Though its a sometimes-interesting exercise in high-concept mash-up (Godzilla-meets-Blair Witch, anyone?), ‘Cloverfield‘ really brings very little that’s new to the table.
Numerous reviewers have referred to ‘Cloverfield’ is horror for the Facebook generation, “because it’s not really happening unless it’s on videotape”. But to be more exact and closer to the point, ‘Cloverfield’ is authentic J-horror for Facebookii Americanus — J-horror made by and for narcissistic, web-ready American audiences.
What goes unremarked in J-horror fandom (that’s Japanese-horror for you non-initiates) and it’s American remakes is the frequent, petty school-kid antics that often form the subtext of these films in their original form – ‘The Ring‘ (or ‘Ringu’ the original Japanese title) is awash with petty, self-interested schoolkids trying to one-up one another in their grade-school social pecking orders. As much can be said of the original versions of ‘One Missed Call‘, ‘Ringu’ and the Pang Brothers’ original version of ‘The Eye‘.
In each of the original versions of these films, the narcissism of the principals virtually percolates off of the screen (or television, depending on whether it’s the big or small screen you watched it on). But because the originals are foreign films and we don’t have an intimate knowledge of these cultures, we take all of the gadgets, the obsessive text messaging and the school uniforms for granted. But what JJ Abrams and director Matt Reeves have done with ‘Cloverfield’ is modify the Japanese horror-movie formula very subtlely to reflect American anxiety, rather than those of SE Asia and Japan.
What Abrams, Reeves and writer Drew Goddard have done is successfully translate the anxiety of those J-horror movies to the American screen; what they’ve missed is the relative sophistication of American audiences as the movie’s emphasis on the hand-held camera (or often in J-horror flicks, camera-phone) stretches credulity. From the first sign of trouble, Reeves and Goddard insist that the camera remain in Turk’s hand and that Turk and other protagonists never appeal to any authorities – police, firefighters, etc. – for any guidance or assistance until a moment 3/4 through when the small band of friends literally trips over some soldiers making their rounds through the streets of a Cloverfield-ravaged Manhattan.
Is the message that Abrams, Reeves and Goddard trying to communicate about YouTube and MySpace kids too obsessed with internet celebrity to put down the camcorder to participate in a real-life crisis? Possibly. Or is it that celebrity trumps common-sense these days? Perhaps it’s just the legacy of low-budget hits like ‘Blair Witch’ and ‘Saw’ that forbid the story from breaking out of the first-person environs of the principals, but 40+ years of American disaster-cum-horror movies have taught American audiences to expect more from the movies they pay to see.
On the other hand, ‘Cloverfield’ seems to mine a lot of 9-11 PTSD for many of it’s chills – the head of the Statue of Liberty laying in the streets of Lower Manhattan; random mortar fire, an invisible enemy? — It all sounds like an average day in the Green Zone, rather than an authentic piece of entertainment.
I haven’t gotten around to reading this elaborate interview with Director Reeves, but one would hope that there’s evidence of greater forethought over there, as ‘Cloverfield’ otherwise ranks as just another virally-hyped disappointment that misses its mark — the camcorder gig is okay for the first 10 minutes or so, but at the 20 minute mark it became strained and I started to wonder if this exploration of this voyeuristic subculture wasn’t the *real* horror story.
Further, I can’t help but observe how much the Manhattan of Cloverfield must resemble downtown Baghdad and Fallujah at this point and reflect the Japanese fear of American occupation and cultural domination at the end of WWII.
If Abrams was missing the rubber-suit movies of his youth, he didn’t quite honor their memory with ‘Coverfield’, unless he intends the headless Liberty as a portent of our future relationship with terror.