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A terrible thing!

While speculation that it was gonna be another Godzilla movie flourished when Cloverfield was first announced, this is far from a throwback to the monster movies of the 50s and 60s… Those movies always made a point to try to explain their monsters (and they were almost invariably spawned by that era’s big fear–radiation), but there is no attempt at that here. No scientist shows up and claims that the beast is the product of nuclear testing or chemical dumping or global warming or biotechnical tinkering or flushing baby alligators down the toilet. The monster’s a total mystery. Because it’s told from the first-person perspective, we only know what the characters know. Which isn’t much. To wit…

Upon rescuing Beth from her midtown apartment, as she and Rob, Lily, and Hud pick their way across the slanted roof of her tipped apartment building, we get a shot of the enormous creature careening down the street far below.

Beth: “What is that?!”
Hud: “It’s a terrible thing.”

(an understatement of such magnitude that it sets me off on a fit of stifled giggling)

A few seconds later, in the hallway of the neighbouring building they’ve clambered into, the group runs into one of the dog-sized monsters.

Beth: “What the hell is that??”
Hud: “I don’t know. Something else. Also terrible.”

(which ups the ante and I start laughing out loud)

There is a little speculation on the part of our protagonists… Hud points out that just recently a new species of fish was discovered and posits that perhaps this thing, too, has been living down in a deep sea trench until now. We just didn’t know it was there. Or, he says, “I don’t read the papers. Maybe our government created it.” Or they wonder if it could’ve come from another planet. And, indeed, in one of the last shots of the film–in one of the sequences Rob shot from the ferris wheel of Coney Island on his date with Beth–in the background we can see something large fall from the sky and splash down in the ocean. Does that mean anything? Producer JJ Abrams has described “Clover” (the nickname given to the monster on set) as having lived in the deepest part of the oceans for 1000 years. So, then, perhaps what we saw fall into the ocean in that shot was simply a rather large red herring. This is the guy behind “L O S T”, after all…

Those SF movies from the 50s and 60s always showed their monsters without blushing (picture Godzilla, himself, or the housetrailer-sized ants in Them! shot in broad daylight). We never get a well-lit sustained full-on look at this one. We get glimpses here and there as it makes its way along cross streets ahead of our little group. We see its distubing backwards-jointed front legs–so unnatural-looking, it helps heighten the fearsomeness of it (at least, to me). We get some disorienting shots of it coming face to face with the military and when we are caught in the middle. We get some brief overhead shots of it storming and crashing through the Manhattan canyons, and we get one looming but dark closeup of its awful maw as it bends down to say goodbye to our cameraman. As for the dog-sized monsters that appear to fall off the larger creature (perhaps they are something akin to remora?), we see them in manic motion and I, for one, was never able to piece their various parts together. There is scratching and biting and flailing–all captured on a camera hand-held by someone in the middle of the bedlam. I won’t know what the hell I was looking at until JJ releases some production stills.

Clover?

And, whatever it is, this terrible thing, it is beating the American military–another thing that didn’t happen in those movies from the previous mid-century. As a member of the military says to our group, “Whatever it is, it’s winning.”

So if we take this monstrous attack as a metaphor for 9/11, I guess we know how the filmmakers feel about how The War Against TerrorismTM is going…

I have read some complaints about the pacing of the film and I have thought long about it before deciding that I don’t mind it. The first time I saw it, though, I will admit to being a little impatient for it to just get going! See, the first 20-25 minutes of the film are spent at a going-away party for the lead character, Rob, introducing the characters–presumably so that we’ll care what happens to them (I had great difficulty bringing myself to care much about these upwardly-mobile self-absorbed scenesters)(meow)–but the problem (if you want to call it that, and I’m not sure I do) is that the trailer let us know that the first attack would come during the party. So the lead up to that moment felt long, perhaps because I was on edge waiting for the first roar and rumble. What also felt long the first time around was a scene in a subway station, which, paradoxically, was the lone moment when I did feel real empathy for these characters–when Rob’s cellphone rings and it’s his mom and he has to break the news to her that his brother Jason just died in the monster’s attack on the Brooklyn Bridge. Similar to the party scene, I knew as soon as they went down there that those dog-sized monsters were gonna show up and it wasn’t until they decided that they were gonna walk the tunnel to the stop near where Beth’s apartment building was that I knew when and where the confrontation would happen. So, like the opening sequences, expectation kept me both on edge and impatient for the melodrama to make way. The second time I saw the film, I didn’t mind those sequences, though. I think the reason why they work (at least, for me) is because I don’t want yet another relentless monster-in-every-frame movie. I think the creature was much scarier (again, for me) because the filmmakers didn’t overload the film with it. So when it did show up, sheeyit, the adrenaline rush lifted me right outta my seat!

But the biggest complaint I have heard is about the ending. It seems that the average movie-goer (or, at least, the target audience of this film–probably males in their mid- to late-teens and twenties) wants resolution. (Umm, I mentioned this is produced by the same guy who produces “L O S T”, right?) The happier, the better. Well, tough shit. Y’ain’t gonna get that here. Personally, I love a dark, bleak, hopeless ending. So I was pretty (perversely) happy with this one. 😉

Sadly, though, the film’s ending leaves the door pretty clearly open for a sequel. (Much as I enjoyed this film, I hate sequels just as much.) Director Matt Reeves has already hinted at the possibility. And, at Comic Con last year, talking about Godzilla, JJ Abrams said ‘We need our own monster.’ And we all know Godzilla certainly wasn’t a one-off… So has the record-breaking $41 million opening weekend spawned a new monster-movie franchise? Stupid question.

→ originally published 2008-01-21

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