The biggest surprise about Cloverfield -- the new monster thriller opening today from Alias and Lost creator-producer J.J. Abrams, directed by his former partner on Felicity Matt Reeves -- is that for the first time in recent memory (if not ever), a January release doesn't royally suck. In fact, Cloverfield is surprisingly (to me, at least) pretty incredible -- a throwback, of sorts, to the classic sci-fi monster films of the 1950s mixed with a DIY, Blair Witch influenced narrative technique and an early 21st century sociological sensibility.
The fact that I just described the film's biggest shock as being simply not sucking while getting a release date generally reserved for films that studios know are bad -- throw aways that won't compete too hard against all the potential awards season releases opening wider and getting audience boosts thanks to nominations and wins -- is not a criticism of the movie itself in any way. In fact, one reason Cloverfield is so good is because it remains thoroughly gripping even though none of the big plot "twists" really come as much of a surprise. The film opens with a note on screen mentioning that the following tape was found in an area of New York formerly known as "Central Park." That one sentence alone seriously limits what is even possible in terms of the story's conclusion. And yet, even as what-happens-next is regularly more than apparent, the film is so well crafted that it continuously thrills even if it doesn't always surprise.
Personally, I'm going to give much of the credit to Reeves. I'm not one of the main members of the JJ Abrams fan club. I've watched each of his series -- except Six Degrees -- semi-religiously, but I find that he comes up with such great ideas for twists that he often jumps out of the bounds of reality within the very worlds he creates in the first place. He certainly did not prove himself to be a great film director with either Mission: Impossible 3 -- really nothing more than a glorified, big budget and not all that interesting big screen episode of Alias.
Cloverfield -- which Abrams produced but did not direct -- is, by contrast, a generally fantastic example of cinematic economy. The film itself -- minus end credits -- runs just over 70 minutes long. It feels neither too long nor too short. With the small exception of ending a couple minutes after the film probably should, there is not really one extraneous moment. It moves along at a pretty quick pace, keeping the audience in a primarily breath-holding, seat-gripping, edge-sitting position for the vast majority of it's final 50-60 minutes -- once the shit really starts flying.
But what makes Cloverfield a great film is that it is, in fact, a brainy one. One of my favorites of 2007 was the Korean monster movie The Host from director Bong Joon-ho (my original 2006 NYFF review is here. Bong's achievement went far beyond simply having a monster run around town stomping on people; his film presents an allegory tremendously critical of U.S. imperialism, international intervention and the Iraq war as well as Korean complacency and paranoia.
During the mid-20th Century, Hollywood sci-fi and monster films of both the A and B variety -- titles such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, Them! -- were a not-so-thinly veiled result of the Red Scare. The aliens and monsters were the communists, and the U.S. -- especially personified by regular, hard-working citizens with the support of the government but not because of them -- would usually manage to triumph over the evil enemy.
But we now live in a post-Vietnam and post-9/11 age. Our fears, and therefore our monsters, are scarier, more spontaneous, less calculating and seemingly impossible to find and destroy. So The Host comes from Korea and the U.S. produces Cloverfield.
The allusions to the 9/11 attacks are anything but veiled. When the monster starts attacking New York, the first thing beheaded is the Statue of Liberty, i.e., liberty itself. Meanwhile, the shocked and usually apathetic New Yorkers become momentarily oblivious to the destruction and damage around them to take camera phone pictures of the disembodied statue's head.
The "attack" happens out of nowhere. The people we're following are having a fun time at a going away party, with individuals concerned about their own problems and lives -- are they petty? Doesn't matter -- before being shocked into a new, chaotic reality. Nobody knows what's going on, and in the first minutes, everything is confusing. The monster attacks lower Manhattan first. There are explosions and fireballs. A rolling huge plume of smoke starts coming down the street and people run screaming away from it. Is this imagery too much? For some, it may be, but it's exactly this personal flashback for the audience and the discomfort it may cause that is the film's goal.
Cloverfield is not a happy movie nor a necessarily triumphant one. But the halcyon days of the United States disappeared during the era of Vietnam and Watergate. As much as many in our country like to believe in our invincibility, these days, an even greater percentage likely feel helpless against an "enemy" constantly presented as a thoughtless rampaging creature whose only goal is destruction, and against whom there may not be any true defense. The pessimistic pseudo-apocalyptic outlook presented here is at best a rarity among major Hollywood studio films (and Cloverfield's relatively modest budget does not make it any less a big studio film when coming from Paramount and Abrams' Bad Robot). Even pictures like I Am Legend or 2006's brilliant Children of Men present half-full conclusions that leave the audience with a smidgen of hope regardless of the rest of the film's bleakness. The relative degree of hope versus despair at the end of Cloverfield will be something that audience members might see in different manners, and yet, the film certainly does not argue for a triumphant ending.
Cloverfield isn't for everyone, but it also isn't your average sci-fi thrill-ride with little else to it even if it may appear as such. It sets out to do something very specific, and while not perfect, overall it succeeds magnificently, with the added benefit of never being afraid to add a wee bit of humor at regular intervals to break the tension but without ever overdoing it so it feels unnatural or annoying.
I'm writing this less than two hours after seeing the film. Will Cloverfield stick with me in a similar manner to The Host? I'm guessing not. Although Cloverfield works very well on several levels, it's symbolism and representations are still fairly obvious, at least more so than The Host. But who cares? What Abrams, Reeves and scribe Drew Goddard have done here is pretty remarkable in today's movie market -- made a monster movie with no stars and a relatively small budget that has to make its debut during the doldrums of January, and made it better than possibly any American monster thriller made in recent memory.