Sunday, October 10, 2010

CLOVERFIELD: Is There Danger in Helping Those We Care Most About?

Last night we screened CLOVERFIELD (2008) ($50MM Budget. $80MM Domestic Gross, which is surprisingly low after a noteworthy $46MM Opening Weekend. The reason is because of the ironic ending discussed in this post.)

Director: Matt Reeves
Writer: Drew Goddard

Protagonist: ROB HAWKINS (Michael Stahl-David)
Romance: BETH MCINTYRE (Odette Yustman)
Co-Protags: LILY FORD (Jessica Lucas)
ANTAGONIST: The Monster (a metaphor for Rob's disbelief in the love between Beth and him.)


CLOVERFIELD is a frenetic, sci-fi thriller of a group of young adults who's going-away party for their friend, Rob, before he leaves for a job in Japan, is interrupted by a Godzilla type monster. The monster, of course, is a metaphor for the psychological trauma that ROB experiences by his decision to leave NY and the one he loves, BETH, to go to the home of Godzilla, Japan. It's a decision of monstrous proportions that is destined to destroy his life, and Beth's and also the lives of his close friends who love both of them. He's running from the one he loves, and she's losing the one she loves.

Although the movie is short (74 minutes -- the supposed length of a camcorder tape), it closely, but not perfectly, follows the 13 step pattern discussed in The Moral Premise, and other texts. The timings, however, of the page counts are compacted because of the shortened story time.  I will outline the turning points below.

[My thanks to Aaron Bierman for helping me see Rob's arc better. Aaron's insights are incorporated below, particularly with respect to Rob's verbal declaration of his love for Beth just before the end.]

(My purpose here is to discuss the moral premise aspects of the film. I'll assume the reader has seen the movie or read other synopses.) The party takes place a month after Rob has had a one-night stand with long time friend Beth, an elegant young lady, whom he thinks is out of his class, and thus he doesn't pursue her in the days following their night and day together. Beth is disappointed how he avoids her. So, to his going away party (a month later) she brings another boyfriend, Travis.

But, Rob and Beth are in love and have failed to communicate that to each other. So, at the party Rob and Beth have an argument; he's upset that she brought Travis to his party, and she's upset that he didn't call after their time together. She leaves the party early with Travis. Soon after, Rob's brother, Jason, along with Hud try to persuade Rob to go after Beth. Although she's out of his class, Jason, explains to Rob, his brother, that she's crazy about Rob and he needs to go on a journey to get her, regardless of his trip to Japan. Jason then delivers what is perhaps the most critical line in the film: "You got to learn to say: 'Forget the world and hang onto the people you care about the most.' "
 [And he also needs to learn to say: "I love you."]

And INSTANTLY after that line, the monster attacks, like an earthquake, and the city lights flicker on and off. The JOURNEY begins -- although Rob has not made up his mind about going on the journey to seek Bet, quite yet. See Turning Point Outline below.


The moral premise statement can be structured like this:

Avoiding love selfishly and silently, even in  the face of death
leads to fear and lost purpose; but
Pursuing love sacrificially and verbally, even in the face of death
leads to hope and heroic purpose.

I'll not take the space to explain this, but you'll notice that this MPS applies not just to Rob and Beth, but to their close friends (who stick close to Rob) and even to the military and police helping people evacuate Manhattan.

My timings here are in percentages of the total length, which is 74 minutes less the 1:30 front credits.

18% - INCITING INCIDENT: Beth comes to party with Travis because Rob hasn't called her after their time together. By doing so she essential invites him to come after her, to go on the journey with her. Rob rejects the idea, but not for a lack of love for Beth.

23% Rob is challenged to go after Beth's love, he rejects the journey. The monster attacks NY. It's as if the monster is needed to convince Rob that his love for Beth, and hers for him, is real. And, when he rejects the journey his conscience flairs up (the monster appears) to create internal as well as outward destruction in his life. This is also the INCITING INCIDENT for the larger physical story of the monster. (Another movie that comes to mind here, is DIE HARD, where John McClane's arrogance with Holly in the bathroom (Act 1) is challenged by the terrorists who attack and humble him. The terrorists are a metaphor for the terror inside John for his bumbling his relationship with his wife.)

32% -  Rob asks friends for cell phone (he wants to find Beth we later discover.) This shows us that he's thinking about Beth. But the phone that doesn't work is also a metaphor for Rob's inability to talked to Beth and express his love for her. 

34% - Beth calls Rob; she needs help.  His battery goes dead. (Meaning: He's still not comfortable with talking to her although he wants to.) He gets a fresh battery from electronic store that looters have broken into.

36% - Jason (Beth's boyfriend) is killed when monster attacks bridge.

43% - ACT 1 CLIMAX: Rob hears Beth's voice mail and his previous rejection of going after her is changed. Notice the protagonist never changes without pressure from the antagonist and friends. Rob changes here because of both.

44% - ACT 2 BEGINS: (Crossing the Threshold, entering the Special World): Rob decides to rescue Beth, ignoring the voices of his friends to go in the other direction. His friends, loyal to the MPS go with him.
MOG: I think  this moment is also Rob's MOG, and it's to early. (see comment at end on this).

60% - Marlena is bitten by one of the small varmints.

64% - Group exits subway tunnel and enters Army staffed triage unit

67% - ACT 2 CLIMAX: "Near death, all is lost". Marlena's belly explodes and she dies.

70% - ACT 3 BEGINS: Rob is told about the Hammer Down Protocol (leveling of Manhattan) by an Army SGT. and sent on his way to midtown to rescue Beth. He's given a deadline of 0600 hours.

72% - Dark Night of the Soul. Depression hits the group over Marlena's death. Rob pushes on.

78% - Rob, Lilly, and Hud find Beth impaled on re-barb.  Beth: "You're really came came for me."  Rob: "Sorry it took so long." They pull her off, bandage her and head out. He's showing his love but he still hasn't said it.

83% - Group attacked by small varmint. Rob axes it. (Foreshadows Final Incident)

88% - FINAL INCIDENT: Once in Army helicopter the monster attacks it and pulls it out of the sky.

91% - Monster tries to eat Hud, kills him, spits him out.

95% - Rob and Beth run to Central Park, hide under bridge.

97% - ACT 3 CLIMAX: They say their goodbyes to the camera. As the bomb levels the bridge and kills them he yells out to her, "I love you."

98% - DENOUEMENT: Flashback Coney Island footage: Beth: "I had a good day."(My boyfriend told me he loved me.)


If the MPS (above) is correct, and it seems to be for the major characters, then Rob's MOG occurs simultaneously with his decision to go rescue Beth. The change in his character from that point on is reflected in his deep desire to express his love for Beth, but the difficult he has in saying it out loud.  We definitely root for Rob's success from the very beginning of the film, but I do not see another MOG turning point for Rob. This placement of the MOG weakens the story in terms of interest. The character and his effort are flatter than they need to be.(There's no bump in the middle.)


I frequently say that a true and consistently applied moral premise will allow a movie to succeed at the box office; while a false or inconsistently applied MPS will guarantee its failure. Considering CLOVERFIELD'S outstanding opening weekend (46MM) but only doing a total of 80MM domestic gross over its entire run, indicates that other factors were at play here, that disallowed a bigger showing.  Some of these factors are obvious and are true of all movies where these things are allowed in the story line:
  • The shaky camera no doubt caused more than a few to vacate and avoid the film. I agree with one reviewer, however, that it was not as bad as BLAIR WITCH.  We also watched the movie on a 40-inch LCD, not a 30-foot screen.
  • The story focused on Rob and Beth and while it was true to the experimental technique of using only ONE the POV camera, a broader story that included the arcs of the other characters and the meaning of their experiences would have connected with more members of the audience.
  • MOST SIGNIFICANTLY: The movie is a tragedy with hero and heroine dying at the end.  In terms of their inner journey, the move is redemptive. But in terms of their outer journey the movie is not a metaphor for what happens inside. This contradiction confuses audiences and word of mouth is killed.

Allow me to expand on that last bullet point. The movie ends ironically. That means it is not as satisfying as a fully redemptive ending that has a deeper understanding and message for the audience in how to live their real lives more fully. Thus, CLOVERFIELD, as good as it is, does not apply a fully consistent moral premise—the physical betterment of psychological virtue is not applied. Result: weaker box office than could have been experienced.

In one respect, I feel like I must apologize for this analysis. It seems that I am being presumptuous because I am writing this AFTER the fact. But maybe I'm right. The rules of the moral premise tell us that virtuous decisions should result in physically good outcomes. That is NOT always true in real live (e.g. natural law). BUT (and this is a big one) when such things happen in real life natural law ensures that there is a larger redemptive purpose to the suffering. At least that is the HOPE that humans hold in their hearts. Thank, God! When a story can reveal the greater good from the individual sacrifice, you have a much larger box office. It is the built in HOPE that humans hold in their hearts from conception. Had CLOVERFIELD somehow embraced a larger purpose to the suffering (it's origin and its learning) I think the box office would have been at least double the $80MM. But this is presumptuous and "Monday quarterbacking" I know.


Following some of these basic rules would help the sequel, if they get it off the ground, do better at the box office.


Ray said...

Thank you for this! I read the MP book and have been trying to apply the principles to my own project, but I've had a bit of difficulty in trying to get it "just right." The story I am working on is a true story about a young man who can safely sit out the war in the U.S., but his family, friends and especially his girlfriend are being attacked in England. It takes awhile, but he decides he has to return to England, and must overcome many obstacles before he can do so. He runs TOWARD danger. Once back in England, he is reunited with his girlfriend only to find that she is not romantically interested in him (only as a "friend"). Six months later he is killed in an accident, but only after he wrote one of the most famous poems ever written. The question I had: how to make this a compelling story when the protaganist overcomes all obstacles, achieves his goal, but a) doesn't get the girl, and b) is killed. That is why this post gave me some important clues on how to handle my story. Thanks!

Stan Williams said...


Sounds like a good story. "Compelling" implies a number of issues. But let me answer, or comment on a few things, having only your post to go by.

1. Beware of trying to fit an existing story (e.g. a true story), into a structure that will satisfy an audience. It is nearly impossible. Usually the story has to change to fit the structure. This is one reason why bio pics do poorly at the box office -- they're written to honor the deceased, not satisfy the audience with a structure they can follow and then apply to their personal lives.

2. A young man who stays in the U.S. for reasons of safety is struggling with selfishness, cowardice, or something like that. When he finally goes to war (an assumption on my part, as opposed to just going to England to see his girl), he may do so for reasons of courage or selflessness. That is compelling the stuff of which heroes are made.

3. If you want a redemptive movie, then you establish in Act 1 his selfishness and cowardice, and then see him change so that he willingly gives his life for something bigger than himself. If you aim for a tragedy, then he dies in vain, not achieving anything of value, except the death of his self-importance. In the redemptive story, early in the story establish an altruistic goal, which he doesn't think he'll ever achieve. (Have you read Lord Tennyson's poem THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, which is about the conflict between courage and honor?) When his girlfriend rejects him, perhaps that's the Moment of Grace for him. Why? Because she sees that the war is about more than herself or him. Since he can only think of his safety, she rejects him. (Good for her.) It's then that he sees there are people suffering around him far greater than he is with a broken heart. He begins to help others, and in so doing is transformed into a hero. His death is then redemptive, especially if he dies in helping others. That reaches back to the altruistic goal from Act 1 about what it means to be heroic. He learns what it means in his own death.

Stan Williams said...

In re-reading my last comment, "He learns what it (being a hero) means in his own death" brings to mind the ending of STRANGER THAN FICTION. (Enuf said on that.)