Thursday, January 10, 2013

Cloverfield: A Love Story

How many people are involved in getting a movie into my DVD player, do you think?

There are the producers who set the budget, and the writers who turn a concept into a script. Then you have actors and directors and make-up artists and visual effects people and gaffers and best boys. You have special effects artists and composers. You have the DVD manufacturer and the guys in the truck who delivered it to my local library.

That’s a lot of time, money and work so I can sit at home and be entertained instead of dusting my furniture.

I don’t often think to be thankful to all those people, but the other night, as the credits rolled, I bowed in my living room and breathed a quiet thank you .

Which movie was I watching, that touched my heart so deeply, you ask?

Would you believe Cloverfield?

For those of you who don’t know the movie, Cloverfield is the story of a a young man who is leaving to take a job in Japan.  The young man’s brother and the brother’s girlfriend, who have also dragooned the young fellow’s best friend to document the festivities with a hand held camera.

And there is a girl, of course, the woman the young man loves. Where she is concerned he has, in the words of Gob, “made a huge mistake.”

Oh and there’s a giant monster that rips the head off the Statue of Liberty and rampages through Manhattan.
It doesn’t end well for our heroes. The best-friend and-cameraman gets bitten in half. The young man and the love of his life are presumably killed by friendly fire when the military bombs Central Park. The brother is smooshed by a tail on the Brooklyn Bridge and another woman gets bitten by a spider-crab-dog monster, bleeds from her eyes, and explodes.

So why then did Cloverfield leave me misty-eyed and with a heart full of gratitude?

Because Clovefield is not a monster movie.

Cloverfield is a human movie.

Granted, almost all monster movies, at their core, are about humans. A Nightmare on Elm Street is about learning that not only are our parents not always able to save us, but we are also sometimes victims of their unfinished business. Deep Blue Sea is about scientific hubris. The Thing asks us to take a look the people we work beside every day and whispers: how well do we know them, really?

At the same time, the story of these movies is the story of the monster. Where did it come from? What does it want? How do we kill it? It doesn’t matter if they’re child murdering dream monsters, unknowable shape-shifting aliens, or super-smart mako sharks that throw medical gurneys through plate glass windows while doing long-division and explaining Plato’s allegory of the cave in its original Greek. The story is driven by the monsters.

The story that drives Cloverfield is this: Rob needs Beth to know how much he loves her.

The monster is not the problem. The monster is a complication.

Screaming pedestrians are a cliché in movies about giant monsters or alien invasions. They‘re bit players. In Cloverfield, the monster is the bit player. The story is the story of just a handful of those screaming pedestrians.

That is one of the reasons I like Cloverfield. It remembers what is important.

Many of us have our own giant monsters. For some these monsters are malignant social injustices such as sexism or racism. Some of us have political monsters: the jackboots of right-wing fascism; those creeping, commie liberals. We may have made a specific cause our monster: Disease, drunk driving, the horrors of violence in videogames or internet pornography.

Sometimes the monsters come from closer to us. Being treated with disrespect is a giant lizard with atomic-breath. Feeling ignored is a skyscraper-climbing ape that needs to be shot down with aeroplanes.

Sometimes those monsters live within our own heart. Fear. Self-sabotage. Guilt. Lack of confidence.

We all have our monsters.

And we want to kill them.

But we sometimes are so caught up in fighting our monsters, we forget about the screaming pedestrians. Other people turn into background players in our personal crusade. We don`t notice what our actions are doing to them. We become so focused on killing our monster, we forget the reason we took up arms against it in the first place, which was to reduce the amount of damage and human suffering in the world.

Cloverfield doesn`t forget. Its main characters comfort one another, grieve as much as possible given their circumstances, and go on to the best of their ability. While Rob has committed himself to finding Beth, he gives his friends multiple opportunities to back out and makes it clear he won`t think less of them. From the beginning of the movie--even before the monster appears--to the end, they care about one another.

And the secondary characters are no different. The first police officer we see isn`t staring upwards, slack-jawed, or popping off rounds at the monster with his service pistol. He`s directing people towards safety. The military has guns and tanks and uniforms, yes. But they also have ambulances and medical personnel and gurneys. We see them attacking the creature. But we also see them evacuating civilians and taking care of the wounded.

It`s easy to miss these things because the film doesn`t dwell on them. There`s no agonized slow motion facial expressions or swells of background music to turn moments of small, quiet heroism into grand gestures.

And to me that`s what makes it all the more remarkable. Because in letting us see so much of the best in human nature, and refusing to highlight it, Cloverfield tells us that kindness and empathy is not the exception, it`s the rule.

People are essentially good…and in crisis they are even better.

I don`t see this a lot in monster movies. Many show acts of kindness or self-sacrifice as something rare, that altruism is a rare quality that is the province of a special few--larger than life heroes or failures redeeming themselves in one magnificent final act.

It`s not true. Anyone can be kind at any time.

Others show us degenerating when things get bad. Burke locks Ripley and Newt in the medical lab with the alien. Walking Dead characters do twisted Walking Dead things. The monsters don’t just destroy us, they rip our social fabric to shreds, leaving us society gone and showing us to be at our core cowardly, selfish, and cruel.

It`s not true. Confronted with an outside threat, people pull together, not apart.

Most of us don’t just fear crisis. We fear the way we and the people around us will react. Will we run away or freeze? Will we find ourselves turning against our friends and neighbours? Will we abandon the things that matter most to us?

The people behind Cloverfield say no. And for that, I am grateful.

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