Monday, January 28, 2008

Movie Review: Cloverfield

If you can get over the issue of the way the story is told, you'll likely enjoy Cloverfield. Cloverfield belongs to a genre, along with Blair Witch Project, of movies told in the first person, as video footage of "real" events captured by someone who just happened to have a camera at the ready. Typically, movies of this genre present two particular obstacles to the suspension of disbelief. First, the shaky camera movements can take you out of the cinematic experience by making it too hard--and sometimes too nauseating--to follow the action. Second, you have to believe that a person would be so dedicated to documenting their experience that they would keep the camera rolling, even in situations where they're in grave personal danger and it would make more sense to turn the thing off and just concentrate on running away.

If you can get over those two things--and for the most part I did--then there's nothing to keep you from enjoying an exciting disaster/horror flick, that, after a very slow beginning, is relentless and well-paced. Sure, there are other problems, but I tend to look at them more as features than flaws: the characters are fairly unsympathetic, and they make poor decisions, but you pretty much don't have any horror flicks these days without those elements being in place. In this case, the unsympathetic characters are yuppies who live in Tribeca, who've gathered together for a going-away party for their friend Rob, who's taken a Vice-President job with a company in Japan. If you've ever heard of the term "viral marketing," it's likely you already know that Rob's party will be disrupted by the arrival of something terrible enough to send the Statue of Liberty's head rolling down the street like a bowling ball, and that the rest of the evening will track a handful of the partygoers' struggle to survive the catastrophe.

The result is a lot like Titanic, with all the extraneous junk scraped away--the unbelievable love story, the awkward "eighty years later" framing device, the various clinical dissections of what went wrong and how--and everything is just pared down to people reacting to the danger of near-certain death, just of a more fantastic nature. The camcorder's-eye-view of Cloverfield traps you in the perspective of these characters, who have extremely limited information about what peril they're facing or what they should do about it. The story never cuts away to a briefing at the White House (a typical scene in this kind of film) to get a dose of exposition about the situation...and distance from our imperiled main characters.

Because of the lack of exposition, there really isn't much of a message to Cloverfield. Although the film appropriates some of the imagery of the September 11 attacks, it's not about our fear of terrorism; nor is it about Iraq (like last year's horrible 28 Weeks Later), ecology (The Host, The Day After Tomorrow, and the original Godzilla films), hubris (Towering Inferno, and many other similar disaster movies), racism (the original Night of the Living Dead), class warfare (Titanic), or man's inhumanity to man (28 Days Later, among many others). In Cloverfield's case, a monster is just a monster--and that's one of the things about it that worked for me. Recommended.


As an additional review, I'll fess up that I've been watching the clunkily-named weekly series, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles on FOX. The idea of the show is that, after the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the eponymous Ms. Connor and her savior-of-the-human-race teenage son, John, continue to have adventures while battling to keep the artificial intelligence known as Skynet from ever existing--even though at the end of T2 it was believed that Skynet had been retroactively destroyed, thereby creating a hopeless paradox (how can robots come from the future to kill you/save you if you've eliminated the system that created the robots?). The series pretends that the second Terminator sequel (2003's T3: Rise of the Machines)--(SPOILER ALERT)in which the paradox is essentially undone, and the robotic apocalypse occurs as scheduled (/spoiler)--never happened.

Maybe it's because I've spent the past few weeks acquainting myself on DVD with a show with similar man-against-robot issues, the SciFi version of Battlestar Galactica, but I'm unimpressed. Chronicles, for all the cachet of its heavy-duty license and expansive special effects budget, isn't terribly deep, so far. In its mythology, time travel is much more common than in the films--and while that discovery opens up possibilities, it also weakens the premise to the point of flimsiness. The cool thing about the earlier Terminator films was that the protagonists were left on their own, without hope of backup or relief. This development throws those elements out the window, and opens up the way for all sorts of Deus Ex Machina b.s.

For the second time in a TV season, a network has turned over its most-hyped property to a relatively obscure British actress. When NBC did it for the Bionic Woman, it was a fiasco--Michelle Ryan, an actress who sounds smart and confident using her own accent, was whiny and unfocused as a Californian twentysomething-turned superhero. Chronicles' leading Brit is Lena Headey, and although her accent is better than Ryan's, she's still not entirely right for the role she's playing. Linda Hamilton reimagined the role of Sarah Connor in Terminator 2, turning the disco-era waitress she played in the first film into a grim-faced warrior woman. She was buff, ruthless, and more than a little crazy. You were scared of this woman--she had no compunction about harming people if they endangered her son or simply got in her way.

Headey, on the other hand, isn't scaring anyone. Her Sarah Connor is a fairly generic action heroine. She looks athletic and is credible in the show's action scenes, but she isn't the physically imposing presence that Hamilton was in T2. Headey's take on the character talks like someone ruthless, but she's also emotionally fragile and conflicted--qualities that might make her character more sympathetic than Hamilton's Connor was, but they also make her less interesting. Summer Glau is more intriguing as the latest friendly Terminator model: the girl's become a science fiction fan favorite by being pretty and having a strange affect, and both of those qualities are still in evidence here. There's some promise in the relationship between Glau's Terminatrix and Thomas Dekker's savior-cum-teenage-whiner, John Connor; but the first three episodes haven't really placed the focus there.

If it weren't for the writer's strike, it's likely that I'd dismiss Chronicles off-hand as something that isn't, for the moment, worth the space it would occupy on my DVR. Right now, however, it doesn't have much competition in the scripted drama category, so I'll keep watching it until I lose interest or it gets superseded by better shows. Mildest possible recommendation, for now.

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