by Lucius Shepard
March 8, 2008
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. . . . No, scratch that. It was the worst of times. January at the multiplex. A time for Uwe Boll, for DOA comedies starring Ted Danson and Queen Latifah, for loser thrillers and stale action pics (can I get a Rambo!), and for the JJ Abrams “high concept” film, Cloverfield.
For those unfamiliar with Double-J, in the early 90s he was anointed the next Steven Spielberg by those who believed that having two Spielbergs was a good thing. His first script, Regarding Henry, was lauded by Hollywood folk as brilliant and sensitive. It told the story of a soulless yuppie who, after taking a bullet in the head, becomes a warm, loving human being (an interesting object lesson, if not an interesting movie). Since then he’s given us such treats as the Mel Gibson schmaltzfest, Forever Young, Armageddon, and MI3. He has also given us several TV series, notably Lost, a show that had one good season before decaying into a soap opera-ish mire of flashbacks and cryptic teases whose annoyance factor reminds of the computer game Myst, its apparent model.
From this brief resume you may reasonably assume that Abrams has never had an original thought. In keeping with this, he now brings us Cloverfield, a picture that apes both the viral hype and visual style of The Blair Witch Project. In other words, it’s a movie consisting entirely of “found” camcorder footage such as might have been shot by a drunk at a barbecue (if Blair Witch’s jumpy camera movement made you nauseous, you want to stay away from Cloverfield) and is prefaced by a block of white print on a black screen that tells us this footage was recovered from the area formerly known as Central Park, now called Cloverfield. Nothing further is offered to explain the change in designation. This was the coolest part of the movie.
Abrams has written of Cloverfield that “We live in a time of great fear . . . ” and follows this heady statement by saying . . . having a movie that is about something as outlandish as a massive creature attacking your city allows people to process and experience that fear in a way that is incredibly entertaining and incredibly safe.” Watching the film’s debris clouds boil along Manhattan avenues, with fleeing people covered in dust, and listening to cell phone calls from moms and terrified girlfriends, and so forth, I wondered if Abrams actually believes the American public has a need to find entertainment value in the agony of the thousands who suffered in 9/11, or if he understands that this is merely another means of desensitizing us. Was it his notion that the next time we confront a terrorist attack, we’ll think of his movie and feel safe? Does he think his Godzilla-meets-Felicity (another Abrams series) scenario provides the opportunity for a meaningful dialogue about the central issue of the day? Or is this inane statement typical of a cynical exploiter who seeks to staple a mask of social commentary to his banal take on contemporary culture, populated by a twenty-something cast with the personalities of Pez dispensers, who screech and urge one another to run and say Oh God, Oh God a lot, perhaps a reaction to the fact that they’re trapped in Yet Another Yuppie Swine (Which One Of Us Dies First) Movie? If the film weren’t so unendingly stupid, it would have pissed me off.
Cloverfield is mercifully short, clocking in at a little more than seventy minutes minus its interminable end credits, and about one-fifth of that time is taken up by the opening sequence, a loft party given for Rob (Mark David-Stahl), who’s soon to leave to become a VP with an unnamed multinational in Japan. Taping the proceedings and offering comic_ironic.com asides is Rob’s oafish friend Hud (TJ Miller). Beth, Rob’s ex-girlfriend (Odette Yusman), puts in an appearance to flaunt her new guy. She also turns up in snippets of the tape that Hud is shooting over, scenes from Rob-and-Beth’s romance (odd, since Rob clearly has feelings for Beth—he slept with her recently). The ambiance is all gelled hair and lip gloss, the conversation heavy on sentences that end in “dude” and Hallmark homily. “Forget about the world and hang onto those people you love the most,” advises Rob’s brother Jason (Mark Vogel), who also opines that . . . It’s about moments, man.”
Words to live by, dude.
Having introduced us to these character types (though not defining them much beyond the level of “hottie”), director Matt Reeves (Felicity) and screenwriter Drew Goddard (Lost and Alias) bring on explosions, fireballs shooting across the sky, the destruction of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the decapitated head of Lady Liberty lying in the street while milling New Yorkers pause to snap pictures with their phones. You can almost hear a collective, “Awesome!” This, one of Cloverfield’s few intriguing moments, seems to presage that the movie will examine the gimmickry of our culture, but it soon becomes evident that the entire film is a gimmick and that nothing will be examined in depth, not even the monster, a neat special effect: an enormous crustaceo-dino-beast with a whiplike tail, carrying a population of relatively tiny, lightning-fast crab-things that scoot through Manhattan, creating a more personal mayhem. Despite its uniqueness, the monster never acquires a personality as did the monster in Joon-ho Bong’s The Host. The film is too focused upon its least developed, least compelling, most disengaging element: its human characters.
A distraught voicemail from Beth, trapped in her imperiled Columbus Circle apartment, inspires Rob to attempt a rescue, thereby making the sort of decision that anyone who has ever seen a Hollywood movie knows not to make. For all its video verite posturing, the movie is rife with such decisions (Let’s go down that dark, creepy subway tunnel!), with hackneyed storytelling devices and aesthetic choices and stock bits of comic relief that dispel the illusion of realism. Accompanied by a posse of his Scooby-friends, Rob begins a trek that takes them from Spring Street to Central Park South, where the army is evacuating survivors. Included in the group is Hud, who demonstrates a zeal for recording the events of the trip that exceeds the fanatical, continuing to shoot while bridges collapse beneath him and his friends bleed out and die. . . . This snaps the last thread suspending one’s disbelief.
The Brooklyn Bridge has taken a beating lately. Dispatched by a mighty whack of a monster’s tail in Cloverfield and, a month earlier, blown up to prevent the infected from leaving Manhattan in I Am Legend. Purportedly a fourth remake of Richard Matheson’s short novel, Legend is actually a remake of 1971’s The Omega Man, with Will Smith’s guilt-riddled, despairing Dr. Robert Neville replacing Charlton Heston’s macho, macho man. Francis Lawrence, who directed the underrated Constantine, keeps things rolling for the first hour—a neat trick considering that hour is all set-up—and Smith does a credible job of carrying the picture. His Neville is a military scientist whose family died in a worldwide pandemic that killed most of humanity, a viral cancer-cure gone horribly wrong. Most of the survivors have been transformed into super-strong, super-fast creatures of the night, bloodthirsty mutants that are allergic to sunlight. Only a very few, like Neville, have complete immunity. As far as he knows, he may be the last man on earth.
Neville has carved out an efficient survivalist life, collecting corn from a field in Central Park, hunting for game with his dog Sam, working in his basement lab to find a cure, experimenting on mutants that he traps like animals; but his sanity is eroding. He has begun, for instance, to have relationships edging toward the delusional with the mannequins he’s placed in a video store. At night, locked away in his Washington Square stronghold, he curls up in his bathtub with a rifle, while the mutants hunt and howl outside. Into his life come a young woman (Alice Braga) and a child (Charlie Tahan) whose purpose, it seems, is merely to serve as a plot device and to point up the extent of Neville’s erosion. . . . And then the movie ends. It jumps from early in the second act to the climactic events.
Though the mutants were a letdown, bad CGI rendering them as video game ghoulies crossed with the zombies of 28 Days Later, the set-up had been handled with such care, the atmospherics of a deserted Manhattan accomplished with such painstaking detail and to such poignant effect, I was settling in for what promised to be another entertaining hour, and bam! Everything wrapped with unseemly haste, as if the director and cast had somewhere else to be or maybe the screenwriter ran out of paper. Lately, having a good set-up and no third act has become an inexplicable trend in Hollywood. (Michael Clayton, for example, had a similar structure, yet few seemed bothered—it earned improbable Oscar nominations for, among others, Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.) It’s hard to believe nobody noticed this. Perhaps they just don’t care, perhaps when a film reaches a predetermined limit of 90 or 120 minutes, they just slap a sticker on it and shove it out the door. Yet at the same time there is a contrary trend: many studio films these days run to two-and-a-half hours. Oh, well. These mysteries will endure—we can but ponder them. Whatever the case, I’d rather sit through a bad movie than be frustrated by half a decent one.
The Orphanage, directed by first-timer Juan Antonio Bayona and written by Sergio G. Sanchez, is another flawed movie; yet its flaws don’t necessarily prevent you from having a good time at the theater. In a creepy, creaky, many-celled monster of a house in northern Spain, Laura (Belen Rueda), her husband and her son Simon pass their days in pleasant solitude. The house once was used as an orphanage where Laura spent her youth, and her husband plans to re-open it as a home for special-needs children. Simon, a lonely kid, has become so obsessed with his imaginary friends Watson and Pepe, that Laura has begun to worry about him. When she takes a walk with him one day to the cliffs overlooking the sea, she loses him in a cave; when he reappears, he seems to have acquired several more imaginary friends and that ignites the terrifying engine of the plot and stirs into action the evil of the place.
Bayona knows how to create mood and build suspense and he also knows how to scare the hell out of you—I must have had seven or eight moments when I scooted lower in my chair, bracing my knees against the seat in front of me, realizing he was about to get me . . . and he got me, anyway. Got me good. As a ghost story, The Orphanage is a heart-stopper. You’re right with Laura as she gradually comes to recognize the peril in which she’s put her family. And though he’s a bit of a cliché, that kid with the gunny sack over his head whom you may have seen in the previews, he’ll stick with you a while. The problem is that the movie’s tropes—hidden crimes, foggy lighthouses, lost children, etc—are overly familiar and its influences too much in view. Bayona appears to quote from every director in the Spanish new wave, especially from Almenabar and from his producer and mentor, Guillermo del Toro, whose favorite themes and stylistic tricks can be seen throughout; and he quotes from other directors as well, memorably from Don Siegel’s The Beguiled, Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, a film that I suspect must have been shown frequently in Spanish film schools during the last few decades. If you can go past this off-putting display of the familiar and let yourself be drawn in by the power of Rueda’s performance (and it is a truly noteworthy, awards-caliber performance), you’ll have a hell of a ride.