So are you all excited about the latest monster movie to hit the screen?
This thing's been being marketed to hell and back for what seems like the past six months, but still it seems like a lot of my friends and co-workers know nothing about it. That probably has something to do with the poster and print ad campaign being barely visible in real-life New York City:
I think I've seen a total of one of these, which is honestly not that surprising. I was actually more surprised that I saw any at all.
Why, you ask? Well, it's more than a little reminiscent of some of the images we saw first-hand on 9/11:
Pretty obvious that they're exploiting 9/11 for marketing purposes. I don't even see how you can argue otherwise. It's not like nobody has ever seen these images; they can't claim ignorance.
I think that Paramount is probably treating this film with kid gloves around New York, as well they should. I personally have mixed feelings about it. I actually am looking forward to seeing the film, in the same way I looked forward to seeing something like Escape from New York. I think everybody has dark fantasies about seeing what their own town or city would look like in a post-apocalyptic (or just apocalyptic) setting, with the key word being fantasy. It can't be too realistic, especially when there are real-life things like 9/11 going on. But fear is an emotion with a purpose, and we all have a need to see those fears expressed. It's a kind of catharsis.
Cloverfield seems to be trying really hard to tiptoe right on the edge of that line. It seems pretty likely to me that, consciously or not, the entire film is one big allegory for 9/11. (It is at least a film about fear - and what are we fearful of these days? Giant monsters?) It's evident especially in the way that it's shot in first-person mode from the point of view of a small group of people trying to escape - a familiar memory of 9/11 for many of us - and you therefore (supposedly) never really get a sense of exactly what's going on. That's a feeling I think all New Yorkers can now directly relate to, and it's one that neither of the two actual 9/11 films have managed to capture in the slightest.
This isn't the first time a science fiction film has invoked post-9/11 fear of terrorism - I think it's pretty easy to argue that Steven Spielberg's remake of War of the Worlds was also just one long terrorist attack, and it too began in New York (well, really right across the river in New Jersey, but that's sort of beside the point), before spreading out all over the country.
I don't necessarily see this as a bad thing. You could say too that Escape from New York was a vehicle to express our fears of rising crime (as it was at the time) and the future it would bring, purposely set in a city that was morally and financially bankrupt and was fast becoming the murder capital of the country. The same is true of many films in that genre. Fantasy and sci-fi are often a much better way of expressing our real-world fears than non-fiction, because the filmmakers can ironically be more honest in their emotions if they allow themselves the freedom of imagination. They're better able to use their tools of cinema to invoke that emotion, rather than trying to force emotion from a set of historical events over which they have no control.
Fantasy and sci-fi are also pretty much the only ways we have of expressing our fears of something as big and nebulous as terrorism; abstract concepts and ideas that, if unchecked, could consume us all. You really can't do that in a romantic comedy, a buddy film or a road movie. You need the kind of movie where anything goes, and where the sky is literally the limit. (Oh, lots of films have tried to do terrorism fears on a small and realistic scale, but not many have been very successful, with Babel maybe one of the few exceptions. War of the Worlds expresses our fears better than Munich, for just one example.)
What I'm sort of uneasy about, though, is the obvious attempt at cashing in on a specific trauma, and the deaths of thousands of real people. War of the Worlds may have been an allegory for terrorism, but it was never marketed using 9/11 imagery - it was left abstract, at least on the surface, as this kind of thing should be. It's one thing for a filmmaker to express his or her fears to an audience that shares them; another for the distributor to try to make a buck off the lives and deaths of innocent people. (My wife was actually completely turned off by these posters.) I'd feel a little more comfortable if the posters weren't such an obvious reference to a specific, terrible event that many people, including myself, lived through... while others weren't so lucky.
But I'm still going to see the movie.
UPDATE #1: Lest you think I'm some sort of right-wingnut or conspiracy theorist, the left-leaning New York Daily News posted a review of Cloverfield that also brings up the "9/11-inspired imagery". And the similarly liberal New York Times refers to the film's "tacky allusions to September 11". It's just obvious to any New Yorker; it has no basis in politics or any other ideology. And I'm not making a judgment on anything other than the marketing. (Oooooh, don't even get me started on the "viral" alternate reality game!)
One other thing. I've gotten a few comments from people that don't see the 9/11 or terrorism connection at all. Well, this is what JJ Abrams himself has to say about that in the press notes for the film:
"We live in a time of great fear. Having a movie that is about something as outlandish as a massive creature attacking your city allows people to process and experience that fear in a way that is incredibly entertaining and incredibly safe."
Which is pretty much exactly what I said above.
UPDATE #2: Saw the movie. Pretty much exactly what I expected. It was fun, though mostly in a "wow, they really nailed 9/11" kind of way. The actual monster stuff wasn't particularly interesting, especially the little Alien-like parasites that exist in the film solely to make the subway tunnels a non-viable route of escape. And there were a surprising number of scenes that were actually pretty slow.
The camera work was also annoying in that it was trying so hard to be realistically shaky that it was actually unrealistically shaky. It went too far. Nobody is that bad of a cameraman. It was distracting, and it didn't really look like a home movie. Every shot is also zoomed in to what seemed like the maximum, so all you ever see are unidentifiable parts of people's faces or bodies, unidentifiable streets, unidentifiable monster limbs. I'm sure that's by design, but it again was both unrealistic and annoying.
Not my favorite film, but sort of interesting, at least. I don't think this has really created "our own Godzilla", though - this doesn't feel like the start of a franchise. But who knows.