Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Structure of "Cloverfield"

(Spoilers: Cloverfield)

Today I want to analyze the structure of the movie Cloverfield, written by Drew Goddard. I enjoyed the movie a lot, plus it is well structured and a good example of how the three act structure works in a movie where the character fails to achieve his goal. Let’s look at the major structural elements.

Main Character: This movie is also a good example of a viewpoint character that is not the main character. The story is told through “found footage” from a video camera that was carried by Hud. Hud is the character whose eyes we see the story through but he is not the main character. It is Rob’s goal that drives the story forward and it is his decisions that create the turning points. So Rob is our main character.

Catalyst: The catalyst is when the monster attacks the city. This is dramatized when the characters feel something akin to an earthquake and run to the roof. They don’t know what’s happened, but they now have a problem.

The one flaw I see in Cloverfield is the long first sequence. The movie is less than 90 minutes long but it takes over 15 minutes to reach the catalyst. Frankly, the opening gets a little tedious. It’s there to introduce us to the characters and their relationships before we get bogged down in the action, but the characters are not the most interesting bunch in the world until they become victims of the monster attack. Once we get that attack, though, the movie is off and running.

Main Conflict: In the catalyst we set up the main conflict – can the characters escape the monster that’s attacking New York? (Note that at this point all the characters have the same goal, but in subtle ways Rob starts to become the leader.)

Act One Break: Rob receives a cell phone call from Beth telling him she’s trapped in her building. He decides to try to rescue her. The other characters go along. This spins the story in a new direction and creates a second act tension of “Can Rob rescue Beth?”

Midpoint: Marlena dies. Remember, the midpoint is usually similar in tone to the ending and a mirror of the Act Two Break. Marlena’s death is a partial failure. Not all of Rob’s loved ones will make it out of this alive.

Act Two Break: Rob rescues Beth from her building, thus achieving his second act goal. This is a high point which is appropriate since the end of the movie will be failure. The story spins in a new direction: getting out of Manhattan.

Twist: The helicopter crash. Things had been going up from the Act Two Break, but here it all turns bad.

Resolution: Everyone dies.

In a movie where the character achieves his goal, the Midpoint will be a moment of success, the Act Two Break will be his greatest failure, things will spiral downhill until the twist when the character figures out how to win, and the resolution will be success.

In a movie like Cloverfield it is just the opposite. The Midpoint is a moment of failure, the Act Two Break is the character’s greatest success, and things go up until the twist, which leads to the resolution of failure.

Whichever structure you use, you are playing with the audience’s hope and fear. In the first you lead them to fear the worst will happen before rewarding them with a happy ending. In the second you lead them to think things will come out well before pulling the rug out from under them. But neither approach should be linear - thus the mini success or failure of the midpoint.

Of course a character’s failure isn’t necessarily an unhappy ending if we are rooting against an unlikable main character such as in a gangster movie. But Cloverfield does have a true unhappy ending. Conventional Hollywood wisdom says popular movies must end happily but Cloverfield is an example of why this isn’t always the case. It was a successful genre hit and completely satisfying despite the tragic outcome.

1 comment:

khadert said...

Hi any demon movies with 3 act structure