In Hollywood, that “bigger is better” is a matter of faith. Giant robots, massive explosions, and towering villains rule the summer box office. Calling a star “larger than life” is a compliment. Bloated budgets are touted as symbols of greatness. The film industry thrives on excess, or at least its appearance, always trying to inflate the cinematic balloon a little larger than the one before. Size, they tell us, really does matter. But while Hollywood bigwigs compete to outdo each others, other forces are pulling in the opposite direction. Portable movie-watching devices and ubiquitous online content has pushed video in the opposite direction: small, hastily assembled, and careless.
Producer J. J. Abrams seems to have kept an eye on both of these trends, for he seeks to unite them in Cloverfield, a giant monster movie composed entirely of simulated home-video footage. A mostly amusing, mostly forgettable romp through the wilds of a creature-occupied Manhattan, it’s as much a buzzy trend piece as a classical theatrical experience. At once high concept, high tech, and low-fi, it’s a big-screen blockbuster for the YouTube age.
This being a home video, the film begins with a party, which we see through footage shot by a guy winkingly named “Hud” (H.U.D. being an acronym for “Heads Up Display”). At the pleasantly outfitted downtown loft, a cadre of conspicuously cool Manhattanites — the sort of stubbly mid-twenty-somethings who buy their indie aesthetic at Banana Republic — sip beers and chatter about their relationship troubles, presumably unaware that there’s a monster on the loose, and equally unaware that everyone in the audience is impatiently waiting for it to start gobbling up middle-class hipsters.
Now, it’s commonly understood that although many people videotape their parties, no one ever goes back to watch them. Cloverfield reminds us why. Shaky camera work and boozy conversations mixed with not-so-clever-as-you-think snarky remarks are hardly a thrill to watch when you actually know the people on screen, and even less so when you don’t. The movie’s commitment to verisimilitude might be commendable, but it doesn’t change the fact that homemade party videos are the modern equivalent of slideshows of someone else’s vacation.
Fortunately, a story eventually starts to develop. Unfortunately, it matters, well, pretty much not at all. The monster, a lizard-like sea-beast who spawns miniature beasties as it tromps through midtown, eventually attacks, and a handful of the characters from the party spend the rest of the film traipsing from the Lower East Side up to Columbus Circle. Most of the film is episodic, a series of miniature adventures in which the characters face off against the monster and various other obstacles on their way to rescue a friend trapped in her park-view high rise.
It’s generally good, shameless fun, fast-paced and to the point (it’s less than 90 minutes long). There’s nothing groundbreaking here — is anyone really surprised to find mini-monsters in the 6-train tunnel? — and, as one might expect, running and screaming are the order of the day. Fortunately our heroes are young and fit, and seem to have little difficulty dodging chunks of debris in high heels and dress shoes. New Yorkers, it seems, are always willing to suffer for fashion.
The setting, however, undermines the aura of horror-specked frivolity. No doubt, it would be tough to make a film like this without raising the specter of 9/11. Cloverfield tries, but can’t really help it. A falling building produces a familiar rushing wall of smoke and debris. Television news footage announces that “New York is under attack.” It’s an awkward balance at times, as the film falls back on 9/11 imagery while attempting to tiptoe around the subject those images raise. The found-footage gimmick doesn’t help either. Adding a veneer of false realism is never the best way to distract someone from actual reality.
That said, the realism has its limits. As the film wears on and the danger increases, the found-footage gimmick becomes increasingly difficult to believe. That it stays on through their various encounters with the skyscraper-sized creature is difficult enough to swallow; that Hud is constantly turning back toward the monster while it is chasing him is even less so.
Producer J.J. Abrams, who made his name with the phenomenally addictive television shows Alias and Lost, has always been one for the gimmick — found footage and potential conspiracies, mysteries of science and magic. His specialty is the puzzle-box techno-fantasy in which day-to-day realities coexist alongside spooky, spectacular circumstances.
Yet the gimmicks he employs to draw viewers in rarely pay off. Case in point, Cloverfield’s marketing. The movie garnered much of its buzz when the first trailer was released without a title or a clear description of the premise. Rumors circulated about possible storylines and titles that Abrams might be hiding, and it was reported that the studio “code name” for the project was Cloverfield, giving rise to even more speculation about what the “real” title might be, and what Cloverfield might mean. Turns out the real title is the same as the code title, and it merely refers to the randomly assigned military file name for the film’s fake found footage. Other than that, the word adds nothing to the film. Move along, please, nothing to see here. Still, it’s an equation that’s good for business: fake mystery, fake movie, real hype — and real profits.
To supplement his disappointing mysteries, Abrams traffics in the glossy melodrama of slick prime-time soaps — in other words, attractive performers going through familiar personal crises. The trick is to distract viewers from the lack of satisfying resolution to any of the major mysteries, or in this case, the fact that the monster is only truly visible for a few minutes of the film. In the end, Abrams’s focus is always on the banal lives of bystanders who’ve been thrown out of their routines and just want to get back to them. Somewhat surprisingly, this tends to work anyway, effectively blending the fantastic with the quotidian. Ordinary trials interrupted by blasts of otherworldly spectacle turn out to be strangely fascinating.
Cloverfield, then, like most Abrams productions, is a bit of a bait and switch. It promises the latest and greatest in overstuffed Hollywood spectacle and captivating mystery, but delivers mainly on the details and down-to-Earth, human moments. Sometimes, even in Hollywood, smaller is better.