I was really looking forward to this one. I mean, how could I not want to see a movie about a giant monster rampaging through a city, shot by someone actually experiencing the event? I love monster movies. I love cool, “experimental” (I can’t come to terms with the term) ideas. I still think The Blair Witch Project was an amazing movie. And yet, Cloverfield , proceeding from the same basic concept (a horror you can barely see, documented by the actual characters) is almost a complete failure.
And yet the concept is so good! Underneath the monster story there is actually a love story, and as the movie develops we realize that’s what’s it’s actually all about. That is good. In fact, it’s fantastic. One of my favourite movies of all time, The Village, is very much like that (and totally underrated precisely because people go in to watch a horror movie and can’t take the genre shift).
So why doesn’t Cloverfield work for me? Here’s a whole bunch of reasons.
- Most of the characters are idiots, especially the guy with the camera. At the very long party scene in the beginning, almost nobody is likeable. And Hud (camera dude), is a total moron with the emotional and moral complexity of a pre-schooler. It’s very hard to care for people so superficial that they might as well be made out of paper. Only Michael Stahl-David as Rob Hawkins, the man trying to get to his ex-girlfriend, is an interesting character.
- The behaviour of the characters, especially Hud, is completely unrealistic. Hud spends most of his time annoying the fuck out of the other characters (and the audience) by pointing his camera at them and asking how they feel. While this could be played as a reaction to his fear, it just comes across as annoying. It’s not the actor’s fault – it’s the writing. Would Hud really be behaving like that after the girl he’s supposedly in love with exploded? (More on that later.)
- Nobody has any meaningful conversations. They either run around or just get annoyed by Hud. They talk about what to do, but never about what’s going on. It’s just like an episode of Lost. I mean, there’s a GIANT MONSTER out there, doesn’t anybody wonder about what it is? Only Hud says anything about the subject at all, and as always the others just ignore him. Besides, what he says is mostly played for laughs. (Come to think of it, this is a *lot* like Lost.)
- The camerawork is completely unrealistic. Even the most inexperienced amateur can use a digital camera more sensibly. I’m fine with all the shaking when they’re running away, but Hud can’t even film the party that opens the film without making it look like a war movie.
- The city doesn’t look real. I think it’s mostly the lighting, which often is too professional; it all feels too slick, which in turn conflicts with the crappy camerawork. What the film needed was essentially a Dogme approach and look. I hate Dogme’s guts, but here it would’ve been appropriate. The film should look rough.
- There is no proper introduction to the characters. The entire beginning of the movie is too chaotic not only for us to become attached to anyone, but also to be able to tell them apart in a meaningful way. Sure, once a bunch of them have been killed off – with barely any reactions from the others, apart from Rob – it’s fairly easy to tell them apart, but this still means that the all the deaths in the beginning have no impact.
- Irrational behaviour, again. Why does Marlena, the girl Hud’s got the hots for, join the group in its attempt to rescue Rob’s beloved? She doesn’t know any of them, in fact she seems to find Hud quite annoying. There is NO reason for her to do this, other than for the script wanting it. I really don’t understand why this was written as it was; it would be so easy to do it any other way.
- This one’s a biggie: monster design! The monster sucks. We barely get to see it, which I suppose is part of the idea; but given that it’s almost as big as a skyscraper, even the worst cameraman should be able to get a decent shot of it. But that’s not design, that’s presentation. The design is the real problem. It’s boring. Dull. Featureless. A big grey blob with legs and bendy arm-thingies. What’s the deal with all the sloppy CGI these days? The thing had no presence, no weight. No decent textures, either. Everyone complains about George Lucas but nobody knows how to do CGI half as well as Lucas and his brilliant people.
- What about the monster’s origin and purpose? No, it doesn’t have to be explained in the actual movie, but the people making the movie need to have some concept of what it is, to lend its behaviour some consistency. I didn’t get that impression at all here. I mean, sure, the monster’s only purpose can be destruction – but even then it has to do this in a specific way, and to have reasons for what it does that are reflected in its behaviour. Take The Mist, a brilliantly underrated movie with some truly terrifying creatures. There you get a real sense that the creozoids are part of some ecosystem, that they have reasons for behaving as they do. In Cloverfield, the monster feels like nothing more than a cinematic device.
- Yeah, I have even more to say about the monster. Considering the fact that they wanted it to be really dangerous and scary, it’s pretty bloody useless. I mean, what does it do? It’s this big ugly blob that walks around and crushes a few buildings – not that many, actually. It doesn’t do anything cool. It doesn’t feel unstoppable. In fact, it’s not quite clear why it’s so hard to take out; again, a cinematic device rather than realism.
- The other powerful weapon the monster has is that it drops mini-monsters, spidery crab-thingies about a metre or so in size, that run around and eat people. Now these could be scary, but they have the same problems as their mommy: they’re badly designed, inconsistent, and pointless. In one scene, the characters are attacked by a fairly large group of these beasties, and manage to do some serious damage to the monsters before getting away. In another scene, they beat one of these creatures to death quite easily. If you can easily beat them to death with a stick they must be pretty wimpy, right? But the army, with soldiers and machine guns and tanks, can’t deal with them at all and just gets butchered. WTF?
- Also, what are the mini-monsters meant to do? In one scene, Hud’s love interest is bitten by one of them, and a little while later she starts bleeding from her eyes, until a soldier takes her to a place behind a strategically lit tent, where she EXPLODES. Hud doesn’t seem to care much, and after filming all this he doesn’t really seem to think about it much, either. That’s dumb enough, but the question I have is WHY DID SHE EXPLODE? It’s not like something came out of her, Alien-style (or at least we didn’t see anything anywhere in the movie). It’s so… gratuitous. And none of the other main characters explode, even though they are hurt by the creatures. The impression we get is of the writer sitting there, thinking to himself “Wouldn’t it be totally freaky if she like…. exploded? That’s it, she’ll totally explode! Awesome!” So it just happens, completely out of any meaningful context. I suppose this could be a species of monster that has evolved over the millennia just to have that one cool scene… but that’s stretching credibility a little, isn’t it?
- The movie does nothing with the handheld camera concept except use it as an excuse for being sloppy. And there is so much that you could do! I mean, think about it: what we have is a first-person movie. So what about all the tricks a writer can use with that kind of perspective? How about a scene in which the characters are suddenly attacked by beasties, there’s a cut, we see them running, they escape, the on-camera characters talk for a while… then the guy behind the camera says something and we suddenly realize that it’s someone else! (Obviously, you would then have to talk about the other character’s death. Cloverfield kinda forgets this stuff sometimes.) Or have them use the camera for something other than recording – looking around corners, zooming in to see what’s going on further ahead, that kind of thing.
- The camera is used twice in such a way, though. At one point, the characters have decided to use a subway tunnel to get where they’re going. (There’s a brilliantly ridiculous scene where they are overtaken by fleeing rats, and their reaction is basically “Hmm, fleeing rats. Do you think that might indicate something bad is happening at the other end of the tunnel?” “Nah.”) Since they can’t see anything, they turn on the camera’s light, which is bright enough for everyone to be able to see. Now there may be cameras with lights that strong, and I’m sure that in the future this wouldn’t be a big deal, but with the technology we currently have the movie should’ve ended five minutes after that with a “battery low” symbol. In a slightly better sequence, the characters turn on the camera’s night vision mode, only to discover a bunch of beasties right on top of them. While conceptually cool, the scene also feels terribly forced.
All in all, Cloverfield suffers from not being properly thought out, and from not taking advantage of its concept at all. What’s really depressing, though, is that Diary of the Dead will be compared to this movie, and will not be appreciated – despite the fact that Romero’s work has always been funny, intellectually challenging and well-made.