CLOVERFIELD



I'm not that bothered about wobbly camera moves and crazy whip-pans. Films and television have been utilising this 'documentary' convention within their visual language for a while now. But at the cinema in which I saw this it's obviously become quite a concern. Lots of hastily tacked up signs proclaiming: 'WARNING This film contains strobe lighting and shakey camera' were in evidence. And by about 20 minutes into the film at least four people walked. Either they were throwing up at the camera shake or at the complete stupidity of the identification figures on screen.

The premise is that you're watching events unfold via a camera recording found at the 'scene of the crime'. A neat idea, not particularly original, but fraught with problems about the autonomy of the character Hud and the director's imposition of authorship.

We are introduced to the characters, if that's a way to describe a bunch of cyphers whose destiny is wrapped up in the film's real tag line 'Lots of shit happens...and then you die', via a party in a fashionable New York loft. This is all shot via the portable camera by Hud. He's the least photogenic, most intellectually challenged person and so he's relegated to a position behind the camera where we can hear his dumb asides, rather like a 'sideblog' strangely enough. Not pretty or clever enough to matter. Not that anyone matters much. The party scene sums up the appeal of the film to the Facebook generation. The camera roves about, Hud asks them to make a testimonial, they all sign up and instantly we have a social network! I'm probably best described by these party goers as 'real old, dude' because this is very much a film for a young 15-24 year old audience.

The big bad arrives very late into a pretty short film so I was getting more and more annoyed by this bunch of New York air-heads when thankfully the 'Beast From 20,000 Fathoms' arrived and slam dunked Liberty's head across Lower Manhattan. The film finally gets into gear here and it's fairly gripping stuff with the crazy camera moves, dictated by Hud running around and threatening to shit his pants at every opportunity. However as the mayhem ensues, it becomes clear that Hud isn't the author of this tape you are watching. As New York gets trashed off screen, the director Matt Reeves decides that he must stick to convention and give the leading man, Rob as played by Michael Stahl-David, some lovely steady close ups when the audience is actually baying for blood. This sense of delayed gratification is a device that works for and against the film. It builds tension, naturally, but it also disrupts any 'realism' that the film tries to achieve with its cam-corder point of view. No one in their right mind in that situation would point the camera at his friend trying to find a battery for his phone in an electrical store when the city is being trashed just to the left of him. The same thing happens on the Brooklyn bridge. The camera is lovingly focused on leading man Rob as the bridge collapses and his brother Jason dies. Is there some strange homoerotic longing of Hud's that we're not entirely privvy too?

A further invasion of privacy is telling when Hud films Rob's breakdown as he informs their mother about Jason's death. If you had a camera and your best friends were suffering would you ram it in their faces and demand to wring every last emotion and tear from them? No, you wouldn't. You'd turn the camera off and actually go and comfort your fellow human beings, wouldn't you? And if you did try to film them, I suspect they would probably break your arm and also send you off to A&E with a split lip. And the camera would be in pieces. This is symptomatic of 'reality' media for me. It's about the dispassionate observation and manipulation of human crises. Would you really scramble across two skyscrapers just to rescue Rob's girlfriend? I'm all for acts of sacrifice but this is the most ridiculous scene in the film. If Hud really cared for his friends he wouldn't be filming them anyway but of course he has to because that's where the film-makers are trying to be clever.

The other subtext here is, of course, 9/11. In that respect I think it's a film that reflects back its target audience's lack of political accumen. This is for dumb American teenagers who don't know where Iraq is. The film is by its nature reeking of 9/11 reportage and immediately tries to contextualise such an event into something digestable for its teen audience. What's rather insidious is that it reinforces the redundant attitudes of 'the war on terror'. The acts of terrorists and governments alike aren't seen from any serviceable ideological viewpoint. Terrorists = evil monster and government = the army and that's it. Worse still, that pesky terrorist monster can radicalise you. It's little offspring indoctrinate you and...hey, you become a suicide bomber and self-combust. So, youngsters, don't even begin to try and understand anyone else's religion or ideology because you'll explode from the sheer effort of doing it.

Actually, the scenes involving the 'Alien' looking parasites are probably the scariest in the film. The journey through the subways and, later, the highly improbable rescue of Rob's girlfriend from a 'Twin Towers' scene of devastation are made more exciting by these nasty little blighters and simply work on a good, old fashioned release of tension. Equally, the glimpses we get of the destruction and mayhem are spectacular and the pay-off shot, from the helicopter, of the behemoth striding amongst the ashes is well worth waiting for. The climax, in Central Park, where Hud faces down said monster is unfortunately a reveal too far I think. It doesn't quite work. And quite frankly I was glad that Hud got his just desserts after an hour of his trite and annoying commentary. The bleak coda as, apparently, Central Park is bombed, has that 'Blair Witch' snotty-nosed 'we're all about to die' feel about it as the 'hero' Rob and 'heroine' Beth clutch each other and declare their love. Then their demise is disrupted by one of those annoying flashbacks as these events are recorded over an already used tape in an 'oooh so clever' metaphor for young lives literally being erased, and which keep popping up throughout the film to remind us of their innate innocence. They're welcome to each other, quite frankly. Nuke the characters, save the monster might be more appropriate.

A dumb-ass popcorn movie then, with pretensions to be greater than it is, peppered with a few gripping scenes and genuine peril but scuppered by non-entity characters who you know will get theirs in the end. It's 9/11 aesthetic should have been poignant and arresting but it's attempts at 'realism' are flawed simply because its depiction of ordinary people as heroes is presented like something off My Space or as one of those funny videos that pop up on You Tube. Good viral marketing, shame about the film.

Cloverfield (Cert 15 - Released 1st February 2008 - Directed by Matt Reeves)

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