I'm going to do something I hate to do, especially in a column devoted to the celebration of movie theaters. I'm going to tell you to see a movie, but I'm going to recommend you avoid it on the big screen and wait for video. Sure, it's been common practice since the invention of the VCR for critics to identify movies that are good enough to be seen on a television yet not necessarily worth the price of a movie ticket, but this is different. This isn't some un-cinematic, talky little film without the need for large-scale projection. It's a movie that has absolutely no business being shown in theaters. It's Cloverfield.
Unfortunately, I'm a bit late in my plea, and at least ten million people have seen this movie by the time this piece goes live (considering there's more than 300 million people living in the United States, it doesn't seem like as big a hit when looking at individual tickets sold). But just in case you've been waiting for the crowds to die down (or you're waiting for Marcus Theatres to begin showing it), I urge you to give it just a few more months. In no time Cloverfield will be available on DVD, HD DVD, iTunes and other more appropriate formats, and you can see it as it should be seen.
You may be thinking that my reasoning has to do with the nauseating effect the movie has on many theatrical audiences. Sure, Cloverfield is yet another movie that ignores the fact that auditoriums have seats situated really close to the screen, but I have nothing necessarily against shaky camera work. If I did, I wouldn't recommend you watch Breaking the Waves on the big screen rather than on a TV set. But despite the fact that that film also made close-seated viewers sick to their stomachs, it still completely belongs on the big screen. No, if I were writing this just because of the hand-held cinematography, I would simply do as other critics are doing and recommend you sit in the back (even if time and time again I complain about movies and formats that don't accommodate all moviegoers equally). It's been written here and there and everywhere how Cloverfield is a monster movie for the YouTube generation. It sure is. So why is it playing at the multiplex rather than on the computer? Is it because Hollywood still needs theatrical exhibition to legitimize its movies? Is it because the YouTube generation isn't actually ready for a studio-produced movie to be distributed directly to the Internet, even if it is more appropriate to that arena? I answer yes to both questions, but reluctantly. As much as I love movie theaters, would hate for them to become extinct and don't believe they ever will go away, I don't think Hollywood exactly needs the theater industry. I also think today's audiences could be ready for an Internet-exclusive movie, if one was marketed well. However, I think studios are a bit too lazy to really give such a thing a shot.
And so we have a movie like Cloverfield, which does in fact look like and is intended to look like a really long YouTube video (though not too long; the movie is only 85 minutes), delivered inappropriately to screens that are designed to present pictures with much more going on in them. Screens that are about 2000 times the size of a YouTube screen or iPod screen. But my beef is not solely about the appropriateness of screen size. I've spent the last twenty years dealing with studio movies obviously meant more for a television screen with their close-ups and fast-paced editing. I also just think it makes more sense for a movie shot on a video camera, which clearly represents the modern trend of narcissistic self-documentation and isolationist viewing habits, to be experienced in a non-sociable way. For moviegoers to watch Cloverfield in a communal setting and on such a big screen kind of allows them to easily miss the point.
This where you decide you'll leave me a comment about how I'm taking Cloverfield too seriously. That it's just a monster movie. OK, then why isn't it shot like a conventional monster movie? It's not just to be innovative -- which it isn't anyway -- and different; it's to cater to a world brought up on home videos and, more recently, web content. A movie like Cloverfield therefore has no place in the antiquated realm of the movie theater. It belongs on a screen that allows for browsing, that can be rewound or fast-forwarded or clicked on for supplementary content (such as the viral-marketing accompaniment videos and back-stories and other bonus materials found on DVDs and websites).
I'm fine with Cloverfield being of a different kind of motion picture than those I feel suitable for the big screen. I'd probably even enjoy it if I watched it at home on some sort of device instead of at the multiplex. Just as I think video games have their place in the wider category of visual entertainment and are just as important today as are non-user-generated entertainment like old-fashioned movies, I think Cloverfield is an important work of a different variety and mean no criticism of its form or format of storytelling or craft. I just don't see what reasoning it has for being shown on a big screen, and don't feel it artistically appropriate to be presented that way. Considering all the more cinematic and expansively shot films that are still being made and are hardly shown in American movie theaters, if at all, that we often have to settle for seeing on DVD, it's just not right that a movie like Cloverfield should be hogging so many cinema auditoriums with its YouTube-ready visuals and context.