Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Cloverfield: the director's cut DVD is going to be tricky

Thanks to good marketing and my unfounded faith in JJ Abrams, I was kind of looking forward to Cloverfield.

And it's not a bad film, it's just that there's a lot less to it than I was hoping for. Quite where this kind of optimism comes from after three seasons of Lost and the general WTF? inspired by most of Alias after the first couple of seasons, I really don't know.

By this stage in the film's life cycle, I'm not too worried about throwing in spoilers (and let's leave to one side the vanishingly small chance that anyone who cares is going to read this before they see the movie). And anyhow, the film itself doesn't really worry about spoilers; the first thing it tells you is that it's footage found in Central Park. So anyone with an-above-room-temperature IQ has to figure that either no-one gets out alive, or that we don't know whether anyone gets out alive because the camera stayed behind when the possible survivors legged it. So it's not exactly giving the game away to say that the cast doesn't make it. The camera does, but through one of the great marketing ironies of our time, the camera itself is never seen and thus the manufacturer can't get the credit for making a camera which runs forever on one battery, has a perfect night vision mode and has a built in spotlight which can light up the New York subway system without draining the battery flat and survives being in New York when it gets blown up by what is implicitly a H bomb. What the camera can't do is get us to care much about the characters.

Which is what is wrong with the movie, more or less. It's built around a gimmick that not only isn't enough in its own right, but gets in the way of the movie working as more than an experiment. The actors are doing their best, but stuck with the trick of having to talk to the camera with the action behind them, there's not a hell of a lot they can do. Maybe the director's cut will have a mixed media version which opens the thing out a bit, but really shooting a whole movie with one camera (and then post fixing it to look like handycam footage) is a bit like staging a play on a bare stage with a slot for the audience to look in through. It's a nice trick for a few minutes, but after a while it's just getting in the way.

I find myself wondering if the original plan was to piece a bigger film together from a lot of "found cameras" and this got shot down by Abrams and his obsession with characters the viewer can identify with. This is usually a good idea, but it's not necessarily the right way to go here. Partly because the cast doesn't have the charisma to set the characters up quickly enough, partly because the point of view of a single camera isn't really enough to let us get a full picture of the chaos and confusion which is what the movie is all about.

Ultimately, Cloverfield is a clever exercise which doesn't really work as a film, because it doesn't really work as narrative. The characters never really figure out what's going on, and so neither can we, since all we see is what they see. It's clear that a monster is eating New York, but why, from whence it came, and what happens to it in the end are all left hanging. This says something about the human condition, but it's a something which can only be said at the expense of conventional narrative and an engaging movie.

There are thrills along the way; the core cast go off to rescue one of the early characters in a wrecked skyscraper and the rescue is clever; one building has toppled into another and they have to go up the solid one until they get to a point where they can cross over into the tilted stack of the other. Nice idea, fairly well executed. But as I sit here thinking about it, it's like someone got hold of the ideas in The Host and in 28 Weeks Later, and then kept only the bits which would stop you from caring much about what happened next. Which makes for a disappointing movie overall.

But like I say, there are ALL KINDS of opportunities for the DVD to flesh out the experience. Going on the movie itself, I'd say they will leave all those opportunities right there on the floor. Next stop Cloverfield 2? Maybe this time they can find a way to product place the camera.

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