Cloverfield (2008)

Apart from an apparent drive to write about movies with single-word titles beginning with “C” — Christine, Constantine, Calvary, Coma, etc. — we were also given another reason to revisit Cloverfield in the form of a surprise pseudo-sequel, that being the upcoming 10 Cloverfield Lane. Lane was announced out of the blue last week by J.J. Abrams and Co., having already been completed and somehow kept under wraps until a mere two months before release. Impressive marketing strategies aside, the film actually looks pretty interesting. Here’s that trailer:

Cool, right? It seems like the kind of thing that just happens to take place in the world of Cloverfield, but might really be a self-contained story that could conceivably exist without the other movie. Judging from that brief look, the only thing that links the two films is the alien invasion itself, not the human characters nor the location nor any of the events of the first film. There’s no way to be certain of that, of course, but the good thing is we don’t have to wait long to find out. Presumably, this is more of a psychological thriller than Cloverfield, and presumably future sequels could follow the same format and use only the alien invasion as the linking factor. This, of course, results in the hilarious romantic comedy Clove at First Sight and the franchise crossover Angels in the Cloverfield.

But the most obvious difference is in the look of the film, because it’s already evident that Lane won’t adopt the found footage style of Cloverfield. In rewatching the original, this becomes more of a significant decision than it first seems. Franchises like Paranormal Activity are obviously trapped by the gimmick that spawned the sequels in the first place, and now each successive installment seems more and more far-reaching. Frankly, the found footage style can get old fast if not done in an inventive way (see: Chronicle [another single-word “C” movie!]); it can be exhausting, inherently frustrating, and at worst downright annoying. There’s a fine line between shaking the camera to draw a viewer into an experience and shaking the camera so much that the viewer can’t tell what experience they’re supposed to be drawn into.

Cloverfield walks the line fairly well, but with so many movies made in a similar mold — monster movies, or disaster movies, or found footage flicks about a group of teenagers vs. a monster/disaster — it’s important that the film assert memorable moments, memorable shots, memorable characters, memorable things. The characters aren’t particularly memorable, but that’s an issue that extends way beyond Cloverfield and arguably is not the priority here. The individual shots? The moments? Well, what do you remember from Cloverfield? I mean specifically, like actual story beats or images. Anything? Bueller?

You probably remember the one close-up shot of one of the monsters right before he eats the camera. Maybe you remember the decapitated Statue of Liberty (take that, French coppersmiths!) or the wrecking of the Brooklyn Bridge (take that, John Roebling!) or the part where poor Lizzy Caplan spontaneously explodes. Those are the things retained in my mind’s eye at this moment, a few days after rewatching Cloverfield. Prior to that, having not seen the film since the 2008 release, I remembered essentially nothing besides the rolling head of Lady Liberty.

This is because found footage is designed, again, to draw the viewer into the experience as it all goes down. It’s not designed to stick with you, and while those two might not be mutually exclusive it is rare that a found footage flick will be as memorable in the moment-by-moment plot points as a “regular” movie. In this case the CGI necessary for the Statue of Liberty bit puts a somewhat finer point on it, especially because the sequence was already more memorable (read: less dumb-looking) from the first trailer to the second:

Director Matt Reeves: "That's pretty good, guys! Now make it suck less."
Director Matt Reeves: “That’s pretty good, guys! Now make it suck less.”

In that respect 10 Cloverfield Lane has already earned boldness points in willingly moving on from the style of the predecessor. More importantly, there’s far more potential for the film to contain a greater number of memorable moments than Cloverfield, just by virtue of the fact of our entry point being more or less omnipresent. Our perspective isn’t locked into the perspective of one of the characters (one who inexplicably refuses to put the camera down throughout harrowingly perilous ordeals, no less). The camera’s free, and so we’re free to roam with it and explore secrets, deceptions, quick glances, moments of quiet silence. We get the potential of seeing something the characters do not, which is a) a bastion of cinematic tension-building and b) inherently absent from found footage.

Cloverfield does about as well as a movie can do with a dearth of any memorable things at all. It flows fairly organically, feels genuine for the most part outside of a few teeny-bopper character setups, and swings for the fences with the Beheaded Head of Liberty bit. Seriously, that’s the best part. The shakiness of the camera only approaches irksomeness once or twice, particularly as the invasion begins and everyone’s going bonkers, but for the most part Cloverfield does well to keep the trope from going stale. The product placement, on the other hand…

"Hide in here! Aliens hate Sephora!"
“Hide in here! Aliens hate Sephora!”

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