Saturday, February 2, 2008

Blowback is Hell

It’s been described as the “Blair Godzilla Project” in reference to its combination of a city devouring monster and shaky cam aesthetics. And it’s breaking all records for a film released in January, hitting $41 million on the first weekend.
So, what, exactly, is all the fuss about?
On the surface Cloverfield is just another monster movie, no different from any other – monster appears in the middle of a good time being had by the main characters; monster wreaks havoc; monster picks off the actors one-by-one as the rest try to survive and/or destroy the monster; a flawed/broken relationship between the lead and his lady finds new meaning in the danger of the moment. Films ends with a set-up for a sequel.
Cloverfield, which stars unknown actors, is about the night some mysterious and massive monster attacks New York City. It is filmed by the guest at a surprise going-away party who has been given a camera to document the party and who now films the whole disastrous night unfolding. Occasional problems with the video camera reveal that they are filming over top of a previously shot video of the lead and his girlfriend spending a day at Coney Island.
After the initial attack, Rob, the young man who is the reason for the party, his brother Jason, Jason’s girlfriend Lily and two other friends, Marlena and Hud, run through the streets trying to escape. First the monster destroys the Brooklyn Bridge and prevents them from getting off of Manhattan. Then the crew head towards mid-town – and the monster – to rescue Rob’s girlfriend Beth, who has left him a message on his cellphone that she is trapped in her apartment.
I’ll spare you the details of who dies when but suffice it to say that the monster and its spawn are winning the war, such that the plan by the US government is to simply flatten the city.
Along with I Am Legend, Cloverfield marks the second time in just a few months that Hollywood has flattened New York. The people who live there must all have anxiety disorders.
What is most interesting about Cloverfield, in an otherwise pretty conventional plot, and what I think drives its popularity, is its unique perspective.
Think about the remake of Godzilla from 1998 as a contrast. This is also about a city-devouring monster. But its story is told from the perspective of the people in the know – scientist Matthew Broderick, military and political chiefs, etc. Because they know what is going on – that the giant lizard is the result of nuclear testing – we know what’s going on. We understand the nature of the monster, even if we don’t yet know how to kill it.
In Cloverfield what we experience is disorientation. What the people in control know is unknowable to us and to the characters in the film. We are made to identify with ordinary people, just trying to live their lives and then just trying to survive this horror. Like the actors, we are unknown.
The monster is a hideous mystery. Our only source of information is from what is right in front of us at a given moment. There are snippets of corporate news, overheard conversations by low-level military personnel, personal experiences of the monsters’ attacks, etc. The only clue we have to its origin comes from the segments of Rob and Beth at Coney Island. As they ride the ferris wheel, something large can be seen to fall in the ocean behind them.
This shift from Godzilla to Cloverfield is reflective of a big shift in consciousness in American society post-911. There is a sense of being under attack; that something is wrong, that government doesn’t have the answer and is perhaps making things worse. It isn't insignificant that one of the first casualties of the attack is the Lady Liberty.
Imperial blowback anyone?
It’s the same sense as pervades I Am Legend of a world where the rules have changed dangerously and we might not be able to know them though they just may kill us.
We have lost the confidence reflected in Godzilla that we can identify our problems, classify them, pursue logical deductions and scientific methods to understand their properties, and then solve them. In this sense, it is not just New York that is being destroyed. It is the Enlightenment with its rationality and order, like the grid-pattern of New York’s streets being erased by the monster’s rampage and US bombs.
In the first instance, Americans, like the character of Rob, seek out what they know – family, romantic relationships – as a salve for their pain and fears. But in this New America, love doesn’t conquer all. And holding hands or standing alone, the beast strikes you down without discrimination.
The nihilism of the piece, its utter hopelessness tells us something else about the United States of America: there is no alternative available. When the old order begins to crumble and come apart, all that exists to answer it is the destructive force of the state. But the tanks and guns of the army are totally inadequate to the task of this new world.
Like the B2 bomber that carpet bombs New York City in the film, the state looks impressive as it flies above you, you can cheer its raw power, but the problems it tries to solve cannot be destroyed in this way. It only makes it more angry.
Cloverfield is about an America that is losing faith in itself. It is vulnerable. And this being America, they are dealing with their decline in the way that they deal with everything else: they are turning it into a spectator sport. It’s a bit like watching a car wreck at the racetrack. It’s a great ride and cool to watch – after all you were secretly hoping it would happen – but you don’t want to be in the path of the cars zooming out of control.
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