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The neo-monster movie “Cloverfield” rampaged through the multiplex during its opening weekend, gobbling up $46.1 million. Given its economic $25 million budget, the Paramount release turned into an instant hit.
The movie’s gimmick, of course, is its handheld video-camera view of the destruction of New York. But the film offers another variant on the standard disaster movie formula: In place of the standard cast representing a cross-section of age, gender and ethnicity, “Cloverfield” focuses on a handful of white, seemingly privileged twentysomethings.
Back in 1998, when director Roland Emmerich’s big-budget “Godzilla” laid waste to New York, the cast included, among others, Matthew Broderick, who was 36 at the time; Maria Pitillo, who was then 22; Frenchman Jean Reno; and veteran actor Michael Lerner, who played the mayor of New York.
But the “Cloverfield” cast was restricted to a homogenous group of relative youngsters. In part, that kept the budget down, and it also was part of the strategy of producer J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves to keep audiences guessing, since without an obvious hierarchy of actors on the screen there was no way to predict who “Cloverfield’s” reptilian monster would pick off first.
But instead of rooting for the movie’s young, enthusiastic actors, a number of critics took pleasure in their characters’ demise. Describing the movie’s protagonists as “blandly pretty young things,” the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis confessed, “Rarely have I rooted for a monster with such enthusiasm.” The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane opined that the movie’s hapless victims were “not only the prettiest and bravest members of the population — they are also the most stupid. … Our prevailing emotion, as they are picked off one by one, veers from grief toward sniggering delight.”
When it came to the audiences, responses to the movie appeared to break down along generational lines. According to CinemaScore’s opening-weekend polling, 57% of the audience was under 25 and rated the movie a guarded C-plus; the 43% of the audience that was over 25 judged it a C. But at opposite ends of the spectrum, approval ratings were more extreme: It earned its best marks — B-minus — from those under 18 and got its worst reception from the handful of moviegoers over 50 who sampled the feature only to dismiss it with a D-minus.
Those marks don’t auger well for the movie’s second weekend. “Cloverfield” boasts a clever concept that Paramount shrewdly sold to moviegoers via an effective teaser campaign, but it’s not looking like a horror film for the ages. By relying on a cast that appeals to one segment of the market, it captured a lot of younger and less critical moviegoers during its opening weekend, but it might not stick around for the long haul.
Meanwhile, Abrams is trying a similar generational gambit as he readies his new “Star Trek” movie, his attempt to reoutfit and relaunch the 40-year-old franchise that is scheduled to hit theaters at Christmas time.
That movie’s full cast is not quite as youthful as that of “Cloverfield” — the 76-year-old Leonard Nimoy is on tap to make an appearance, and such other established screen names as Winona Ryder and Bruce Greenwood are part of the lineup. But Abrams has entrusted the movie’s leads to 27-year-old Chris Pine, who is playing the young Kirk, and 30-year-old Zachary Quinto, cast as the young Spock.
Younger moviegoers probably will be flattered. But if the reactions to “Cloverfield” are any indication, older moviegoers might prove tougher to win over.
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