Cloverfield as Social Criticism

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Tyler Cowen makes the strongest possible case for treating the movie as something more than an interesting gimmick:

I thought this was a remarkable cinematic event. But you need to know that the characters are supposed to be vacuous and annoying, and that the opening scene is supposed to be obnoxious and superficial. The heroism is supposed to be thin. (The whiney NYT review I read is, in retrospect, an embarrassment.) And that the movie is supposed to make you feel physically nauseated. You are in fact witnessing a disaster. Most of all this is a movie about how the young'uns have no tools for moral discourse and that all they can do is utter banalities and take endless pictures of each other and record their lives for no apparent purpose. I can't recall any other movie that so completely devastates its intended demographic.

My review, forthcoming in the next NR, takes a similar tack to that whiney NYT review Cowen mentions. I'd like to think that the filmmakers had the sort of Waugh-esque agenda in mind that he describes, but I don't think the film bears his reading out. (Mild spoilers follow.)

For one thing, the film does have a classic heroic arc. Cowen calls it “thin,” but the only thing that’s thin are the characters who enact it; the actual decision to cross a monster-ravaged midtown to save the woman you love is anything but. And Cloverfield plays the love story that sets the heroic arc in motion perfectly straight: One of the film's more effective flourishes is to cross-cut the unfolding horror with scenes of the romantic leads at Coney Island, enjoying their last happy day together (the tape is supposedly being recorded over an older video), and I don't think there's any hint that we're supposed to treat these glimpses of their too-briefly-shared Arcadia as anything but poignant in a very straightforward way. Which is how the whole film plays, to my mind - as a very straightforward, even old-fashioned disaster movie in which an enormous monster attacks Manhattan and everyone learns valuable lessons about the importance of friendship and love just before they get gobbled up. (As Anthony Lane notes: "... when, precisely, does [the monster] first announce his presence? Not when someone is pouring a drink or telling a joke but just as Rob’s brother rounds off a maudlin speech: 'It’s about moments, man. Forget the world, you’ve got to hang on to the people you love most.' And, boom: cue the catastrophe.")

There's nothing wrong with a conventional monster-movie storyline, particularly if you're working with a gimmicky format. But the fact that J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves didn't manage - or didn't bother - to flesh out their conventional narrative with even mildly engaging characters or dialogue shouldn't be treated as proof that they're engaged in some scabrous satire of contemporary twentysomething life. Vile Bodies this ain't.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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