Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Epically Personal

The monster-as-metaphor method of filmmaking is a time-tested practice, dating back to the original Gojira (1954) and spanning to the very recent, The Host (2007). While giant creatures usually wield an arsenal of biting (ha!) sociopolitical commentary on such varied topics as atomic energy, war crimes, sexuality, nationalism, and pollution, the J.J. Abrams produced, unconventional box-office smash, Cloverfield, takes the monster metaphor and shrinks it down to a very personal, almost interior allegory. Though the relationship between the film’s dazzlingly special-effected action sequences and the attacks of 9/11 is obvious and much discussed, it takes a back seat to the original and fresh use of a monster-movie to detail the trajectory of a romance that isn’t particularly witnessed on-screen, except in the symbolic havoc created by the truly horrifying beast.

Cloverfield begins with a home movie of a couple, Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) and Beth McIntyre (Odette Yustman), playfully talking as a post-sex glow illuminates their hot-ass faces. The footage, helmed by Rob, eventually morphs to display a different event, a going-away party for Rob held a few weeks later, who has recently received a high-level job in Japan. Constantly inter-cut with the footage of the party (and the rest of the film) is the continuation of the Rob and Beth home movie, which involves a trip to Coney Island and other pleasantries. During Rob’s party, his friend Hud (T.J. Miller) is put it charge of the camera and remains the film’s cameraman and commentator throughout the visceral destruction that crashes Rob’s party. Not surprisingly, Beth has grown distant from Rob as a result of his leaving and seeming lack of concern for her needs, and the tension mounts throughout the party, culminating in a heart-to-heart-to-heart between Rob, his brother Jason (Mike Vogel), and Hud on the balcony. As the conversation comes to a close, Jason gives the significant brotherly advice that Rob should stop thinking about his job and start worrying about the people he cares about, presumably Beth. Immediately after Jason finishes speaking, the shit hits the fan and the crazy-armed, spider-demon shedding monster starts whacking Statue of Liberty heads across Manhattan and stomping buildings.

Aside from the incredibly scary and sensationally effective non-stop action that follows, Cloverfield is notable for the metaphorical link between the monster’s arrival and Rob and Beth’s relationship. Most important in this allegory is the permeation the Japan/Godzilla association into cultural mythology. In a fascinating, possibly unintentional move by screenwriter Drew Goddard, Cloverfield seems to use this associational mythology to relate, through an exciting action film, the impact of Rob’s move to Japan on his connection to Beth. Revealed in the final shot of the film, a flashback to the Coney Island trip, something falls from the sky, hardly visible, that is presumably the creature, notably the monster arrives as the two kindle their romance. Their fated separation seems star-crossed and comes in the form of an alien creature, which apparently matures during the period of their estrangement before Rob’s party. The creature finally attacks at the angry collapse of their relationship, just after Rob’s brother nails it home that Rob is making a mistake. Does the monster then come to symbolize Rob’s misgivings regarding Japan and the negative impact his move will have on his love for Beth? The remainder of the film seems to suggest so.

After the monster-thwarted attempt by Rob, Hud, and assorted other hipster party friends to leave Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge, Rob realizes that he must save Beth, who is trapped in her apartment building in the heart of Manhattan. As Rob ventures to save Beth, it becomes clear that the monster (the physical representation of his move to Japan) has inspired him to repair his romance with Beth. The allegory is continued throughout the film, although I’ll not detail exactly how for spoiler reasons, forming an interesting and complex take of monster metaphors, told through the most personal of visual media, the home movie. The film displays the personal both in form, style, and content in this way, creating a large, involving narrative that is really, just about two people in love, rather than using two people in love to relate a huge social issue, as in many tragic romances. The use of a single tape, constantly recorded over and spliced into other footage also creates an excellent memory aesthetic, furthering the film’s deeply personal significance. The editing used to merge all of the footage in Cloverfield, as well as to uphold the film’s blistering pace, is phenomenal, and editor Kevin Stitt deserves as much credit as possible for making Cloverfield as intense and cohesive as it is. Likewise, Michael Bonvillian’s inventive, at times insanely tough to watch, cinematography is remarkable in its energy and avoidance of redundancy.

With competent performances and mature direction by Matt Reeves, Cloverfield explores the power of the personal in its thrilling, fresh monster allegory. A masterpiece of digital cinematography and impeccable in its editing, the film is engaging and challenging, like an 84 minute Godzilla film directed by Stan Brakhage. Most importantly, the film is a narrative experiment, utilizing symbols and imagination to carve a romantic arc that never allows viewers to leave the edge of their seat.

by Brandon Colvin


Nostalgia Kinky said...

I have been on the fence about this film but will definately give it a look...great write up.

Brandon Colvin said...

Thanks for the comment, Jeremy, as always.

Apparently, "Cloverfield" is despised by many, as most of the people I've talked to who saw it didn't like it NEARLY as much as I did. There is this particularly visceral helicopter scene toward the end that is the most spot-on depiction of the car crash I experienced a few years ago that I will probably ever see. It was so terrifying it put a lump in my throat.

Anonymous said...

I found the film exhilarating, and enjoyed it on a pure visceral level. The main problems I had were with the characters, as I found them extremely unlikeable and was happy to see each and every one of them perish.

At the end of the day, I'd say it was a fun theatrical experience, but have a hard time seeing this hold up on repeat viewings.

Oh, and like you mentioned, that helicopter scene is successful in capturing the intensity of the moment.