Moriarty’s Seen CLOVERFIELD and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY!!
Published at: Jan. 25, 2008, 5:30 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
Hey, have you guys heard about this film called CLOVERFIELD? Evidently, it’s a giant monster movie that was shot like it’s all a handheld consumer camera in real-time while the things smashes up the city. Sounds cool. Now if only there were some sort of... marketing or something that might tell me when it’s coming out.
Let’s start with what I like about CLOVERFIELD: I think there’s a lot of visual imagination in the way certain moments are staged, and I think there are few films that better capture the panic and the chaos of a crisis in a big city. The film sets up some great moments and the way it just hints at the bigger picture instead of spelling everything out is appreciated. In general, I enjoyed it.
What I didn’t like about CLOVERFIELD is the way it gives the nitpickers too much ammo to ignore. It’s a film based on one insanely gigantic plot contrivance –- a monster on the loose in New York City –- and asking the audience to swallow more than that is unfair. I love the aesthetic of this film. I love the idea of a found footage documentary that is simply cobbled together from camera phones and video cameras and that makes an unreal event feel absolutely real. And that’s what works for me as I’m watching CLOVERFIELD. I’ve seen it twice now. The first time at Paramount, it was in the super-deluxe Paramount theater and the sound was cranked so loud it broke one dude’s glass eye. True story. The first time around, I was knocked on my ass by that sound mix, and the power of some of the imagery was so fantastic that I found myself needing to see it again. I played those moments back in my head the way you play back real memory, trying to piece together what I’d seen. Like that one quick glimpse you get just before they duck into the subway... did it really look the way I think it did? And what did that parasite thing do to Marlena in the tunnel? It looked like it was stabbing her, but it was all so quick...
But the second time...
The second time, I took my wife to the Winnetka Shitbox 500 around the corner from my house because it was really close and started at the exact right moment for our schedule, and the sound was nowhere near as tweaked as that first viewing. And part of what made that first viewing work so well for me was the sensory overload. Watching it without that enhancement, I digested it more completely, and my reaction was somewhat muted. I still enjoyed it, but the film’s flaws are more apparent during that second viewing.
What I would ultimately compare it to is a Disney ride. I know, I know... the “theme park ride” comparison is nothing new in terms of talking about summer movies, but this felt specifically like a ride you’d go to at Walt Disney World. First you ride through a New York hipster’s apartment, and there’s a party going on with all these animatronic hipsters, and then there’s a sound outside, and then you’re on the roof and there’s a fireball and things blowing up buildings around you, and then you race down through the building while it shakes, then outside in the street for the Statue of Liberty head to land, then... you get the point. It's experiential, but completely safe.
The moment in the film that really nailed that feeling for me was when Rob and Hud and Lily are on the street and they get caught between the Army and the monster, and there are suddenly rocket launchers going off and machine guns and the hipsters all have to hide behind cars, and it’s totally fucking ridiculous, but it still feels like you’re right there, and that’s ultimately the answer to any of the absurdities in Drew Goddard’s script. People do the things they do so that you can see the cool things you see. Try to justify the motivations beyond that, and the film will drive you insane. Hud, in particular, is a device. He does two things: he films when no one would keep filming, and he does so in a fairly cinematic way that has just enough “reality” to it to sell the gag, and he makes wise-cracks. T.J. Miller definitely does what he is asked to do as Hud, and it’s a thankless role. He gets a few good laughs in the film, and there are a few more that are at his expense. My favorite is the Superman/Garfield exchange between him and Marlena, played by Lizzy Caplan. I wish more of the film had more of a zing in the dialogue. I appreciate the intent to try to make everything feel improv and loose and real, but I also like well-written dialogue and characters, and I like Goddard’s work most of the time. He’s got a great ear, and he’s funny and he does mysterious and “holy shit!” really well, so more of him would have helped, I think.
Still, I appreciate CLOVERFIELD as an experience, and I hope that anyone considering seeing it is going to do so while it’s still in the theater. You need to see it as loud as you can, and in a theater unless you know for a fact that you get motion sickness from first-person video games and handheld video projected. It’s interesting to see just how many people claim to be adversely affected by this. I don’t understand it personally. I’ve never had video footage make me feel motion-sick. However, I sympathize, and I think it must be frustrating and annoying to see so many filmmakers embrace an aesthetic that makes you physically ill.
Even if watching CLOVERFIELD doesn’t make you actually vomit, there are people who seem to be almost angry about the entire “found footage” genre. Wait... I take that back. I don’t think you can call that a genre. It’s a device. A sort of a narrative framework. You can do pretty much anything with it... horror or comedy or drama or tearjerker or action film... it just depends on how clever you are about how you use the device. And I think it’s important that you be upfront with your audience... movies like this shouldn’t be sold as “real.” Yes, while you watch it, you’re meant to believe it as reality, but I think it’s important to be clear with people that your film is fiction before they sit down to watch it. I saw just how wrong that can go this year at BNAT when Tim League and I decided to introduce THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES as a documentary. I don’t care who you are... if you’re considering selling one of these films... listen to me. Do not lie to your audience. They don’t appreciate it. They don’t think it’s fun. They aren’t going to thank you for it later. Just tell them it’s fiction, and then let them enjoy it on that level. If it works as a film, it will work without you trying to set up an elaborate mythology and pull some big WAR OF THE WORLDS style gag on the viewer.
Case in point: I’m not sure who is going to buy PARANORMAL ACTIVITY after it screens at Slamdance, but I’m fairly sure someone will. It’s an accomplished little thriller that uses the “found footage” framework to tell a ghost story that is more effective than any remake of a Japanese ghost story that the studios have offered up in the last five years.
So when you buy it, Hypothetical Distributor, do yourself a favor. Right away, play it straight. When you sell it, use the actors. When you put up the website, don’t try to convince me it’s real. The thing about these viral games and this sort of “extended reality” thing is that you have to be careful. Too much of it can turn the audience against your film or create expectations your film can’t deliver. When people invested time and attention in all the online games for CLOVERFIELD (which wasn’t that much, truth be told... a few websites updated sporadically with a few cryptic bits and pieces), they built up this mythology that they thought was going to play out in the film. However, by the very nature of what kind of movie they set out to make, director Matt Reeves and writer Goddard and producer Abrams never planned to offer ANY answers, something which has infuriated some viewers.
Right now, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY does not have a page on the IMDb. Right now, the film has a very small web presence, and trying to find out any information about the writer/director can be maddening. I wanted to dig deeper and do some reading after seeing the film, but I ran into a wall. The film was shown twice at the Slamdance festival, on the 18th and the 20th, and it also played at Screamfest in LA back in October. But so far, it’s hard to find any information on it. This trailer was cut for the Slamdance screenings, and it’s a good representation of what to expect:
Evidently, there’s been some work done on the film since that Screamfest LA premiere, and what I saw is what’s playing now, the new version of the film. It’s tight, it’s genuinely scary, and I think it’s got real commercial potential. One thing it has going for it that CLOVERFIELD never quite got right is the empathy thing: star Katie Featherston makes you not only believe, but also give a shit. The film matters more because you care.
I know. Seems simple, right? The single biggest complaint about CLOVERFIELD is that nobody likes the kids that you’re supposed to follow through the movie. I’m a little surprised at just how much everyone hates them... they didn’t strike me as “rich fucking douchebags,” as I’ve seen many talkbacks describe them. But I don’t think any of the characters are defined enough or interesting enough to really pull you through the film. What works is the situation, not the people. In PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, it is essential that you like Katie because this isn’t a city-scaled disaster. This is something that is specifically happening to one person. This is a targeted haunting. It is an attempt to break her down, and the film demands that you feel what she feels in order for it to work completely.
The night after I watched this one, I gave the disc to my sister-in-law, who was on her way out to spend the night with her boyfriend. She’s a horror fan, and I was curious to see if something that has so little overt material in it, with no gore and no big-budget effects, could win her over. The next day, I saw her at lunch, and I asked her what she thought of it. She punched me in the chest, hard enough to bruise me, and told me that she didn’t sleep at all because of the movie, and neither did her boyfriend. She asked me if it was real, and for about two seconds, I wanted to play PT Barnum with her, but I believe what I said above... that’s a mistake. It just gets people mad later. So I explained that it’s just a movie, and the relief that poured off of her was practically visible. The movie really got under her skin.
It’s a film that really does play to the most basic and primal fears we have. Loss of control over our lives. Fear of the dark. Fear of the unknown. What happens when your home, the one place you should feel safest, suddenly becomes unsafe for you? Katie Featherston plays “Katie” in the film, and Micah Sloat plays “Micah.” They’re a young couple who are still fairly new to living together at the start of the film. Micah is the primary cameraman in the film, something that begins because Katie reveals to him, not long after they move in together, that she has experienced several strange things over the course of her life that could be described as “hauntings.” Now a few odd things have happened in their house, and she’s afraid it may be starting again. Micah’s fascinated, and he can’t help but view her problem as a project, something to solve or fix or just plain enjoy.
The film’s scares start small, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is going to be a case of never seeing anything. It may not be an effects-oriented film, and it may not deal in much gore... hell, I think this could get a PG if not for language... but the film definitely plays it straight and gives you a haunting for your $10. It delivers. There are still plenty of questions left to argue about after the film’s wrenching conclusion, but you’ll feel satisfied. It’s a real movie, with a real beginning, middle, and end.
And that’s the biggest trick with these found footage films... they have to play it “real,” but also adhere to certain conventions of narrative. They have to tell us a story with characters and all the devices of storytelling, and they have to do so in a way that never quite overtly acknowledges that a story is being told. That’s not easy. I sort of liked the way Drew Goddard and Matt Reeves handled flashbacks in CLOVERFIELD, with a glitch in the recording offering up an earlier day that had been taped over with the events of the film. They’re too perfectly timed, a little too perfectly written, but it’s a clever solution to a difficult problem. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY negotiates some of the trickier narrative stuff with ease, and the film never once feels like it’s straining against the restrictions of the device. It never felt to me like the film was trying to cheat. Everything you see could arguably have been taped by the characters this way, and I don’t really see anything here that pushes my credulity to the breaking point. Overall, this is one of those horror films that I would feel comfortable recommending to almost anyone, and that’s rare. The only caveat is “Do you want to be scared?” and if the answer is yes, then I’d say this film’s a safe bet.
I haven’t seen DIARY OF THE DEAD or [REC] or REDACTED yet, and I would imagine that there are many more “found footage” films in production or even in post already. I don’t think this device is going anywhere. I just hope that as more filmmakers try their hand at this type of storytelling, they tell stories that are worth telling. Otherwise, it’s just an empty exercise in technique, and at this point, that’s not enough to justify the time and effort.