Sunday, August 09, 2009


I didn't really expect to find the movie Cloverfield interesting, and when we first watched it on a Netflix rental, I didn't pay attention for a lot of it. To my surprise, I found the bits I did see compelling and interesting, and it made me wish I'd watched it. But I was too busy to go back to it for a while, and it was hard to find a time to watch it because Siobhan had already seen it and didn't want to see it again, and there aren't many opportunities for me to watch a movie when she's not around and possibly using the TV. I tried to watch it once a few months but I kept getting interrupted and that really broke the flow.

Since this weekend I'm in "bachelor mode" with Siobhan away at Knit Camp, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to watch it straight through uninterrupted. And I'm even more surprised this time how compelling I found it. (Warning, minor spoilers ahead.)

That shaky camera style is terribly annoying in the movie theater, and I found it really ruined the second and third Bourne movies there, but when I watched those movies at home on the 62" HDTV, it worked the way the filmmakers probably intended it to: it's more about being visceral and disorienting, and less about being seasick and unable to see the action. I never saw Cloverfield in the theater, but I bet it's the same way. 62" is probably the ideal size to see shaky-camera movies, the best balance point. In Cloverfield it wasn't distracting, annoying, or dizzying, but it did provide a sense of intensity and realism and immersion.

The characters of course were largely bland and unsympathetic, and it's easy to come away barely remembering their names. I also find myself wondering if people that age actually live like that; they probably do, but I was never that age, I guess. But there's just enough humanity, particularly on the part of Rob, the main character, to sustain it.

There are also a few implausibilities that are distracting. Quite a few times, the idea that anyone would keep filming becomes increasingly untenable, and some of the coincidences that allow the camera to keep working are painfully forced. Let's not even talk about the amount of battery power it must have, particularly with it working as a flashlight for a long trip through the subway. The characters refer to it as having a "tape" and the only excuse for the interweaving of the video of the April and May days is that it's a tape, but the title plate says "SD card", and for good reason, no tape would have survived but an SD card might have. Surviving that helicopter crash is pretty hard to swallow. The reasons the main characters stay together grow implausible at times and get handwaved away. And the lights stay on in Manhattan far longer than it makes the slightest bit of sense for them to. I suppose those are all unavoidable given the premise, but they did irk me.

However, for all that, the suspense is engaging and genuinely scary, the reactions people show seem genuine, the acting is surprisingly good, and the cinematography is amazing: the interweaving of live action and CGI in particular is so seamless that you can really forget that some of this stuff had to have been digitally composited onto shaky hand-held camera work, which is an incredible feat in itself. More than most horror or suspense movies and more than any other monster movie that leaps to mind, one can imagine being in that situation and not having any better ideas what to do in it.

It's a movie that really needs to be seen straight through since the pacing is key. In this, I find myself feeling sympathetic with today's filmmakers. So many people will watch this movie at home where they can easily fast-forward through bits, and the introductory section of the movie, which taken on its own is just boring, is a prime candidate. But when you look at the whole movie, that bit of film is integral to the overall effect. The later scenes lose a lot of their ooomph without it: I proved that to myself empirically by watching it both ways. In the theater, the audience is along for the ride and the director gets to control the pace, so they can drag you through things you wouldn't choose for yourself but which will make it better in the long run. It must be frustrating to carefully craft the pacing only to know people are going to mangle it at home and then criticize the movie for lacking suspense without trying it the way it was intended, the way that would give it that suspense.

I never noticed in my previous two half-aborted attempts to watch the movie that one of the characters (Lily) might even have survived these events. We didn't see (I think) her helicopter go down, so there's no way to know if it made it out. Often, when there's a single survivor, things are told from that person's viewpoint (as in the case of Alien which I watched last night), but this time, Lily's viewpoint is almost incidental.

All in all, I'm very impressed with the movie. It holds together very well. Kudos to the people involved for taking an experimental idea and making it work.

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