Cloverfield and Assumptions

If you don’t like spoilers, if you have not seen this film, go watch it, then come back. I’ll wait….

(Are they gone? Let’s start without them. Posers.)

I saw Cloverfield this weekend, and it is a good flick. And hell, anything even tangentially related to this is happy awesome good pop. But underneath the film are a number of metaphors and curiosities waiting to be picked at. No, not the “facebook generation’s” obsession with self. (Sigh, that particularly lazy missive came from the usually brilliant Ty Burr, in an otherwise readable review. What is it with the OCD need to categorize and label generations?)

Anywho.

I’ve noticed something at work in, oh, every disaster/apocalypse/creature movie ever made. There is always a last resort military strike that kills large amounts of innocents. Think of the zombie movies people! How many grim generals/presidents have you seen push the button to nuke the nasties, only to find out “oh God, it did nothing!”. (The rest of this review really does go into spoiler land, so I’m adding a rare split post tag thingy to prevent accidental viewings. If you don’t want this movie spoiled, come back when you’ve seen it (or don’t care).

So the big secret is that no, the monster is not dead. And why would it be? If the blasted thing could stand up to that much introductory firepower, why wouldn’t it be nigh invincible? (And of course the parasites would have escaped via the subways). Point is, the idea that the military would take such desperate but ultimately ineffective action is burned into our expectations for how the world works.  We expect our leadership to ultimately take a utilitarian and callous approach, one that is doomed to failure.  How jaded is that?

I’m not a film history buff, but this appears to be an outgrowth of the cynical depiction of leadership that grew out of the fear of the cold war.  A fear that was tempered during the 60’s and 70’s when it became crystal clear that in real life, our own government would resort to the most vile, underhanded, and violent actions to achieve its goals.

Fast forward to the present.  What struck me about that aspect of the movie was that, when it came down to it, both the violent overreaction and futility of said action were so ingrained that my friends and I all expected such a move.  Now this wasn’t Return of the Living Dead, but the absence of the brass from the movie provides a novel way of painting the detachment expressed in ROTLD.  There the general is in bed a safe distance from the mayhem when he is called upon to make his decision.

I wonder.  This isn’t something that appeared in movies suddenly, rather, it is an assumption playing in the movies I’ve grown up with.  When I took a step back, it hit me.  So I wonder what other assumptions make sense in our sense of the movie universe, and how those assumptions translate out into the world.

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11 Responses

  1. One word: Hiroshima.

  2. See the host for a good move that is a monster movie on the surface but is really a little deeper. Assuming cloverfield was supposed to be some kind of political commentary.

  3. ralfast,
    I think Hiroshima did fundamentally alter our view of ourselves in the universe, but ultimately, it was viewed as having succeeded in its purpose. The cynicism here goes deeper, I think.

    brian,
    (I really do need to see the Host). I really don’t think that it was political, just that it shares a political message that by this point has become a part of the pavement of the genre. We’d be surprised if an element of mistrust wasn’t there, I think.

  4. Romero makes clear the military is part of the problem in his films and it is no surprise that he is an independent filmmaker who works outside of Hollywood with budgets considered tiny. Perhaps ‘The Crazies’ deals with it the most, a plague caused by the state being brutally put down by the state, but that kind of radicalism is missing in contemporary films (even when you just compare various remakes). They are after all corporate funded entertainments who thrive on cliche, a communal way to let off steam rather than inspire change. So yes that does lead to an acculturated jaded palate. But that also is about the dominant film form which in America and elsewhere in the mainstream (and no mistake why commercial directors move into features) is an immersive seduction for the viewer, Brechtian forms or struturalist approaches for example where the viewer is kept at a remove to constantly question the film and its intentions are not commerically so profitable. There is room for both, a good escapist seduction is often what you need after a tough week, but when that becomes the only form the intelligence and usefulness of that artform suffers. But then again why should it be different from the general audio/visual culture which is about inciting desire leading to dissatisfaction to be assuaged by immediate gratification and the subduing of intellectual enquiry. An empire needs malleable subjects not questioning involved citizens, most of all it needs uncritical consumers.

    Yes ‘The Host’ is quite fun although I don’t think it is explicitly poltitical so much as seeing a movie not from an American perspective is quite a change for many people. The director is quite active though, he protested free trade proposals that would have swamped Korean cinema with US product which would slowly have wrecked their industry- which perversely has given Hollywood some big succeses and injected much needed creativity.
    Interview with author David L. Robb
    Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon shapes and censors the movies
    http://www.motherjones.com/news/qa/2004/09/09_403.html

  5. Maybe the reason the “last resort” fallback has become so pervasive is more one of creativity than anything else. I can assure you that writers are always trying to find new ways to make their endings more memorable. The inevitable nuke ending always feels like it was pushed onto the film by directors or executives for two reasons.

    1) Films need resolution. It’s a known fact (through focus group viewings with alternate endings) that people like things to be resolved somehow at the end of a movie. Most people don’t really like that uneasy feeling when things are left hanging. Since you spend most of your time telling the story, you don’t have a lot of time at the end to bring things to some kind of acceptable conclusion. A giant explosion usually does this quite nicely. And it uses up the rest of your effects budget (of which there was none for Cloverfield).

    2) Considering point one, what else are you gonna do? A giant rampaging monster or unstoppable zombie horde don’t leave you a lot of options when conventional weapons have failed. I just spent 5 minutes trying to think of some other method and I got nothing. People expect the military to fix things. They generally fix things with bombs. Hence your final plot point really kind of writes itself.

    PS – If you want entertaining fiction about really dealing with the zombie apocalypse, read World War Z by Max Brooks. Good stuff.

  6. RickB,
    He’s going to remake the crazies, apparently. Now I’m really looking forward to it! Thanks muchly for the motherjones link. I’ve read it way back in the day, and it was a great read.

    Marco,
    Cloverfield didn’t have a resolution. The director practically danced on our collective faces with the precise opposite of a resolution. Hints and rumors. (I say this, but I’m definitely seeing the sequel).

    What else. Maybe scientists start hypothesizing what the creature is made of, and various chemical concoctions are thrown on the creature to attempt to melt it? Maybe there is a psychological element (as the director has taken pains to point out), and there is a psychological solution? Oh maybe one of the extras is seen in training montages, beating up parasites, until he’s able to punch the thing’s head all the way to the other coast. Something new can’t be all that hard, and it doesn’t even have to be in keeping with the movie’s tone. I’d love to see a movie that takes itself seriously, leaking no hints at all of mockery, until the very last seen when the “monster” takes off its mask and says “uh, you gonna finish that? The pizza. Way tastier than people. Well… no one thought to offer me a slice. Thanks for nothing NY!” And fade to black.

    Speaking of which, when are you going to help me write the “period piece”?
    I think I may need to post this online, and see if I can spur this must make movie into existence.

  7. Interesting point. One thing that tends to bug me about the “unkillable monster” is that in fact all biological creatures are easily killable with large amounts of firepower. I think J.J. Abrams has stated that the origin of the creature is from the ocean, not extraterrial.

    Aside from that, I do feel that the portrayal of the military personnel was fairly positive in this movie. They evacuate the citizens. They protect them. They aren’t outright assholes and seem professional. The only bit of callousness (one might think) is the decision to use operation Hammer Down (IIRC the name) but its never stated that the firepower used is nuclear.

    Anyway I thought the portrayal of the military was a set up from say 28 Weeks Later.

  8. Thanks Cat,
    And that is a good point. The military characters in the movie, though their roles were brief, were quite likeable. I agree their actions were just what they should have been. (And it is certainly a step up from 28 weeks later!)

    Hammer Down is the quintessential “containment” strategy, its just become something of a fetish. Although Alien vs Predator 2 really carries the supposed nastiness of the move to an extreme, given the trickery involved.

    Spoiler:

    Essentially they tell the survivors to head to the center of town, but this is essentially to attract the aliens to a central location for a tactical nuke. They are going beyond merely sacrificing the lives of a few, and actively using them as bait. Nasty.

    It still weirds me out that this scenario is so prevalent and expected.

  9. Replying to Dans comment (the page starter) the beauty of this movie is the film makers left the rest of the story to our imagination, like the directors in “Castaway” (not as blunt of course, there were not 4 roads to pick). It also left more than enough questions unanswered ( like what happened to the monster, what were those bugs that fell off the creature, why did the bites lead to human combustioin: the girl exploding)which was also a love hate thing.

    (just a notice I did not read all of the replies so if I am just repeating what other have already said I apologize)

    There is no solid proof of what happened afterwards to the monster, wether it lived or died is up to one’s own imagination. Same with the citizen’s and Military men in the area. For all we know (and in my opinion what happened) the two lovers at the end could have been the only beings in Manhattan besides the beast. (for all we know the hoars seated up in the carrage found a ride)

    Now the thing that probably baffles a few is the name of the movie. Most people would think “oh it’s probably the movie worlds future name for it.” Now probably some people may have come to this conclusion (like I said I am not sure what the directors origional plan on the story was, I could be way off I could have hit the nail on the head) about where the name came from.

    The very last resort, was of course to A-bomb the area, which they did. In my opinion the blast DID kill the monster, either that or maimed it to the point ti just died a few hours later or they sent in some non radioactive bombs to finish the job. Now of course this meant the area was completely terminated, nothing was left, no subways, no towers no cement. Which makes me wonder how the camera survived.(but hey it’s just a movie am I right?) So back to what I was saying since humanity was once again safe, and Manhattan was completely anhialated.

    Now a clowver, the actual plant is one of the hardiest plants known on earth and as such, one of the very first to rebuddle after a major devistation in any one area. So as I was saying in the paragraph above, Manhattan was completely annihalated with a DIRTY BOMB, as such the area would be unliveable. So nature would of course take over and in that sence “clowvers” would spawn making it the biggest “Clowverfield” probably in the world.

  10. Interesting point about the plant clovers. I suspect though that the name has personal meaning to the script writer (J.J. Abrams was only the producer, not director and even he supposidely doesn’t know the significance of the name).

    I mean, the answer is a lot like Lost. Sure you can retcon some meaning onto the name but my guess is the origin is “it just sounded cool to the script writer.”

  11. I heard that it was named on a whim after a street in NYC. Of course, when pressed Robert Frost would sometimes mention that “The Road Not Taken” was just a poem making fun of an indecisive friend…

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