For one, it’s a film. It’s also a question printed on the promotional cups that were handed out after the preview screening at the Palladium. The question seems simple but is hard to answer. Did the studio not know what kind of film they had? After seeing Cloverfield, I find it difficult to believe they weren’t happy with the results. More likely, the question speaks to the mysterious nature of the film and its marketing campaign.
To explain, a few months ago trailers for Cloverfield began to hit the screen. They were completely atypical for Hollywood. Whereas most trailers follow a rigid three-act structure and basically walk you through the entire film up until the final conflict, this was abstract. It was a soft sell that hinted at something epic. Crappy, hand-held video images contrasted sharply with monumental mayhem set across a New York nightscape. The run-up for Cloverfield has been compared to The Blair Witch Project. That comparison is apt to a point but suggests Cloverfield is more hype than substance. I couldn’t disagree more.
Here are the bare bones of what happens in the film: A bunch of friends throw a surprise party for someone who is about to move to Japan. He just recently fell in love with a woman. The guy who got the crummy job of videotaping the surprise party is really into some other woman. He’s also a moron, but he’s funny. Friends hang out and make drunken fun of each other. Some get melodramatic. And then the power in the city momentarily goes out, there is an explosion in the sky, and the head of the Statue of Liberty ends up falling into the middle of the street. What happened? Who knows? From there the protagonists (and the film) take off.
Chaos and destruction ensue as the friends race across the city to save themselves and others. The whole film is told from the perspective of that one video camera from the surprise party. The lack of exposition creates an existential undertone that will slowly shock the audience. More details would deny potential viewers the great experience of seeing this film cold. It’s not as if the film has secret twists that need to be concealed. The film is the twist.
Hollywood legend Howard Hawks once said a great film has three great scenes and no bad ones. There are many more than three great scenes in Cloverfield but there are also moments that seem false. Nonetheless, Cloverfield is the jolt of excitement Hollywood needs right now, especially as the writers’ strike continues and the industry grinds to a halt.
What is Cloverfield? It is many things: spectacular, a cinematic event, the most unusual monster movie ever made … that’s my answer, anyway. •