Friday, January 18, 2008

Cloverfield, or On Plot/Subplot

The marketing for Cloverfield was a beautiful piece of polarising, a super-savvy reversal in which the "clever" folks - the ones who knew when they were being marketed to, the ones who'd flick the channel at the first hint of hype or product-placement - missed most of the fun. It's as good a signpost as any for one of the delightful consequences of what we're calling the New Earnestness: the folk who were sick of being cleverer-than-thou and the guy on the street who hadn't even bothered with this whole "irony" tip got to share the fun, all holy fools giving themselves over to the breadcrumb-trail of clues and glimpses and character backstory dripfed into the fanbase. The only ones who missed out were the backward types who thought that as soon as they knew it was an advert, that was when it was time to stop watching.

So when we got to the locus of this whole nu-media blitz, the movie itself, we knew what was coming, and they knew we knew, and we knew they knew we knew. And it was part of the fun.

So often in movies the problem is not suspension of disbelief, so much as suspension of foreknowledge: we know that (say) Collateral is about a guy (Jamie Foxx) who has to drive a hitman (Tom Cruise) around for a night, so when Tom Cruise gets in the cab, we know, "ah yes, here's the hitman", and have to sit while the movie respects our notions of story by building up the character. We have to place ourselves in the shoes of the cabbie, and in a well-done movie - like, say, Collateral - it's not a huge task; but when everyone knows everything about everything, it's still an odd ask, being asked to forget everything you've learned about the movie as soon as the opening credits roll.

Well, there's precious little of that in Cloverfield. Everything we know, we're allowed to know, supposed to know. The more "promotional" material we've absorbed, the more we know about the characters, the larger context in which deep-sea rigs have been attacked and mysterious destructive forces are approaching New York. We even, by virtue of title cards at movie's opening, know that New York is about to be destroyed.

And it's mighty refreshing, innovative, clever, to see a movie that plays directly on our savvy in this particular manner. It's not afraid to speak directly to our awareness that we're watching a movie (indeed, by making the cameraman the direct personification of the film's target audience - a lovably dorky, not-particularly-attractive geek-boy - it's openly acknowledging us), but this never scuppers the film's aims. An example: when we're in the subway with the protagonists, seeing five feet in front of our faces, well aware that something's out there, it's not grating to see the characters slowly fumbling with the camera's night-vision. They don't know that as soon as the UV comes on, that the monster will be revealed about to gobble them up: why would they? We know it because it's a cinematic staple, but they don't, because it's not an everyday-life staple.

But this playful adherence to concept - the entire film is shot in one camera, carried by one band of survivors of the initial attack - also begets the film's biggest flaw: because it's so subjective, it only lasts as long as the protagonists' journey. Which ends somewhere around two-thirds of the way through the monster story.

Cloverfield has no catharsis, no "ending" either way as far as the monster attack story goes. As a document of the rocky dynamics between the five likable twentysomethings it follows, it's very, very skillful - utilising clever, compassionate craft to tread the balance between humour and terror, intimacy and voyeurism. But when all of these guys are either dead or escaped, the film's narrative just-- ends, leaving a great big gaping lack of resolution for the story itself.

Your correspondent will not for a second insult your powers of perception by pretending like it's some sort of clever revelation that this is a movie about 9/11. However, it's important to be clear that this isn't a movie that references 9/11, or a movie that's an analogy for 9/11: this is a movie that, it's fairly likely, could have been set on 9/11, until someone said, hang on, no, you can't have a shitkickin' action extravaganza with an emotional core about fictional people on 9/11.

But what we lose in the transition is that everybody knows what 9/11 is: you can do United 93 because the larger context is a matter of mass consciousness. With a movie like this, that invents a large-scale event to serve as the backdrop for intimate personal drama, the tension is in how much time needs to be given to what is to all intents the subplot: the monster attack on New York. And the answer, pragmatically, is: none whatsoever, unless it directly impacts on the main plotline, which is Rob's search for his best friend, with whom he is in love. We've got our pre-show baggage, conveyed by the viral-marketing blitz, but once the monster surfaces, we know as little as the characters do.

Of that monster, we see enough to see that, in fact, we don't really need to know or care what it is: vaguely alien, vaguely demonic, somewhat deep sea-looking, it's a perfect canvas onto which to map Godzilla or Cthulhu or whichever similarly-mythologised beastie you were hoping it would be. We don't really need to see any more of the beast than we do, and we certainly don't need its origins laboriously explained to us in a third-reel unraveling. But between it and its massed military counterpoint, there's a fairly hefty amount of narrative weight that's never really lifted. You walk away feeling unrelieved.

Cloverfield is marketed as a monster movie because it's a movie with a huge fucking monster that destroys New York. But in sneak-attacking us with a rather charming, ingeniously conveyed love story, it takes a hell of a risky gamble. It's hard not to feel gypped when there's a huge monster chasing you through Central Park, a ticking clock counting down to the military obliteration of Manhattan, and the movie's climax is a couple of fairly unengaging pieces-to-camera that tell us absolutely nothing we don't already know. Some sense of resolution needs to be reached, whether it's the Appolonian restoration of order with the monster's downfall, or the Dionysian destruction of the cultural centre of the West.

In many ways this is an opening salvo: a statement of purpose for new, interesting paradigms of storytelling, a demonstration of the much-hyped "new media" environment for telling engaging stories. And if part of that statement is that human drama should be emphasised to a fault, well, so be it. No arguments there: this would be so much worse if the characters' stories had been abandoned in favour of porny fixation on the movie's effects, which are at once masterful and just-adequate.

It's just hard not to feel that the Tagruato Corporation must resume its ethically-dubious deep-sea operations asap, because there's ridiculous amounts of unmined ground in this whole endeavour.

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