Why Wasn’t Cloverfield Released Online?

For all of the internet hype J.J. Abrams curried for his latest display of inimitable cinema mystique, Cloverfield remains firmly stuck in twentieth century. The driving voyeuristic shtick of the film — the character-held camera that documents the entire incident — is never developed beyond mere contrivance. Despite its high-tech marketing, the movie itself is decidedly low-tech and consequently out of sync with its audience. The filmmakers do nothing to push the film’s structure beyond its decade-old Blair Witch roots.

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The result is that Cloverfield is nothing special. You’ve seen it all before. The novelty is that Mr. Abrams wants you to pay $10.50 to see poorly shot glimpses of a monster too large to be captured on DV tape. Hollywood’s treatment of cinéma-vlog-ité winds up being a hackneyed mode of storytelling that gets in the way of the story and leaves me wondering — did this movie need a theatrical release at all? Could it have instead been released online, available as a mysterious download? This would have made Cloverfield a remarkable piece of twenty-first-century digital filmmaking as opposed to a twentieth-century piece of Hollywood tech-sploitation.

The film presents a extremely analog fight against the monster. Indeed, the starring posse of twenty-something year-old Manhattanites defy their demographic and have nary a smart phone among them. The characters never employ anything beyond a dying cell phone and a fire ax to fight their way through midtown. The most high-tech the film seems to get is the never-ending battery and DV tape in the camcorder that run for nigh on 12 continuous hours. In the world of Cloverfield there seem to be no text messages, no Google maps, and no hyperlinks.

The film had the potential to give the Lonelygirl format a big-budget treatment. What if a Cloverfield website had encouraged fans to post their own video encounters with the monster and share their own Flickr pages documenting the destruction? What if instead of videoed confessionals at a party there were “bon voyages” and “best of lucks!” scrawled on the departing character’s Facebook wall?

Let incidental comments, messages, texts, and pics take care of the character development the film tries cramming into a half dozen flashbacks and several lines of strained dialog. Instead of a disorganized scatter shot of one-off websites, what if the film had worked to create a digital mass media mise-en-scène, allowing viewers to interact, explore, and share an understanding of the Cloverfield world?

Too bad Abrams is too attached to the studio establishment to pull a Radiohead on the movie industry.

Sure, it wouldn’t be worth $10.50, but neither is Cloverfield on the big screen. A feature film should be a unique experiential event. Cloverfield took a digital idea and gave it an analog treatment.


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