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Take That, Dean Devlin

January 19th, 2008

As you might expect, I didn’t waste much time before going to see Cloverfield. A major American studio releases a giant monster movie? Damn skippy I’m there.

In brief, I enjoyed it a lot. It offered no more than the contents listed on the label, but it accomplished what it set out to do. It took the traditional monster rampage down to street level and made it an intense viewing experience.

While it’s accurate to describe Cloverfield in terms of the original Godzilla and The Blair Witch Project, I think that you can throw a few more influences into the mix. As in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remake, it never strayed from the protagonists’ view of events; we knew only what they learned from direct observation and second-hand chatter. It also reminded me of the cult classic Miracle Mile, which took place over a single night as the main character delayed his escape to safety (in that case, from a purported nuclear holocaust) to go back for his girlfriend.

Most obviously, it was reminiscent of the American Godzilla remake, hence the title of this post. In addition to the New York setting, here too was a giant monster which spawned a horde of ground-level critters to offer a more direct threat to the humans. I don’t know that anyone set out to throw it in the face of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich and show them how to make an effective monster movie, but there it was.

Japanese monster flicks rarely concern themselves with the humans inevitably seen fleeing underfoot. They tend to be about the spectacle of mass destruction and the response of scientists and armies. Giant Japanese monsters (colloquially known as “kaiju”) almost never target their rage on individual people. It’s that aspect of Cloverfield, rather than the “Blair Witch”-cam, that made it unique.

Another welcome aspect of Cloverfield was that it got back to the old idea of the kaiju as metaphor. The first Godzilla was, of course, directly inspired not just by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also by American testing of atomic weapons in the Pacific. The American Godzilla, however, had none of that, and in fact went as far as to blame the big lizard on the French. With Cloverfield, the monster was very much a stand-in for the terror of 9/11, something a great deal closer to our anxieties than French nukes. It ain’t subtle, but neither was Godzilla.

While both films pretended to be “found footage” from a discarded camcorder, one advantage that Cloverfield had over The Blair Witch Project was that there’s deliberate planning behind-the-scenes. The camera might’ve been whipping around, but it wasn’t just capturing random, improvised footage. You saw what you needed to follow the plot.

Granted, it wasn’t all that challenging a story. There’s just enough of a boy-longs-for-girl thing to provide a reason to care about the characters. Still, I liked the way in which the romantic angle was worked into the film, with the narrative abruptly cutting away to brief flashes of the couple in happier times. (The in-movie reason for this was that the camcorder was taping over footage of a previous date to Coney Island, and bits of the old video can be seen when the camera was stopped and restarted.)

The monsters were effective, and for the most part the filmmakers wisely adopted a less-is-more take: there were only a handful of shots in which we got a good look at them. The main creature was some sort of anorexic, bipedal lizard (hmmm, like the American Godzilla?), and its parasites were nasty, screechy bugs.

Assuming that Cloverfield does as well as its opening night box office take suggests, I think it would be fun to see a “sequel” in which we get a more traditional take on the same events. While that might sound like just another kaiju flick, I think it would have the advantage that we, the audience, would know that even while we’re watching the destruction on the macro level, down on the micro level there are individual people we’ve already met fighting to survive.

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