Written by Torey Lightcap

Directed by Matt Reeves
Bad Robot, PG-13 rating

Cloverfield is the product of three people whose pedigrees are mostly built on television: the director Matt Reeves, the high-wattage producer J.J. Abrams, and one of the writers of “Lost,” Drew Goddard. As makers of televised content, these men have a strong sense for the postmodern aesthetic, where meaning is left to the viewer, narrative is based on the putting-together of loose strands, and the standards of beauty are entirely subjective.

Given these parameters, what they have made pretty much hews to what you’d expect: a grotesque “event” narrated and documented entirely by subjective camera operators who are also participants in the unfolding drama. We’ve seen this before, of course, in gonzo pictures like The Blair Witch Project, whose razor-thin plot depended not on special effects but on the viewer’s ability to suspend disbelief long enough to participate emotionally and psychologically in the story.

So just imagine that you had this frame of reference in mind for a film: a monster smashing things up, a small group of people struggling against odds, and one digital video camera to document the whole magilla. Small-time, small-stage, right? Now imagine that $30 million fell out of the sky so you could make your movie look and feel as realistic as possible. That’s what has happened here, and the result is something arguably innovative: an immense story of havoc and destruction succinctly unfurling through the tiny viewfinder of an ordinary digital videocamera. Okay, cool.

This is where it succeeds. Cloverfield’s vision is one of groundbreaking realism, startling verisimilitude for the YouTube generation of amateur auteurs. Horifically beautiful thing that it is, it affirms the times in which we live with startling alacrity.

Yet this is also, paradoxically, where it fails, because the affirmation of which I speak is a less a grand gesture and more of a frigid and distant wink. Cloverfield’s technical expertise may be unrivaled, but it’s bought at a bleak price. Save for one flat moment of romantic love that comes too late, the movie is a cold conceit of gross nihilism; and save for its Hollywood-standard rescue plot (a frail device indeed), it attaches itself to very little that might pass for hope, future, purpose, or morality.

The greatest special effects in the world can’t save Cloverfield from the time bomb that is itself. Its principle characters don’t change, and everyone else dies before you can care about them. Rather than tests of morality, it offers a cheap bravado tempered by hyper-real carnage, noise, blood, and screams.

Imagine a King Kong without Fay Wray begging the great ape to stop eating New York. Imagine a Citizen Kane where Kane’s best friend Jedediah Leland never writes that honest and scathing review of Kane’s wife’s new production. Imagine a Rocky in which Sylvester Stallone fights for ten rounds and then gets tired and goes home. Imagine any great film with its moral equivalents deleted. The conflict driving the story would be reduced to the simplest and broadest and silliest terms, and all we would have to do is ride along and not spill the popcorn.

Or would we? Because if faith really is totalizing—if it’s not just a sidelight or something we “do” but in fact a whole way of seeing all of life—if we take God’s intentions seriously—then we need to grapple with these messages when and where we find them, and the movie house is no exception. Exactly how we do that is largely an individualized process, but one which we hope occurs in the context of a community of fellow believers who understand the admonitions of Scripture.

We have to ask ourselves: what is the worldview being represented here? What does indiscrimate death, for example, mean to God? Who or what is the voice of conscience? What’s the purpose of a random menace coming to life, other than the pure spectacle of watching buildings fall? We have to wrestle with the picture and, if we find it ultimately meaningless or at odds with our narrative of belief, then we must possess the gall to say so and ask the responsible parties to do better next time.

We can hold to these truths and not waver on them because we believe that Christianity has many facets, and that one of them is gently correcting our brother when it’s obvious that he’s in the wrong. And in this case, it seems to me at least that it’s wrong to spend so much love making the devil look real and in the process allow the human story surrounding him to seem so fake, so preposterous, so ethically confounding. Monster movies are fine as a genre, and they can be truly instructive; but to forego people in the process—especially when those people occupy so much of the screen’s space and time … it just doesn’t add up.

The editor H.L. Gold said it well: “Few things reveal so sharply as science fiction the wishes, hopes, fears, inner stresses and tensions of an era, or define its limitations with such exactness.” This genre, in other words, defines us. If we hold Cloverfield to this psychological standard, then we’ll find within it an obsession with the capacities of technology and the desire to glorify pointless devastation. Are these really our hopes, our fears, our stresses, and our tensions?

Don’t we deserve more?

So. Mr. Abrams, Mr. Reeves, and Mr. Goddard: Will the next Cloverfield be another gee-whiz light show, or will it take up the responsibility to teach, exhort, and shed light? Will we ever learn from our monsters the way we used to? Can we have more King Kongs, Dr. Caligaris, Darth Vaders, Frankensteins, Nosferatus, and Wicked Witches? Or will these beasts from the depths of our ids just mug and flex and breathe fire and make murder their serial business?

From where I sit, lately we’ve had quite enough of the latter. 

Copyright ©2008 Torey Lightcap