Cloverfield “A Terrible Thing” (1/5)

We have an early winner for “worst movie of 2008”. Avoid Cloverfield at all cost. I refuse to even link to it. This is probably one of the best examples of death by concept, although there’s very little evidence this movie had any kind of solid cinematic foundation.

First and foremost, the concept of the handheld camera ruined this movie. I didn’t find it all that effective in “Blair Witch” (I refuse to link to it as well) but it’s at least understandable given BW’s shoestring budget. Where exactly did Abrams’s $25 million go? The story’s so wrapped up in this contrivance that every other element of the movie suffers for it. Rather than creating a sense of realism, it was distracting and annoying–even sickening to some. This is what happens when filmmakers fall in love with a concept and become blind to its negative effects on the entire project.

Second, I just couldn’t like or believe any of the flatly-drawn characters who are slasher-film-victim stupid. I wish they’d written a snarky, monster-movie-savvy group of characters, something like what Scream did for the horror genre. The shaky-cam concept doesn’t help here either–except to help me appreciate the craft of shooting a scene and the value of well-framed reaction shots. We may never know if these characters were poorly written, poorly acted, or just poorly shot.

Third, it had pacing problems. That was a very long 90 minutes compared to the breathtakingly short 140 minutes of Aliens. I can’t really say it was slow, but it was jarringly uneven. That can be even worse since you never settle into the film. Something more deliberately paced like “Pan’s Labyrinth” benefits from slower, more European pacing. Maybe this hackish editing/pacing is deliberate, another sacrifice of quality for that “authentic” shaky-cam feel. Bleh.

Fourth, what little we see of the monsters isn’t all that great. I don’t even mean how little of it we actually get to see in the clear. The average scifi video game is at least as creative, but again the shaky-cam format sabotages any attempt to build the commingled fear and curiosity than made Alien a really scary ride. The beastie never does anything particularly interesting or awe inspiring. It’s big, it lumbers around, it sheds parasite or nymphs or something. Some unexpected ability or “they cut the power” sign of intelligence would have made for a much better monster. The scene where they’re rescuing Beth in the Time Warner Building was a missed opportunity for a clear shot of the monster doing something interesting, perplexing, and perhaps even plot-driving.

Fifth, clumsy attempts to copy classic scifi/horror moments fail miserably here. In particular, there’s a scene in the 6 subway tunnel where the night vision function of the hand held camera (more death-by-concept) reveals a new menace. Let’s be nice and call this a very poorly done “homage” to the superb scene in Aliens where the survivors discover a welded-shut door isn’t very useful in a building with dropped ceilings. The whole build-up with the motion tracker, the perplexed “in the room” readings, and the oh-so-well-done “oh shit oh shit” moment when everybody looks up and realizes how screwed they are–perfection. Once again, a perfection unattainable when slaved to the shaky-cam concept since you don’t get that visual narrative and empathic connection with the characters.

Two final comments: I was a little concerned that some scenes would be too close to home after 9/11, but amazingly the overpowered audio detracted from my discomfort at an advancing wall of dust and (relatively mind) snowfall of paper. Also, inexplicably KB and I started laughing during the subway scene. Still have no idea why it was funny, but it was.

I’m going to have to pick a real winner to exorcise the bad aftertaste of this movie. Let’s hope this isn’t a sign that Abrams is going to murder “Star Trek” with some similar “concept”.

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