It is impossible not to think of 9/11 while watching the new, mysterious monster movie "Cloverfield."
It's not just the film's setting of Manhattan and the destruction of national landmarks - the Statue of Liberty - that immediately bring to mind that unforgettable day seven years ago. The film's narrative technique further intensifies the experience of the film in the context of the attack on the World Trade Center.
The story is told from the point of view of a digital camera. Rob (Michael Stahl-David) is a twenty-something New Yorker who recently accepted an executive position in Japan. His friends are throwing him a surprise going away party and his brother Jason (Mike Vogel) had the idea to record the whole thing. Once the party begins Jason passes off video duty to Hud (T. J. Miller) who begins recording guests giving Rob farewell messages. Once the party begins further tension is revealed when it's discovered that a few weeks ago Rob had had sex with his best friend Beth (Odette Yustman) and things grew complicated. The two have an argument and Beth leaves.
It's shortly thereafter that an explosion rocks the apartment. The party rushes out onto the apartment rooftop to see that something is happening to the city - just what is yet to be determined. Soon it becomes apparent that a creature of some kind has attacked the city. The head of the Statue of Liberty has been knocked off and lands in the streets. The partygoers soon rush for shelter and then begin evacuation. Rob has other plans, though. He gets a call from Beth who is trapped in her apartment. Choosing to right the wrong he's done he decides not to escape the city and instead goes to rescue Beth. He's followed by Lily (Jessica Lucas,) Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) and Hud, who continues filming everything with the camera.
The result of the handheld camera technique is to play upon one of the truisms of fear: something is infinitely scarier if we do not understand it. Shots of the creature are carefully limited. We do not know what it is, where it's from, what its abilities are, how it can be killed, what its motives are... By making that choice, the filmmakers have upped the ante ever so much higher, ratcheting up the tension to create one of recent film's greatest rollercoaster rides. Further exploiting the "unknown factor" you also never really know when the movie is over. Just when it seems as though the protagonists have turned the corner and everything's going to be OK, it's not. The roller coaster has another twist, a steeper drop, a more terrifying flip.
Thankfully, though, the film does not keep you on edge the entire time. It knows when to give you a break. It appropriately punctuates the action sequences with effective dramatic scenes and comic relief. Hud, the character filming, effectively serves as the tension breaker. He's the kind of idiot friend we all know, all have, and love. The fact that his moronic mutterings throughout the film actually provoke laughter instead of annoyance is just further evidence of the filmmakers' talent. He could have very easily ruined the entire movie, making it all but un-watchable by forcing us to endure some horrible commentary.
Between the unknown factor, the setting, and even the specific images, 9/11 is everywhere. One could see how some could - and have - criticized this aspect of the picture. Is it "exploitive" or offensive of the memory of those who died on 9/11 to utilize its images and themes in an entertainment? I don't think so. That day has become so central to our culture that we have to deal with it. It's infinitely better to explore it in art and popular culture than to put it on a pedestal, mark "off limits," and ignore the feelings and images that it created in our collective national consciousness.
The film is a glorious success, remaining enveloping and entertaining throughout. There's just one significant flaw, one moment in which the spell is broken that I will not forgive or forget. It's this single decision that drops the film from an otherwise solid A to an A-. Cell phones play a particularly large role in the film. Throughout the movie - whether it be at the party or when the destruction begins - people have their phones out and they're recording things and taking pictures. Fine. That's real, it makes sense. At one point Rob, the protagonist, has to rush into an electronics store to get a new battery for his phone so that he can get a hold of Beth. Fine, it's real, it's relevant to the plot. I'll look the other way, it's not a big deal that the brand of cell phone and the brand of battery is very well displayed. All that's fine. I don't have a problem with products appearing in a film when they can logically be there. When the characters break open vending machines while they're in the subway, it's OK for the brand names to be in the background.
What is absolutely not OK, what totally ripped me out of the movie, temporarily ruined my cinematic experience, is when an advertisement is just unnecessarily stuck in the background. It's during one of those breaks from the action. Our four heroes are in the subway and Rob is on the phone revealing that someone has just been killed. It's a very dramatic, emotional moment. And what's there in the background? A poster advertising the cell phone brand that was featured earlier. There is no excuse for that. I'm supposed to be having an emotional experience here, empathizing with the situation of the characters, and instead I'm being advertised to. It's the worst episode of product placement I can recall since "Collateral" in which there were numerous full-on shots of the top of the taxi cab, featuring the beer advertisement filling up the entire screen. It's a mortal sin that absolutely cannot be forgiven.
So, product placement aside, "Cloverfield" is a great start for 2008. Hopefully producer J.J. Abrams will do an equally good job of closing out the year with his next special effects, science fiction picture, "Star Trek," set to open next Christmas.