Thursday, October 14, 2010

Throwback Review - Cloverfield (2008)

When J.J. Abrams and the boys of Bad Robot unleashed the onslaught of Cloverfield fanboy marketing on us, I was one of those fans eager to drink the kool aid. I dug the mystery, the ingenuity of the presentation. And when I finally saw the film itself, I was enthralled by the experience. Watching this film in a theater full of people excited for it to succeed… there was a special sort of energy there, and it carried over to my review.

Looking back at it now, in the wake of director Matt Reeves success with Let Me In, I’m almost embarrassed by the unhinged praise I myself unleashed – the glowing positivity is almost blinding.

I dubbed it “a huge it… maybe the biggest the month of January has ever seen”. I described it as “gripping, thrilling, disturbing, terrifying, enthralling, exciting and 100% grade A geek-boy fun.” And I basically praised it as a movie made by the people, for the people, and to be cherished by the people.

Two years later, history holds the film in a more moderate light. I was right about a couple things of course – the talents of Matt Reeves, the uniqueness in the film’s approach, and the film’s overall financial success – with a $40 million dollar haul in it’s opening weekend, Cloverfield still holds the record for biggest January release, earned $80millon domestically and $170 million worldwide (yay me…and more importantly, yay them).

But the reaction to the film has been decidedly “meh”. As a critic, you can’t take back the things you write. You can only do your best to be honest in the moment, and maybe reserve the right to change your mind later. I haven’t seen Cloverfield since that night, but I stand by the following words (is somewhat sheepishly), and the work of director Matt Reeves...

Cloverfield. Originally it was supposed to be a code name, a false title named for the Santa Monica street that supplied office space for the clever little minds of Bad Robot to meet and plan for their next-millennium media domination. It was the safe zone for head honcho J.J. Abrams and the people behind surreptitious pop phenoms like Lost, Alias and the upcoming cinematic re-launch of Star Trek. Fittingly, the title stuck, as Cloverfield is the very definition of what, a Bad Robot production can accomplish.

Cloverfield is more than just a movie. It’s an interactive experience, the calling card for a teasingly obsessive brand of entertainment. It’s Top Secret, and all the more fun for it. For months, neo-trendy pop addicts have indulged in an internet-based viral marketing campaign with trailers, webgames, fake Myspace pages, fake international businesses – an entire falsified universe surrounding a film with a plot that few knew anything about. We were given a teaser in which the Statue of Liberty’s head was ripped off and thrown to the streets of NYC. Obviously this was to be a monster movie. Right? Godzilla, maybe? Aliens? Oprah?

I’m not going to spoil the surprise (except to say it probably isn’t Oprah), or give you anything, really, that you can’t find online in a fake blog from a fake character who may or may not still have his or her fake life. What I will tell you is this: Cloverfield is gripping, thrilling, disturbing, terrifying, enthralling, exciting and 100% grade A geek-boy fun. Yes, it is a monster movie, but it is has the guts to be unlike any monster movie you’ve ever seen, and the determination to maintain that mission statement, even at cost of story or audience satisfaction.

You will never see anything in this film that wasn’t shot on a hand held video camera by one of the characters experiencing the drama. There are no cutaways to political or military forces. There is no coda. You experience THEIR experience. That the filmmakers (J.J. go-to-guy director Matt Reeves and co.) pull this off without much yearning for more – and without the film feeling like a Blair Witch gimmick – is a testament to how strong a creative force this project really is.

And I’ll tell you another thing – it’s gonna be a huge hit. Maybe the biggest the month of January has ever seen. People will be talking about this movie, from the target male demographic (and the thrill-seeking girls that accompany them – the Movie Gal latched onto my arm 20 minutes in and DID NOT LET GO) – to the older fans who played with plastic Godzillas growing up, and most people in between.

Why? Well, in addition to the film’s quality production, it benefits from an ability to tap into the American psyche with accuracy and finesse. This is post 9/11 NYC, and it’s under attack. Under siege, really, by unforeseeable forces beyond the control of the people who live there. The “monster” angle allows for a certain amount of disconnection (necessary, if we are to enjoy this as a popcorn flick). But we all know what’s on each other’s mind as this movie unfolds before us.

The Godzilla franchise came to be post-Hiroshima, born out of a national fear of big city disaster and catastrophe. It was something everybody could relate to, something they could experience in unity. The monster was a symbol, a representative of a new era. And as such the creature became a beloved figure, not only in Japan, but across the world.

The “monster” in Cloverfield is not Godzilla, but it represents a similar global anxiety.

So kudos to the folks at Bad Robot who were smart enough to realize this. And more kudos for pursuing a distinctively creative and artistic all-media endeavor as opposed to simply cashing in on our fears. For the most important, most appealing aspect of Cloverfield is the aspect that gives it its soul – Cloverfield is a movie for the people, made by the people, and to be loved by, the people.

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