Tuesday, 5 February 2008

cloverfield (d. matt reeves)

When I was still a nipper at boarding school in Cheltenham, there was a fortnightly film screening in a big hall with plastic bucket seats. I have recollections of Oh! Mr Porter and Reach for The Sky. But the film that really sticks in my mind was The Omega Man. It affected many of the pre-teen audience so much they ran crying from the hall. It remained the most impactful Charlton Heston performance until his appearance in Bowling for Columbine.

The brains behind Cloverfield, JJ Abrams, is two weeks younger than me. He might have similar disturbed memories of the dystopian world of Omega Man. Even if he doesn't, he's smart enough to know that a well-made disaster flick is the apple of the commercial eye. The thing is, it has to be done differently. It needs a catch.

The star of Cloverfield is not an actor. It is the cinematographer, Michael Bonnevillain. The artfulness lurking behind the seeming artlessness of a gauche young man videoing the collapse of a city is highly skilled. If it really looked like something you or I might have filmed, it would have been unwatchable. As it is, the camera flirts with its audience, implying a banality which is deceptive.

Beyond the historical disaster flicks, Cloverfield's other source of inspiration is more pressing, and more scary. It's the jerky footage of dust storms billowing through Manhattan on the day the Towers came down. That footage has an immediacy which has helped to enbed 911 in popular consciousness, and there's no doubt that the filmmakers of Cloverfield have studied it carefully. The film is at its most compelling in the immediate, confused aftermath of the first 'attack', when pandemonium reigns and no-one knows what's going on. This is what we're viscerally reliving as we watch confused affluence running blindly for the Brooklyn Bridge. It's a vision of the potential hell which 911 showed the world, a time when mobile phones grind to a halt and looters steal televisions which will soon have nothing left to show.

As the reference to The Omega Man (or The War of the Worlds or Escape from New York, etc etc) indicates, dystopian fantasies are nothing new. We want to see the world brought to its knees, knowing that when we leave the cinema normality will cocoon us with its charms. There has been criticism of Cloverfield for the way it shows a slightly ludicrous King Kong-meets-Alien monster pottering around midtown. However, by the time the monster appears, the movie is already almost over. It's now about camerawork and denouement. The filmmakers wisely keep it as a short sharp rollercoaster and don't innundate the audience with plot or explanation. The hard work has already been done, the audience is hooked and will stay on for the ride. The neo-jerky camera work is ever-ready to spring a surprise should the tension flag.

Cloverfield is a brilliant but cynical piece of filmmaking. It reassures more than it disturbs, thrills more than it reveals. It's a film for the post-Playstation era, but it's sassy enough to tap into older cinematic myths, whilst riffing off contemporary phobias. It will fit into many a post-modern thesis and it might just scare the life out of a generation of ten to twelve year olds.

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