Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Chauncey DeVega says: It's True, I Caught Cloverfield from a Toilet Seat

This is not a spoiler free review. In fact, I do not want you to see this movie and all respectable negroes and our friends should avoid this movie like the plague. I will also not provide any details about the characters or specific plot moments as to recall them would be too painful.

I will not make a habit of writing movie reviews because my girl Zora has staked out this turf and made it clear to me that if I sit on her porch she will shank me (Are you impressed? I picked up some of that prison speak while watching The History Channel). On Monday, in honor of Doctor Martin Luther King Jr., I, like all negroes everywhere, went to the movies (in my case 2), bought my monthly comic books (Walking Dead is returning to form; The Punisher and Barracuda have upped it one more level in their on going "feud"; I just discovered Pax Romana and it looks promising; and The Ultimates is mixed at this point--beautiful art, but too dark, and the characters are sort of blah), and went to Chipotle for a pork carnitas fajita burrito.

On that day, I was blessed to see a great movie, There Will be Blood (TWBB), and a horrible movie, Cloverfield. The former is an undeniable classic. As I told a friend, by comparison, TWBB makes P.T. Anderson's body of earlier work look like a set of movies shot by well-intentioned (but untalented) 5th graders. TWBB is the work of a master, working with a master actor (Danielle Day Lewis), on a set of universal topics (greed, the human heart, faith, nationalism, religious zealotry, family, and human frailty).

By comparison, Cloverfield is the work of an amateur who is grappling with a motif and genre he does not understand. Yes, I took the bait. Yes, I was excited by the viral marketing. I also believed that JJ Abrams had the skill to reimagine the monster movie genre, and perhaps introduce something new to science fiction story-telling. I was wrong, horribly wrong. Cloverfield is the girl in the 5th grade who promises to show you something special if you go behind the bushes with her, but instead you see nothing. By analogy, one thinks Cloverfield is a beautiful woman, but instead your love/lust object is oiling up her inner thighs and playing a man like he is a naive trick. I have long asserted that in order to either innovate upon, or to reimagine a genre, one must have mastery over it. Cloverfield demonstrates that JJ Abrams has neither mastery over, nor any particular insight into, this particular sub-genre of science fiction.

Don't be mistaken, I am not a film snob. I know and love bad movies. In fact, I am a connoisseur of them (They Live, Armageddon, Flash Gordon, etc.) As a point of reference, I was one of those unfortunate souls whom saw Prince's magnum opus, Under the Cherry Moon, in the movie theater--a film so horrible that the audience cheered when Prince, our protagonist, is contemplating suicide because his death would have mercifully ended the film. Under the Cherry Moon is the first film I contemplated walking out of before its conclusion. Prior to watching Cloverfield, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe occupied second place on my list of worst movies of all time:

And compared to the masterpiece which was He-Man, Cloverfield is a failure on almost all levels. Akin to my experience with Under the Cherry Moon, this was one of the most divide screenings I have ever been to. Half the audience booed and hissed at the main characters (and cheered when we thought they were killed), and the other half--mostly teenage ign'ts, hipsters, and other victims of group think--clapped and cheered reverentially at the film's conclusion.

First, as a point of serious criticism Cloverfield uses the device of a monster destroying NYC as a means for exploring how people grapple with the incomprehensible. What would we do if a 30 story tall monster appeared in a major city and proceeded to destroy everything in sight? How would the average person process the unimaginable? Cloverfield fails in this regard because it fails to acknowledge one obvious fact: on 9-11 we saw both the unimaginable and the incomprehensible (see The New York Times, Salon, and Slate for reviews which speak to this point). As a society, we witnessed what was thought to be impossible. Abrams's use of the monster as a thinly veiled reference to 9-11 places a heavy, almost insurmountable burden on his film. Unfortunately, Cloverfield uses the device and fails to bring anything new (here meaning real inspiration, compelling story telling or even a novel narrative device) to the story. This is Abrams's greatest failure: in playing with such heavy topics his reach never equals his grasp.

Moreover, I am all for exploring 9-11 and its visual lexicon, and a great film maker could use the monster movie genre to effectively do so. Abrams is simply not up to the challenge, and ultimately, what remains is a rehashing of 9-11 with little innovation beyond that of substituting airplanes for a whale beast summoned from the deepest parts of the ocean by an incessant demand for Slusho Cola (sounds like Slurm soda on Futurama). Sorry Mr. Abrams, that cheap slight of hand is not enough to carry a movie.

Second, for a monster movie to "work" we need to have either 1) sympathy for the victims; or 2) to cheer on the monster as a device of righteous justice because it is punishing humanity for our sins. Cloverfield fails because the main characters are unlikeable. In a multiracial, polygot, New York City the main characters are remarkable for their diversity: a clique that has seemingly walked out of an Abercrombie and Fitch or J Crew ad, with the obligatory racially ambiguous brown woman, and a wannabe, miserable, cynical hipster. JJ Abrams wants us to feel sympathy for these characters and to be empathetic to their plight. Instead, we want the monster to kill these folks--especially the cameraman--because they are foul people, truly vacuous, grating to one's eyes and ears, and frustrating to our intelligence.

As a proud negro geek, I take my genre films seriously. Here, I look for small details in the story telling which make a movie feel real and signal a commitment to good film making. I ask two questions. First, do the things I see look so ridiculous as to convey the filmmaker's intent to invite and court the absurd? Second, if the film maintains a pretense to "realism," does it do the little things right? Beyond the big monster running around and destroying the city, do the details ring true?

Cloverfield clearly fails the detail test. For example, our main characters have an indestructible camera with super batteries that never run out. Through monster attacks, gunfire, building collapses, and the like, the camera works without fail--in fact, they should make the Space Shuttle out of whatever this camera is made from. Second, our beautiful, obligatory, racially nebulous brown sister has on a silver necklace from Tiffanys and high heeled shoes. The necklace never breaks because it is monster proof (certified by Elsa really is). The 3 inch heels on these shoes, even when climbing over corpses, rubble, or running from our beast, never break. Moral of the story: super powered cameras and indestructible heels can ruin a film if you aren't careful.

Cloverfield fails the absurdity test because the monster is sort of "blah". He is a device, but he lacks personality. The monster is present, and a marvel of CGI and practical effects, but he is looming in the shadows. Yes, I understand that was Abrams's intention, this idea of what one sees is less scary than what one imagines, but a compelling monster would have added some measure of salvation to a failed project. It is in this regard that Abrams could have benefited from a deeper understanding of monster movies as genre entertainment. For example, the fun of Godzilla (or Kaiju films more generally), is that there is generally no pretense to seriousness. We enjoy the spectacle, the battle royal of men in suits beating the hell out of each other. Godzilla is interesting. She is an anti-hero who punishes mainkind for his sins. Yet, she protects us when we are in peril. It is this loving care which endears lady Godzilla to audiences. She is a friend, sort of a kinder, simpler version of Deebo from Friday:

Simply, Godzilla and man in suit monster movies "work" because they are fun. Cloverfield is not fun. Sure, it courts the eternal geek question of how one would defeat a 30 story tall monster or an alien invasion? I have always voted for a combination of superheroes and giant robots to do the job. Alternatively, we could bring in Charles Barkley to save humanity:

In Abrams's monster movie one would have to drop a nuke on the beast to kill it because the MOAB apparently couldn't do the job. We viewers could kill the monster far more easily by simply not seeing this movie.

Postscript: courtesy of the Internet Movie Database here are some answers to the mysteries of Cloverfield--

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Devega, man, that Friday reference is funny, and I enjoyed reading your review more than actually not seeing the movie as I would never watch that piece of crap.