A US Godzilla?

This isn’t a review. That will come later. These are just some initial thoughts on Cloverfield, producer J.J. Abrams’ (of “Lost” fame) and director Matt Reeves’ excellent giant monster film.

In literally the first moments, while the production company logos are on the screen, there is a “reference” to the original Gojira: a series of pounding, bass beats, like a heavy tread. This is also how Gojira started.

Personally, I loved the film, despite physiological difficulties with the shaky-camera technique. It was new (using old techniques), it was carefully constructed (despite its appearance of casual accident), it was scary. Giant monster movies are rarely scary.

Some initial thoughts:

  1. This is an “American” Godzilla film not because it has Godzilla in New York, but because it does for the US in the 2000s post-9-11 what “Gojira” did for the Japanese in the 1950s post-Hiroshima.
  2. The film is not plot-driven; rather it’s about what it’s like emotionally to be an ordinary person caught up in a giant monster attack. There is a very basic story, but this is about the experience. Hence, the human characters matter.
  3. There are no explanations given, no origins, no rationale. The unanswered questions are the point, of course. This is about ordinary people. Ordinary people don’t get answers. Or they get many answers, all speculation based on partial knowledge, ambiguous snatches of experience, vague glimpses. They escape or they get killed. They are not “the omnipotent hero”, “the in-the-know agent”, or “the knowledgeable scientist”. They engage in small heroisms only. And those heroisms are performed in the dark. Any rationalisation would come later, after the events of the film. And even that would be mostly speculation or propagandist spin anyway. Just like 9-11. If you want answers, bad luck. Welcome to the real world.
  4. Mind you, it appears we get one answer to a major question in the very last scene (the taped-over footage of Coney Island) — at least by way of implication. Very subtle, but rather clever.
  5. This film is short, which it has to be. The street-level, hand-held digital camera technique is used cleverly and thoughtfully and it totally works — but there’s only so much you can take. I started to feel nauseous with the movement about halfway through, as did my partner and many others. So be warned. (But on the other hand I did make it through. I didn’t, and haven’t been able to, get through “Blair Witch” in the cinema or on DVD.) Reeves is conscious of the potential problem of motion sickness and tries to control it through a rhythm of action and stillness.
  6. I was really impressed by how effectively and seamlessly information was conveyed through shifts in perspective, snatches of carefully chosen “random” dialogue, gradual build-up of image fragments, placement — even the excellent use of the “pre-existing” footage that Hud is taping over, as we get snatches of it, filling out (often ironically) the romantic backstory.
  7. Contrary to what some people have suggested you definitely see the monster. But the film works up to it — in rather clever ways. You do not see the beastie in its totality all the way through. And it’s a fantastic monster — alien, indescribable, yet curiously “realistic” in its alienness.
  8. The first US giant monster film to take the genre absolutely seriously in making the kaiju resonate with the times without simply replicating the nuclear or standard environmental metaphors of the past.
  9. The end-credit music is superb.

Cloverfield is not a typical Hollywood action blockbuster. As a result, it will probably have limited appeal. On the other hand the film has already (as of two days after the opening) made something like $16 million on a budget of $25-$30 million or so. It will never earn what I Am Legend (for example) will make, but it may very well be more profitable.

As an article on CNN concludes:

It all depends on how you measure success. I’m figuring Paramount may not have a $200 million box office on their hands. (If they thought it would be bigger, they wouldn’t have released it in January.) But Abrams and friends have created a film that is a raucous, head-rattling thrill ride of a flick. And they did it for less than what Will Smith will report to the IRS for his role in “I Am Legend.”

Read the rest of the article here.

Will Cloverfield start a new movement in giant monster films?

Perhaps. I sort of hope, however, that we won’t get a slew of jerky hand-held camera films. My stomach wouldn’t take it. Cloverfield uses the technique superbly, but once was enough.

Putting aside arguments about the merits of individual movies (on which subject I’m sure divided opinion is inevitable), it’s hard not to see a giant monster renaissance taking place anyway, post-Godzilla Final Wars (2004). The big guy might have gone into stasis, but his “last” film (which I enjoyed for what it was) led into:

    • King Kong (Peter Jackson’s remake)
    • Gamera the Brave
    • Spielberg’s War of the Worlds
    • Transformers
    • The Host
    • D-Wars
    • Cloverfield

… all of which are biggish budgeted and fairly decent films. OK, Transformers and War of the Worlds are “big robot” movies, but the principles of daikaiju eiga are all there. Jackson’s Kong is unlikely to lead to anything directly, just as the original Kong only influenced the genre indirectly and several decades later. And D-Wars was not a box-office success. Nevertheless, giant monster fans have been gifted with these films over the past few years. And there are also a plethora of low-budget Sci-Fi channel films, too, though few would argue that they have much by way of great merit, being cheap, cliched and very repetitive. Still, despite the negatives, some of them are good for an hour or two’s mindless monster action. I like giant snake movies. And Octopi.

There has even been a TV series — one that I found riveting and which had a lot of potential to go even further, until it was axed. I’m talking about “Surface”, of course.

Then there are the various dragon movies, such as Eragon, if you want to count those.

What the heck! Here’s everything with prominent giant monsters (except dragons) in it that I can think of since 2004:

    • Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid (US, 2004; dir. Dwight H. Little)
    • Boa vs Python (US, 2004; dir. David Flores)
    • Dragon Storm (US-2004; dir. Stephen Furst)
    • Garuda (Thai, 2004; dir. Monthon Arayangkoon)
    • Monster Island (Canada/US-2004; dir. Jack Perez)
    • Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (US/UK/Italy, 2004; dir. Kerry Conran)
    • Ultraman (2004; dir. Kazuya Konaka) aka Ultraman: The Next
    • King Kong (NZ/US, 2005; dir. Peter Jackson)
    • King of the Lost World (US-2005; dir. Leigh Scott)
    • Komodo vs. Cobra (US-2005; dir. Jim Wynorski)
    • Pteradactyl (US, 2005; dir. Mark L. Lester)
    • The Snake King (US, 2005; dir. Allan A. Goldstein)
    • Stinger (Sweden/US-2005; dir. Martin Munthe)
    • War of the Worlds (US-2005; dir. Steven Spielberg)
    • Wakusei daikaiju Negadon (2005; dir. Jun Awazu) aka Negadon: the Monster from Mars
    • Yokai daisenso (2005; dir. Takashi Miike) aka The Great Yokai War
    • Basilisk: The Serpent King (US, 2006; dir. Louie Myman)
    • Cry of the Winged Serpent (US, 2006; dir. Jamie Wagner)
    • D-War (South Korea, 2006; dir. Hyung-rae Shim)
    • The Fallen Ones (US, 2005; dir. Kevin VanHook
    • Gamera: Chiisaka yusha-tachi (2006; dir. Ryuta Tazaki) aka Gamera the Brave
    • Gwoemul (South Korea, 2006; dir. Joon-ho Bong) aka The Host
    • Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep (US, 2006; dir. Tibor Takács)
    • Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (US, 2006; dir. Gore Verbinski)
    • Ice Spiders (US-2007; dir. Tibor Takács)
    • Transformers (US-2007; dir. Michael Bay)
    • Transmorphers (US-2007; dir. Leigh Scott)
    • The Water Horse (US-2007; dir. Jay Russell)
    • Cloverfield (US-2008; dir. Matt Reeves)
    • Monster (US-2008; dir. Eric Forsberg)

There was also a glimpse of a giant monster in The Mist, I believe.

Coming giants that I know of are:

    • Transformers 2
    • The Host 2
    • Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s rumoured suitmation film about monsters attacking Tokyo, Giant Monsters Attack Japan!
    • the live-action film of Neon Genesis Evangelion (if it ever happens).

Not bad, all round.

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4 Responses to A US Godzilla?

  1. Pingback: Transformers » A US Godzilla?

  2. Todd says:

    Good info, Rob.

    Can’t wait to read your review.
    I was very impressed with CLOVERFIELD,
    and hope to have purchased a giant HD screen
    by the time the DVD comes out. I agree that
    this is probably the only truly “scary” giant monster
    ever to make it to celluloid (or digitally;0), though
    there have certainly been many “cool” giant monsters
    I have known and loved.

    Todd

  3. I completely agree with all of your points. These guys get that less is more, both from a visual and plot perspective. Plus the end credits music was very cool.

    And I’m STILL kicking myself for missing that last shot.

  4. Backbrain says:

    I missed the moment, too, Steven. It’ll give me something to look for when I watch the film again (doped up on Dramamine this time). In an interview I came across director Matt Reeves confirms that “something” can be seen in the background falling into the harbour behind Coney Island — and suggests that the something is indeed … well, you know.

    I’ve also been told that the logo of the Dharma Initiative (from Abrams’ “Lost”) appears on the official notices during the opening prologue sequence…

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