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.