I lucked out with my audience, though at first it looked like I hadn’t. I sat down far back, a little left of center. During the Star Trek teaser, two guys sat down in front of me (blocking my view of the coolness that is one of my favorite spaceships being assembled), and immediately started saying gems like “Christmas 2008,” “Bad Robot” and “That’s supposed to be a robot?” (Yes, they were either reading right off the screen or questioning what they were seeing.) Plus I think one of the guys sneaked in alcohol; I heard him pour something into his soda cup. I rolled my eyes and moved across the aisle, far enough away that I heard no more from them. In fact, by the last half of the film the audience was surprisingly quiet, one of the quietest I’ve been in since Saving Private Ryan, oddly enough. Not a comment-on-everything-onscreen crowd; definitely not a have-a-conversation-in-the-screening-roo
Geek out, I did, at the monster. It has that H.P. Lovecraft influence (where it’s tentacled and not quite symmetrical*) plus, to my eye, echoes of the Rancor from Return of the Jedi, a daddy longlegs, the two-headed dragon in Willow and even, briefly, Joe Camel. I like that it has a lower center-of-gravity than Godzilla; in fact, the designers very cannily avoid any visual echoes of Godzilla.
(Digression! My former editor Lukas Kendall once said that mid-Nineties disaster films were essentially “Godzilla films without Godzilla.” Godzilla, of course, is a very particularly and peculiarly Japanese construct; Kendall felt that Western audiences craved the huge destruction of a Godzilla film but, on some level, couldn’t completely accept “the cultural awesomeness that is Godzilla.” The Emmerich-Devlin Godzilla a couple of years later stumbled on that handicap; the film never came up with a good or at least clever reason for such a creature to travel halfway across the world to attack New York. It’s instead just grafting one cultural construct onto another culture, and thus that construct’s awesomeness isn’t so obvious ’cause it’s in the wrong context. (That film would not have been made had it not been called Godzilla.) Maybe the proposed mid-Nineties Godzilla, the one scripted by the guys who went on to write the Pirates of the Caribbean films, would’ve made more sense in a more clever way.)
I’m impressed with how Cloverfield was directed. It’s artfully artless, and succeeds at creating the illusion of HOLY CRAP DID YOU SEE THAT? when you’ve seen precisely what the filmmakers wanted you to see at that moment, even if it’s half-glimpsed. The news footage seen on electronics store monitors looks like news footage (harder to do convincingly in a movie than you’d think, and all sorts of movies get it wrong); the rest of the film looks like the home video it’s meant to be. And the special effects are close to seamless. (Special effects: one way to use math!)
It does decently with the emotional side of the story, too. I’m not a rich well-dressed Yuppie like the circle of friends the film features, but they do all seem like people I’d run into in real life or maybe even know. (That’s as opposed to the leaders, scientists and military personnel on whom these monster films usually focus.) You see their world and their friends, and then you see all of that get trampled, blasted and pulverized; it’s the end of the world as they know it, and they’re having to deal with that on the run. The guy getting the call from his mom while he’s sheltering in the subway station, when he has to tell her Very Bad News…yeah, that got me. It’s not as immediate as our reactions to 9/11 were – it can’t be – but it’s more than spectacle. But the spectacle is pretty spectacular, that’s undeniable.
Ending with a grab-bag of thoughts:
* The military people our characters run into come off well: to-the-point but concerned about getting these civilians to safety. (And yay Chris Mulkey! He’s the ranking commander in the makeshift hospital.)
* I somehow doubt that many people’s instinct would be to loot if their city was getting STOMPED BY A GIANT FRICKIN’ MONSTER… Yeah, I was annoyed that that happened.
* I love that the film resists having any original score until the end credits. (And yes, I was marching in place to Michael Giacchino’s “Roar! (Cloverfield Overture)” during those credits.) A bold, smart choice; the makers of ER’s live episode back in 1997 couldn’t resist having some underscore, even though that was ostensibly a documentary. Yep, I notice this stuff.
* The influence of Joss Whedon is in evermore places. One of Whedon’s former writers on Buffy the Vampire Slayer has written a hit film. And this is a good thing.
* And I was crushing on Marlena (Lizzy Caplan). I like her resourcefulness, and her flashes of annoyed humor…
* I was wrong about that, as I learned later when I saw effects stills and the toy version of the monster.