A few weeks ago, we posed a question to the Audiences Everywhere staff: What movie best represents your understanding of America and your experience as an American? The current moment is a complicated moment to live in America, and a bit of introspection and cultural self-evaluation seems in order for everyone. So, starting on July 4th and continuing through the entire month, we will be running essay responses to this inquiry in an attempt to understand who we are as a nation. If you’re interested in participating, send your essay or pitch to submissions@audienceseverywhere.net. Next in the series, a look at what Cloverfield had to say about the American experience.

Walk down any street and look around. You’re likely to see dozens of people with their heads down,  fingers flicking quickly, eyes focused on that precious artifact of the 21st century, their cell phone, the small device that puts their entire life in their hands. I’ve seen people walk into oncoming traffic, lose track of where they are, ignore the companions they’re walking with, even try to jump down from a train platform to retrieve their dropped phone. I don’t have a smartphone, so I don’t text, and I left Facebook because it has too much control over my use of it and its use of my data. As I result, I’ve seen people vanish from my life, unwilling to talk to me on the phone or even keep in touch by email. Like a monster from the deep, the cyberworld seems to have swallowed everyone I know and millions I don’t. The possibilities of this phenomenon were not lost on Matt Reeves and the enormous creative team behind the 2008 movie Cloverfield.

Cloverfield is one of the most cleverly constructed films in recent memory. A monster movie in the classic tradition—a giant monster inexplicably pitches up in a big city to wreak inexplicable havoc, while a small band of plucky civilians on a rescue mission mess around in a war zone of monster and military—it updates the threat to civilization that atomic energy was to the 20th century to something more insidious: our interpersonal behavior. In doing so, it provides commentary not only on the seminal event in recent American history (and because of its position as the ascendant nation of the 20th century, the world), the terrorist attack on New York City, but also on the cultural self-absorption that comes with mitigated reality that far exceeds the almost quaint film critiques of television in such classics as Network (1976) and To Die For (1995).

Director Matt Reeves prepares us for a movie within a movie by opening with a title card, an apparent military description of footage from an operation code-named Cloverfield from a DV camera found in a sector “previously known” as Central Park. We immediately cut to the video showing Central Park from a posh 39th-floor apartment that borders it. The video was shot by Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), who has just spent the night with Beth McIntyre (Odette Yustman), whom he then ambushes with his camera as she lounges in bed. Cute love talk ends with a plan to go to Coney Island and an abrupt shift, time-stamped a month later, to a going-away party for Rob in lower Manhattan.

In a nod to the Japanese antecedents of Cloverfield, scriptwriter Drew Goddard has written Rob a promotion to vice president (of what is never revealed) whose new job is in Japan. Party host Lily (Jessica Lucas) gives Rob’s best friend Hudson Platt (T. J. Miller) the job of recording farewell messages from the partygoers. Hud gets in the face of Marlena Diamond (Lizzy Caplan), a girl he’d like to get to know better, despite her insistence that she barely knows Rob, doesn’t want to record a message, and definitely doesn’t want Hud hanging around her. When Beth shows up at the party with a date, Rob is jealous. Hud follows Rob and Beth out of the apartment to record Beth’s complaint that after the Coney Island trip, Rob never tried to contact her. Hud can’t contain himself; the juicy story of two long-time friends suddenly becoming lovers makes the rounds of the party, only to be interrupted by a sudden jolt. Earthquake? People pour out of the surrounding buildings. They witness an apparent bomb burst, flames, and then the head of the Statue of Liberty comes bowling down the street, skidding to a stop in front of Lily’s building. Cellphones come out to photograph the sight.

Soon, a figure is spotted in the distance. On television, live feeds show an enormous creature breaking down buildings and depositing spider-like “babies” that begin attacking people. Back at Lily’s, Marlena says she saw “it” eating people. The race away from the death zone is underway until Rob gets a call on his cell from Beth saying she is trapped and hurt in her father’s apartment. Rob decides to go to her rescue; Lily, Hud, and Marlena agree to accompany him. Their bleak odyssey through the streets, subways, and finally through Central Park forms the rest of the film.

As a film, Cloverfield sets up believable actions for its main characters—avoiding the firefight aboveground by making their way to midtown through the subway system, creating a plan to rescue Beth that within the conventions of science fiction works well, even having Marlena join the band because she really doesn’t have anywhere else to go. The effects work well, too, as Reeves understands the effectiveness of the symbology he has chosen to strike horror into viewers, from the decapitated Lady Liberty to a gaping hole of fire in a tall building in lower Manhattan. The film is masterfully shot by Michael Bonvillain; the monster is obscured tantalizingly at first, and great camera angles, plus some well-executed special effects, make scenes such as the crossing from one building to another look treacherous, yet possible. Ace action-film editor Kevin Stitt cut the film with precise pacing to keep our hearts pounding with dread and hope.

But it is as a work of sociology and social critique that Cloverfield works so brilliantly. Putting the video camera in Hud’s hands is the first great move Reeves makes. The character is socially awkward, a clown. He wants to chat up Marlena but doesn’t know how, so he forces her to provide a farewell message just so he’ll have a pretext to keep talking to her. He absentmindedly brings up a horror story of homeless people being set on fire in the subways while the band is making its way through the tunnels, then suddenly realizes that his comments are in poor taste. He hangs onto the camera even while making a dangerous crossing from the high-rise that Beth’s crumbling building is leaning against: “People need to see this, you know? It’s gonna be important. People are going to watch this.” It’s hard to argue this point given the circumstances he is recording—not to mention the fact that the fictitious military authorities viewing this archive of Operation Cloverfield and we are, in fact, watching—but the comment is eerily similar to one Suzanne makes in To Die For: “On TV is where we learn about who we really are. Because what’s the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody’s watching?” Hud is enough of a narcissist to think that what he is doing is important, regardless of what he’s filming.

In fact, most of the characters in this film are afflicted with some level of narcissistic disorder. Rob is very concerned that Hud is using the tape that recorded his day with Beth: “I had a tape in there…something important.” His record of his love affair is precious, yet he didn’t see a reason to keep in touch with Beth herself. “What’s the point?” Rob tells himself. “I’m leaving.” Then what was the point of making love in the first place? His actions reduce their relationship to that of “friends with benefits,” an incredibly blasé relational designation of Generation X, and his brush-off little more than a delete-unread e-mail. His brother calls him a douchebag, so all understanding of interpersonal contact has not disappeared. Yet Cloverfield is more interested in the failure to connect, the deep penetration of mitigated reality into our social fabric. In this film, Rob breaks into an electronics store instead of a gun shop to arm himself—with what?—with a new battery for his cellphone so he can call Beth. His crisis is not that a monster may eat him; it’s that he can’t connect without his gadgets.

Marlena seems a truly lost soul—angry, blunt, staring at her cellphone instead of engaging with Hud. Based on her farewell-to-Rob video, admitting to being drunk every time she’s “met” Rob, it’s pretty clear that she absents herself in any way possible from the world around her. Later, Marlena saves Hud from one of the spiderlike creatures. He thanks her for coming back to help him. She can only reply defensively, “Do you think I’m the kind of person who wouldn’t do that?” When he says he “knows” she’s not that kind of person, she softens. But how would he know that? Based on her previous actions, even she seems to know that he’d be justified to think she wouldn’t lift a finger to help his sorry ass.

And what of Beth? What of sacrificing all for love? She set out to hurt Rob at his party instead of talking to him long before that when he failed to call. She’s a girl who clearly has internalized “The Rules,” except that The Rules are written for players, not real people. The phoniest part of the film comes at the end when Rob and Beth give a foxhole declaration of love to each other. Reeves wisely ends with the last bit of the original Coney Island tape, with Beth saying, “I had a good day.” This smiling, shallow assessment of a day that supposedly meant the world to her is as honest as it gets.

The larger lesson comes from Hud and Rob’s speculations about where the monster came from: Deep-sea trenches? Outer space? The elitist world is teetering like Beth’s leaning tower of privilege on Central Park. Electronic communication is the worm-riddled fruit of the 21st century tree of knowledge that may be poised to destroy us all. We might easily have noticed the enemies from without and the American-born and -bred monsters within our own borders. But the media shined its light elsewhere, and we didn’t stop texting soon enough to see the evidence with our own eyes.

Featured Image: Paramount Pictures