Of all the big movie genres Hollywood has utilized to show off its state-of-the-art special effects, the giant-monster picture has been the most woefully underrepresented. Hopefully that will change with the impending release of Guillermo del Toro's Kaiju vs. robot extravaganza Pacific Rim. In the buildup to that event, we'll look at some of the few English-language Kaiju films we do have in an effort to ascertain how they live up to the genre and how they differ.
Previously: Godzilla (1998)
Part Two: Cloverfield
The story goes that J.J. Abrams was visiting a Japanese toy store when it dawned on him that America lacked a real giant monster to call its own. We have King Kong, but Abrams was thinking of a more traditional (i.e. unlovable) kind of Kaiju.
So with the help of writer Drew Goddard and director Matt Reeves, Abrams came up with a true American monster movie for the new millennium, an 85-minute-long, state-of-the-art masterpiece in which New York City gets utterly but believably destroyed by an unknown and unstoppable menace of monstrous proportions. And then he turned the camera away from nearly all of it, making us spend the film staring at a bunch of unlikable jerks instead.
Cloverfield's big gamble, and probably the only reason it was allowed to exist in the first place given budget limitations and the secrecy involved, is not so much the attack on New York as the attack on New York illustrated through the found-footage aesthetic. In 2008, found-footage films were far from new, but they had not yet reached their mainstream apex. For Cloverfield, the technique never had a greater usefulness as it did when audiences caught their first glimpse of it before Michael Bay's Transformers. Due to the immediacy, realism and complete lack of context offered by the found-footage technique, many left the theater talking more about whatever this Cloverfield thing was than the big robot cars they'd just spent two hours watching.
At this point, no one knew what kind of movie to expect from Cloverfield. We couldn't even say with certainty if Cloverfield was in fact the mysterious film's name. All we knew was that a movie would soon be released which involved some serious destruction of New York City. The open-ended possibilities engendered by this total lack of definition made Cloverfield, whatever it was, feel massive and legendary beyond the scope of just any other normal film. It was probably the greatest utilization ever of J.J. Abrams' "Magic Box" marketing technique.
If the buildup to Cloverfield illustrates the potential of Abrams' "Magic Box" marketing, the film itself would also prove its inevitable weakness. Eventually, you have to pull something out of that box, and in Cloverfield's case, that something was a surprisingly frustrating monster movie.
Solely from the perspective of a Kaiju entry, however, Cloverfield is a somewhat phenomenal experiment. The monster itself is a remarkable achievement in using computer-generated imagery to invent a creature no man in a suit could fit into. The monster makes little logical sense and we never get an opportunity to figure it out to our complete satisfaction, but that's exactly why it remains so horrifying -- that and the fact that we almost never get to see it.
The little parasite creatures which drop from the Cloverfield monster are less successful creations who nakedly exist merely to pad time with something a bit less ambitious than constant skyscraper destruction. This kind of thing happens all the time in Kaiju films, and you have to ask yourself if you'd rather have little chompers whose bites make people explode, or subplots about scientists and businessmen, because something is going to fill up time in these films, even really short ones like this. This is particularly true in the rare cases where, like Cloverfield, it's just monster vs. military all the way through, with no other Kaiju to help pick up the slack.
Cloverfield's story is simple enough that the details don't really matter. A guy needs to get across an increasingly dangerous city to find his lady friend. This would be annoying as a narrative digression, but it's actually all the plot we get, and as such, it keeps our characters on the move pretty much from beginning to end. You can complain about their weird ability to always be where the monster is, but that's the kind of thing you should actually be thankful for, unless you came to Cloverfield for its legit date-movie potential.
Like any Kaiju film, Cloverfield is less a story than a ride. Comparatively, the ratio of human to Kaiju screen time would be an embarrassment, but Cloverfield makes its monster moments count, and it's not really a typical Godzilla-type Kaiju film to begin with.
Still, there is a lot of cheating going on here. Abrams, Goddard and Reeve continuously refuse to tell us anything about this monster. While being left in the dark emphasizes the film's horror elements, it also gives the creators carte blanche as far as inventing cool-sounding stuff without the burden of ever having to explain it. Pretty much all of the questions that drove audiences to theaters in the first place go unanswered, and a bunch more turn up along the way. There are some explanations to be found in apocryphal material and DVD special features, but other than a brief, very hard-to-see shot in which some vague object falls from the sky into the ocean, we are left with little understanding of what actually happens from the film itself.
Each Cloverfield viewer has to make a choice as to whether the frustration is worth the thrill. It's a very hard film to sit with because the better the Kaiju action (and it is so, so great) the more you want to see the Kaiju action, a request Cloverfield frequently denies. It can be very difficult to know the film you really want is just a slight camera pan away, but that is what Cloverfield offers; take it or leave it.
Next Week: King Kong