Cloverfield: Great Monster Movie, Better Human Story
Overview: A group of friends travel to the heart of New York to save a friend in the middle of a monster attack in a definitive film for our times. Paramount Pictures; 2008; Rated PG-13; 85 minutes.
The Monster: Cloverfield isn’t really about the monster. It’s not even really about a monster attack. The 2008 J.J. Abrams-produced, Drew Goddard-penned, and Matt Reeves-directed project operates as a film about how small and insignificant we are in the grand scope of things. In Lovecraftian fashion, people are inconsequential to the disaster and giant terrors ever-present in the corners of our world and existence.
Much has been written about the masterful marketing campaign for Cloverfield, but there are surprisingly few discussions about how little the extensive viral Easter eggs and fan-theory-filled message boards actually contribute to the intended greater goal of the film itself. As fun as the viral campaign might have been as a separate venture, it functions as nothing more than sugar coating for the standard (if brilliant) mystery boxing from Abrams, the man who perfected that particular packaging of crowd frenzy.
The film’s monster, its eventual central selling point, can retroactively be analyzed to the same measure. Occasionally, we see the Cloverfield Monster as a lumbering leviathan scrambling across the city that never sleeps, an uncontrollable monstrosity wreaking havoc with Old Testament ferocity. There is rarely a clear full shot of the monster, its visual presence shrouded in filmic ambiguity. Flashing visions of obtuse connections between arms, legs, head, and torso give it both a distinct look and unidentifiable concoction of earthly evolution. Usually I’d have something critical to say about the default grey colors used for monster designs, but it actually works in favor for this particular beast. It lurches forward as a symbol of death and illness. The locust-like parasites that fall off its skin might not illicit the same panic as that earned by the main creature, but they deliver their own brand of scuttling terror, as quick as Jurassic Park‘s velociraptors with the lethality of Alien‘s Xenomorph. A subway scene where our four central protagonists are chased by a small group of them is one of the most terrifying in a film full of terror.
But, in the end, very little information on the Cloverfield Monster or its parasites is relevant to the thematic ambition of the purposeful narrative– nothing provided before, during, or after the film experience is useful to its broader statement. Because it’s the people in the midst of the event that draw and hold our attention.
The People: Found footage is often slandered as being a lazy filmmaking technique. It is the easiest type of film for young, unfunded filmmakers to construct and it has been utilized in as many bad films as passable ones since 2008. But in the right hands with the right minds behind the right camera, the anchored, real-world perspective of found footage allows for massive leaps in inventive filmmaking. The digital format works for any number of films (Miami Vice, Miami Vice, Miami Vice), the texture found in commonplace cameras lends itself to a sense of immediacy, an immersive translation of a film’s events.
In Cloverfield, landmarks crash down, cultural icons are destroyed, and all of it is framed in first-person witness. Goddard’s economical script and Reeves’ direction give us a worm’s eye view of the proceedings. Reeves doesn’t linger longer than he needs to on any scene of destruction. Thick clouds of smoke reflect the few powered street lights left in the city, leaving several scenes with an ominous yellow/orange hue. People walk through New York City covered in ash and surrounded by rubble. Cries of desperation score the film. Civilians ask what could be responsible for the disaster. Obviously, the imagery is strikingly akin to the home footage of the attacks on 9/11. Haunting doesn’t even begin to cover it. But, there is no desire to fetishize tragedy or calamity (as is the common goal of non-found-footage films). The goal is to understand it, to lend it, to revisit and investigate it.
And so, any viewer willing to submit to this revisitation finds his or herself asking: What sort of monstrous beast lingers beneath the surface of our world? And what’s the point of all this if something could tear it down so easily?
The opening act of Cloverfield documents the preparation for and celebration of main character Rob’s (Michael Stahl-David) international departure to a new job in Japan. After he pushes away Beth (Odette Yustman), the girl who might be the love of his life , Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and best friend (T.J. Miller) pull him aside to discuss “moments” as the few things we are able to understand in life.
After the events of the movie have concluded, we are lead to understand that the U.S. government has uncovered their documented footage in the area designated “Cloverfield.” Rob and his friends are mostly dead by then, having never mattered to the large-scale catastrophe that unfolded in their background. But they mattered to each other. They weren’t concerned with the big picture, and so neither were their cameras. All that mattered in the end were the little connections they shared with one another. Both before the monster attack and during, I think it’s safe to say they were glad they spent time together. It’s not much, but maybe it’s enough to matter in the face of whatever devastation might be thrown upon us by the massive monsters that secretly exist in our world.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures