By Ray Pride
Self-pity is a terrible thing to taste.
Last weekend’s $46-million top-grosser reeks of it. “Cloverfield” is a triumph of brilliant mass-marketing, largely because its makers have left the monster hidden, but only just beneath its silly surface, the monster that is trumpeted by Rudolph Giuliani for his raison d’etre as a politician, man and savior, and aptly summarized by Senator Joe Biden as “noun, verb, 9/11.”
In its seventy-one-minute length (without counting the extended credits), “Cloverfield,” masterminded by producer J. J. Abrams (“Lost,” “Mission Impossible: III”) and director Matt Reeves (“The Pallbearer,” “Felicity”) goes farther than earlier movies like Phil Alden Robinson’s “The Sum Of All Fears,” (2002) which offhandedly depicted the nuclear annihilation of tens of millions of U. S. citizens in a creamy, dreamy wallow in the pornographic fantasy of martyrdom by forces that are literally larger than you, dark, looming. “The Sum of All Fears” would not be a bad title here, either, rather than the nonsensical name, perhaps intended as the name of a secret government project, referring to Central Park, but also the name of a street near where Abrams types by day. The title typifies the cavalier attitude toward moviegoers.
A crowd of undifferentiated thirtysomethings has gathered at a loft party that seems near Battery City, a few blocks below the Ground Zero site. Hip-lite tunes play. Modest intrigues play out from the perspective of a single video camera (yet with film-style editing and likely shot with a professional camera like the Genesis HD). Formally, I get the notion and admire it in a film-school kind of way. But what a covey of knobs, cock-blocks and shit-twits. They’re sort of like Whit Stillman’s characters if they lacked language, history and boasted scabby, post-“Felicity” hairdos. They’re not sainted naïfs, but rubes positioned as martyrs.
It’s a canny strategy, twenty-five minutes or so of deadly nothing, you get antsy for the ill shit to transpire. An unbearable amount of time is spent with our shallow friends before explosions are heard a few blocks uptown. From the roof, explosions can be seen. On the street below, a projectile thunders and skids their way. The green cast thrown by a falling, sparking streetlamp across the decapitated head of Lady Liberty is striking. The crowd masses, lemming to lummox, capturing cell phone and digital snaps. Memory card supplants collective memory. Narcissistic self-chronicle persists even—especially! —in the face of imminent apocalypse. “This will be important!” one character murmurs as missiles approach the citizens rushing across the wood-slatted footpaths of the Brooklyn Bridge.
The tunes drop away. The moaning begins. 9/11 comes home once more. What comes is not metaphor, not monster metaphysics, but simple, hardly inflected terror porn. Consider the indelible image of roiling chalk-white, cement-gray, bone-pale clouds of dust from sundered edifices; A4 sheets in suspension in still, yet mote-filled air; a corridor of once-tenements bitten away by flame and blast as hot as Dresden in World War II. We are witness to the systematic culling of dumb, privileged, blandly attractive thirtysomethings: “The Abercrombie Blair Fitch Project.” The effect is like erecting a rollercoaster at the corner of West Street and Liberty.
While the fear in “Cloverfield” is given the face of a reptilian alien intent on demolishing Manhattan—Osama bin Zilla?—the unsettling underlying implication is that the makers, however unintentionally, favor the dark forces. In the depiction of an apocalypse that draws much of its strength from extensive appropriation of familiar iconography of that crisp, clear morning, “Cloverfield” seems to suggest Americans are incompetent, superficial, vain, drunken, promiscuous, soulless, self-regarding fools who deserve painful death. Somehow, this perspective has been heard in other quarters since the turn of the century, and to see this angle here is all the worse if the filmmakers don’t realize the indigestible impact of their monster movie. This is shallow appropriation, not the making of metaphor. Hardly an hour in, even knowing in advance how abbreviated the movie is, an immoral thought comes to mind: why were these soulless ciphers not slain sooner? Art ought not make you think such thoughts. “There’s some horrific shit in Midtown,” as a character bleats.
Movies at Sundance 2008 this week are rife with allusions to 9/11, the months before, the weeks after, and the discussion will continue. Are some topics taboo? I don’t think any are. I’d be the first to salute a genius who pitched the right tone for a slapstick black comedy about the absurd and Byzantine follies of Mohammed Atta and his crew in the weeks prior to the mass slaughter on 9/11. (I don’t think that genius exists, but that’s another matter.) “I Am Legend” traffics in annihilation, and it’s made half-a-billion dollars worldwide as of a few days ago. Its lonely Manhattan is far more resonant than the island-under-fire of “Cloverfield.”
“Cloverfield” essentially says that its characters and, by extension, its paying audience, deserves to be killed: New Yorkers, Americans, Abrams’ target demographic. I never thought I would see a movie made in the United States that was so gung-ho about 9/11.
“Cloverfield” is now playing.