12/1/07

R056 Cloverfield

(2008, Horror-Giant Critter, color)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy

It seems real, ‘cause it’s shot so poorly.

Rating: **

In a nutshell:

A moron’s home movies of a Manhattan monster attack.

Summary:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled monsters yearning to eat hipsters.Snippets of shaky home movies show us the blooming relationship of young Manhattan couple Rob and Beth, as they wake up together, eat breakfast, and plan to go to Coney Island. We get as far as the train to Coney Island before Rob’s brother Jason starts taping over it in preparation for Rob’s going away party, as he’s accepted a job in Japan and will be leaving shortly.

Jason quickly gets bored with this (much to the annoyance of his girlfriend Lily), and hands off the title of Party Documentarian to Hud, a husky, wispy-whiskered manchild reminiscent of an overlarge puppy in that he has a similar temperament and even less sense. The video camera’s eyepiece remains glued to his face for most of the rest of the film.

Hud wanders the party getting testimonials, spreading rumors, documenting Rob’s messy breakup with Beth, and recording Jason’s half-hearted attempts to console Rob after Beth has left in a huff. Suddenly, the ground begins to shake. Everyone rushes to the roof just in time to see something explode over the horizon, sending large, flaming shrapnel high into the air. The camera jerks and dips uncontrollably as Hud and company run down the stairs to the street. Everyone leaps out of the way as the Statue of Liberty’s head rolls towards them like a bowling ball.

The ground begins to shake again. Buildings begin to fall. Rob, Hud, Jason and Lily take shelter from the debris in a convenience store. When the rumbling stops, they venture out to find fellow party-goer Marlena, now wandering the street covered in dust. They decide to walk out of the city by way of the Brooklyn Bridge. They’re halfway across when Rob’s cellphone rings. It’s Beth. She’s trapped in her apartment and needs help. While they’re talking, something mostly unseen looms out of the water to snap the bridge in half. Rob, Lily, Marlena and Hud run back into the city. Jason was too close to the center of the bridge and presumably falls to his death.

Everyone mourns Jason, and then Rob tries to call Beth again. He can’t; his cell battery’s dead. He breaks into an electronics store to steal a new one. (Why the new cell battery comes out of its packaging fully charged is not explained.) It is here that we get our first good look at the monster via newsfeed on the display televisions. It’s big, long-limbed and angry, kind of like a giant, naked crustacean. News footage shows dog-sized parasites dropping away from its skin to attack the military and the news crew.

Rob fires up his cell phone again, and gets a message from Beth that makes it sound like she’s dying. He determines to find his way to her apartment and rescue her. Rather than do something sensible (like find another way out of the city) the others decide to help him.

Their attempt at an overland route is interrupted when they end up sandwiched between the monster and the military. They duck into the sewer and decide to walk along the tracks to Beth’s apartment instead, using the video camera’s built-in headlight to guide them. (How the camera has managed to last this long without recharging is not explained. Also, Hud walks along behind filming everyone instead of walking in front, where the man with the only light ought to be.) The underground adventure goes awry when the aforementioned dog-sized parasites attack. Hud doggedly holds the camera to his face throughout, even when the parasites have knocked him down and are ready to commence devouring him. Marlena saves him from his own stupidity, and gets bitten for her trouble.

Someone's about to see her own intestines.They hide inside a subway station room, breaking into a soda machine for bottled water to wash Marlena’s wounds. They eventually emerge into a department store strewn with body parts. The military intercepts them at this point and tries to evacuate them from the city while Rob explains that he has to rescue his girlfriend. The argument comes to a stop when Marlena starts bleeding from the eyes. Military personnel rush her into medical tent, where the parasite’s venom makes her explode.

A sympathetic sergeant takes them aside and tells them how to get to Beth’s apartment, when and where the last choppers will leave, and that if they don’t make it in time, they’ll be obliterated along with the rest of the city when The Powers That Be execute “Operation Hammer-Down” (presumably a nuclear strike) in an effort to stop the beast.

They finally reach Beth’s building, now leaning against another high-rise. They climb the adjacent building, then cross over to the angled skyscraper’s roof, and then down to Beth’s apartment. She’s still alive, but can’t move due to the rebar sticking through her shoulder. Hud puts the camera down long enough to help Lily and Rob lift her out of the wreckage. Somehow, Beth is okay to walk. They kill a parasite with a fire axe on their way back to the choppers.

Lily gets away in the first chopper. Hud, Rob and Beth get away in the subsequent chopper. From the air, they witness the army’s last-ditch efforts to bring the beast down before deploying “Operation Hammer-Down.” The artillery only succeeds in irritating the monster into leaping up into the air to swat down the helicopter. It crash-lands in the park, where everyone survives with minor scrapes. Even Rob’s crushed leg (they have to yank him out of the wreckage) only results in a minor limp.

Hud drops the camera while they run across the field, but stops to go back for it. This turns out to be undoing. He pans up to see the creature standing above him. It leans down, and then the camera jerks wildly and lands next to Hud’s mangled corpse. Rob recovers the camera and runs with Beth to hide beneath a bridge until the creature passes. They say their names to the camera and confess their undying love before the bombs fall and cover the camera in rubble.

Now that taping has stopped, we see the last little bit of Rob and Beth’s previously recorded adventure at Coney Island. Beth’s last line is, “I had a great day.”

Titles at the beginning and end indicate that the tape was found afterwards by the military and quickly classified. How the tape is supposed to have survived the EMP blast of the nuclear strike is not explained.

Thoughts:

Who could forget the classic 'Holding the Door Shut' scene, a staple of horror films from every era.If the above sounds stupid to you, well, that’s because it is. To its credit, the movie bypasses most of the silliness and stupidity inherent in a Giant Critter film by focusing on the relatively realistic reactions of a small group of ordinary people. The original Night of the Living Dead used this approach to great effect as well. It’s a good way to freshen up a tired horror genre, as it puts the viewer so close to the action that they don’t have time to consider the big picture, or anything beyond moment-to-moment survival for that matter.

Where Cloverfield diverges from the other, better film I just mentioned is in its gimmicky format and the way it constantly breaks its own rules. Yes, the home movie format bothered me, and not because of the shakiness. (Though I can see how it would have if I were at all susceptible to motion sickness. Cloverfield would be altogether unwatchable for people who get carsick on windy drives, even on the small screen.) What bothers me is Hud’s dogged insistence on filming everything even at the cost of his own life and the lives of his friends. It makes no narrative sense.

Moving the focus of your film to an intimate group neatly sidesteps any question of monster plausibility, but it makes the realism requirements for that group all the more stringent. Having your characters talk in a semi-improvised mumblecore style raises that bar even further. Things that no one would bat an eye at in a classic eighties-style action film raise eyebrows here, such as the way Rob walked away from that chopper crash with both legs still functional, or the way Beth survived an entire day with a piece of rebar through her chest, or the way no one punched Hud and took away his camera within the first ten minutes of the film.

Mike, Bill and Kevin do their darndest to punch this sucker up. In the festive beginning sequences, Mike notes, “Sign of a really bad party: someone yelling ‘Party!’” As our heroes do their best to find their way out of the city, Kevin flashes back to his MST3K days, reminding everyone in the street to “LEAVE THE BRONX!” After Marlena explodes, Lily asks Hud if he’s okay. Bill replies for him, “As long as I can keep taping no matter what happens and against all logic, I’ll be okay.” Kevin’s mournful rendition of the Weiner Man song and Bill’s Ken Burns-style narration of the leaning skyscraper adventure are good for laughs as well, but it wasn’t enough to make me like this film. Cloverfield spent too much of its time frustrating and baffling me. Too many long sequences are taken up by characters who talk incessantly without really saying anything, forcing the Rifftrax crew to talk over the top of them so that I can’t really listen to either. Oh well, at least it’s short.