destroy us and everything we stand for.

    Where does the link between diminishing civil liberties and and a rampaging monster lie? Yes the decapitation of the statue of liberty’s head (perhaps it’s French) is symbolic to some extent. Although not in the sense that we have these scheming, coniving and malevolent politicians (most people think of them as emotionless automatons rather than people). But perhaps challenging the dominance of man. Here we are almost with unbridled arrogance, blotting the land with our own statuesque constructs and suddenly and without warning some thing comes to claim its own patch and nudge mankind out of the way. In our decadence and unchallenged superiority, we’ve become lazy and complacent. Remember what makind has supposedly done to the environment (man made global warming is still a theory). Perhaps this is mother nature’s way of taking us down a few notches.

    Regarding interpretation, I think what’s happening is people are associating political allegories to any film. Because people like to have hidden meanings. If they become interested in some thing they want to delve deeper to find and unearth snippets of subtexts. Some times this involves people attaching ridiculous notions to films which never had the intention of presenting such ideas in the first place!

    Yes this monster is rampaging through New York like a bulldog on heat but not to control or subjugate us. It doesn’t want to control us through some convoluted plan a la Big Brother. It simply for whatever reason is setting up shop in New York and homosapiens are clearly in its way. Perhaps this film has environmental rather than political connotations?

    Another nauseating phenomenon is these ‘liberty’ groups who jabber on and on about how the evil government is taking away our liberties so they can control us. Firstly it is these groups that add to the hysteria and fears by scare mongering. Clearly people who have taken George Orwell’s “1984” a bit too much to heart. This idea of civil liberties under threat is nothing new. America seems to think terrorism only started in 2001 where as before it was “freedom fighting” (America was founded on an insurgency). Yet the UK had to endure terrorism by the toothless IRA for some decades. Although legislation had been brought in because of their armed campaign, some of which was draconian. Especially measures as internment without trial. It’s also important to note that there were those in the US who actively sponsored the IRA’s ‘fight for freedom’ (which included nailbombing women and children) through fundraisers as NORAID. Now America came under attack and things suddenly change.

    One last point on liberty. For those familiar with the film V for Vendetta (which I can’t stand). There’s a line in it taken from Thomas Jefferson I believe; which goes something like “people shouldn’t be afraid of their government, government should be afraid of its people”. All fine and dandy, only problem with that philosophy is it encourages and breeds sychophancy and pandering by vote chasing polictians. Politicians who are too spineless and toothless to make difficult decisions because it’ll cause them to fall out of favour with their electorate.

    In a country where we’re now greeted by military recruitment ads before watching a film in our local movie theaters, where the government is allowed to lie our country into war and where your daily news is controlled by powerful corporate interests, what else is there to do but stand by idly and watch?

    Can you blame the military for putting up recruiting advertisements every where? Due to the incompetency of the present US administration the US military has become a little over stretched as it has many overseas commitments in Europe, Far East and of course the Middle East. As one former British Army general (Mike Jackson) put it, the ‘leadership’ (oxymoron in this case) shown in the post-war management (another one) and administration of Iraq was “intellectually bankrupt”. Completely bereft of intelligence and thought. Much of the blame must be shouldered by Donald Rumsfeld who clearly had no idea in how to deal with a post-war Iraq, thus resulting in decisions that were completely inane, incompetent and utterly inept. However I’ve gone off track a little. My point being that going to war always lies with the politicians, many of whom have not got an ounce of political nous. It’s always the Military, specifically young men (and women) who have to bear the brunt of their folly.

    President Bush’s State of the Union speeches must be downright pornographic

    I think that sentiment belongs to hyperbole more than any thing else. Whilst not American I’m no fan of Bush as his tenure has mostly been riddled with incompetence from top to bottom. However his State of the Union speech was nothing more than usual political rhetoric (nothing overly egregious). I’m not doubting his sincerity in wanting to deliver but it does make one question how is he going about doing it. Which makes one hope that come November a Democrat government will be in place and the phrase “change” isn’t just old spin.

    Unfortunately he wasn’t taken seriously since Hostel: Part II was merely a “horror” film and even worse, something small-minded critics like to call “torture porn.” In some of the worst and frankly most toxic film criticism I’ve come across in years, critic after critic berated Roth for his attempt to comment on current events using the trappings of a modern horror movie. In the end, their negative criticisms were far more offensive then anything you’ll find in Eli Roth’s movie

    Then I’m not going to be popular here in expressing my misgivings about Eli Roth’s two Hostel outings. Whilst I try to avoid snobbery especially with “genre” films I can’t see how he’s trying to explore any social/political occurence by making a horror film where people get butchered and spliced by maniacal and sadistic nutjobs, who like their Black and Decker a bit too much. To me it lacks any sort of intelligence and sincerity in wanting to truly explore these issues. Also in a cynical way I feel that many film makers will claim they are commenting on social undercurrents and that their “art” (egregious use of the term) is meant to be some form of commentary, just to add some legitimacy to it. Rather they are unwilling/unable to craft an intelligent, detailed and nuanced story so they’ll just do another slash and shock film.

    I’ll stop short of saying that political subtext and commentary doesn’t belong in horror but I’ll be very skeptical of those that claim so. Apparently Eli Roth made Hostel II in reference to Abu Ghraib..one wonders whether he has been watching Al Jazeera to get his daily current affairs input. I don’t see how a which film depicts violence gratuitously and so amorously can tackle such a subject matter seriously and with the care and craft that is needed? The cold hard truth is he enjoys making schlock horror films, designed to be as gory, shocking and over the top as possible. Which is fine as it’s his business what he does. But when he tries to pass it off as some critical look at the going ons of the CIA, military or whoever then I will raise an eyebrow and scoff.

    Having said that Starship Troopers and Robocop are two good examples of horror/action films which are tongue in cheek in parts but also serve as good satire. Robocop on commercialism and the desensitised media coverage. Starship Troopers on the de-humanising aspects of war and the loss of the innocence of youth among other things.

    Now you won’t like what I’ve said but it’s only my opinion and one which is just as valid as one that endorses his viewpoint.

    eight years of a destructive right-wing presidency have left many Americans feeling utterly powerless

    Some thing we agree on. However if your statement was true regarding the electorate feeling “powerless” then how would that explain the record turnout for the recent polls? People are mostly tired of the current administration and want real change instead of empty promises. Luckily the Democrats have two engaging candidates, hopefully one of them will win the race to the White House. Democracy is alive and well because people are clearly voting with their feet and will continue to do so.

    Am I injecting logic into a movie where there is none? Probably, but in the final analysis I’m reviewing a GIANT MONSTER MOVIE so logic should take a backseat the minute you buy your movie ticket. In the end, Cloverfield can be enjoyed purely for the crazy ride it takes its audience on.

    Agreed. You have to watch with suspension of disbelief as the military unloads every piece of hardware and high explosive ordinance it has into the creature. Understandably with a fast moving creature a lot of shots will miss so much of the destruction will come from the military as well as the creature heh. As long as a film doesn’t claim to be a technical documentary on ‘monster warefare’ (if there ever was such a thing) then minor infringements don’t matter.

    The line from Godzilla (1998) (yes I know) always cracks me up :-

    “Negative impact that’s the god damn Chrysler building we’re talking about here….what the hell is the matter with you people, you’ve caused more damage than that thing did!”

    A sequel seems to be definitely on the cards. I think to exapnd the story a soldier’s view would be interesting. More on a squad/section basis. A character driven piece would be good as long as it doesn’t concentrate too much on the characters and not on what’s going on around them.

  26. Emyr says:

    Just to add on the suspension of disbelief theme. There’s a scene where what appears to be a M109A6 Paladin self-propelled howitzer comes into view and fires right behind the soldiers. Now the resulting blast from the ejection of the round when firing would’ve killed any one nearby. As the overpressure would rupture organs at that range. I assume they didn’t pay for military advisors in this film.

  27. Norman Robb says:

    Hi Kimberley,

    thanks for an insightful review of what I also believe will prove to be a landmark film. I saw the film over a week ago now but I’m still thinking about it. I agree with much of what you write and only wish to add yet another area where I believe the film will prove ground breaking.

    I feel Cloverfield heralds a new way in which we will “view” entertainment (not just cinema but other media as well) not perhaps as important as the sociopolitical angles you cover but interesting none the less.
    The traditional view point of the cinema goer is that of voyeur, in fact directors have occasionally made their characters voyeurs within their own films in parody of this fact (ie. Hitchcocks “Rear Window”, also by the way an early “reality show” but then the master always was ahead of his time!). The recent handheld style camera shooting angles have been an attempt to bring the viewer more personally and intimately involved in the action in a way not previously achieved. Coverfield has been for me by far the most effective effort in this direction so far. A combination perhaps of the very ordinaryness and cluelessness of the cast and a determined effort (apart from in the opening credits) to provide no clues or information about what is truly going on to the viewer, ie. it is possible to believe that you, an ordinary Joe, could be present along side the cast.
    With the continued development of virtual reality technology and film techniques demonstrated in Cloverfield, the viewer of the future will be more and more be invited to play a bit part in the adventure he/she is participating in.

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