Retrospecticus: A Meditation on Cloverfield

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Few trailers have ever landed like that one. A seeming home movie of a party that turns into a horror show with the Statue of Liberty’s head rolling down the street and the cry of something unseen. There was no title. Just credits and a release date.

The speculation set in at once. A misheard “it’s alive” became “it’s a lion” which led to rumblings it was a Voltron movie. An ARG started up, cleverly doling out clues (and ultimately exposition to the film). The film was only known by its code name of Cloverfield so the title was rumored with the code name finally becoming the title. Waiting for this film was fun.

Then it was released. After a massive opening, the culture didn’t seem that floored by the film. It was well reviewed but audiences as a whole seemed let down. The film’s disorienting camera work turned many off. Aside from the plot structure being used in Disaster Movie, Cloverfield seemed to vanish.  Indeed when director Matt Reeves was hyped as the director of this film on his next, I heard more than a few laugh that it was nothing to hype. The movie was a great marketing campaign with nothing inside.

But time changed things. When a film from the same producers was retitled 10 Cloverfield Lane and implied to be a sequel (it wasn’t), the film received its first wave of re-evaluation. I saw countless people start to discuss Cloverfield not as a great ad campaign but as a great film. The movie was taken seriously by people, many of whom didn’t see it in the theater. (This writer was at a midnight screening.)

And here we are looking at the film now from a vantage point of 10 years. Some films look worse with time. Cloverfield only shines brighter.

At a mere 74 minutes if I’m being generous, Cloverfield is one of the shortest live action films I’ve ever seen. It has a running time that puts in in the company of films like the Seltzerberg movies, Jonah Hex, and Cool Cat Saves the Kids. It has this brief running time despite a plot as epic as the 1998 Godzilla which runs almost twice as long. Most movies that short are viewed with disdain. They don’t get 10 years later pieces.

Cloverfield is not too short though. It’s a model of efficiency. Every shot lands. Every scene matters. There is not one moment of fat in it. Without that filler, what you have is a panic attack on film. It is a pure experience.

The film’s structure is effortlessly simple. A group of friends unite for the going away party of one of their own. There is an explosion. The characters discover a giant monster is rampaging through New York. They try to survive. There is a ticking clock set early on as it’s established if they don’t leave New York they will die in a nuclear strike. Meanwhile the love interest of the departing friend is severely in need of rescuing, adding a challenge. It’s screenwriting 101: goal, stakes, urgency. Yet the merciless work by writer Drew Goddard and director Matt Reeves makes it more.

A lot has been said about how unbearable the first act is. The characters are “unlikable spoiled rich kids.” I can’t agree. When I rewatched the film recently, I was struck by how much I liked these characters. There’s nice shorthand. Rob, the protagonist, is running away from everything which means inevitably the film is about him running to something. His brother is a solid, committed voice of reason. The cameraman of the film., Hud, is a leering creep played by T.J. Miller who has a long list of accusations against him.

The party scene itself is such a fun scene to watch, a miniature play really. We see Rob angrily drink his feelings as Beth, the woman he loves, brings another man to the party. He’s knocked down by his brother who points out he blew this. It’s a gripping, fun scene that echoes Reeves’ work on Felicity and The Pallbearer.

But then it happens.

It’ll be impossible for me to go further on this movie without addressing the elephant in the room: Cloverfield is steeped in 9/11 imagery. The movie is arguably to that day what Gojira was to the atomic bomb droppings. In both cases the horror of the acts of man is re-contextualized into the acts of nature. The imagery is unmistakable.

It never feels exploitative though. Cloverfield instead feels cathartic. There’s something very freeing about seeing blooms of smoke in downtown New York and being to blame it on a frog-insect and not the acts of extremists continuing a cycle of violence. In therapy this is called a reframe and the film earns its reframing.

Once the incident begins, the film never stops moving. The characters do all they can to get off the island of Manhattan but in a scene of pure panic, the monster destroys the bridge which kill’s Rob’s brother. It’s an emotionally destructive scene that breaks you. It helps earn the imagery too. Characters die in proportion to what you’d actually see, giving it consequences.

This is another complaint I’ve heard. Why don’t the characters act logically? The entire journey by Rob to get Beth is an illogical, foolish one that seemingly makes no sense after the death of his brother. Here again, I get why the characters act how they act. They’re all at least some variant of intoxicated and utterly terrified.

This is a pet peeve of mine. We get mad when characters act illogically even though we the viewer are watching from a logical perspective the characters lack. We’re sitting at home or in a theater. We know what’s coming. Our adrenaline isn’t pumping.

But that’s not the case for the characters in this film. Yes, they act like idiots. And it’s to be stressed acting like idiots means all but one of these characters we’re watching will die. The movie doesn’t let them off the hook for their actions. The characters act foolishly but the creators establish why they would and show what would happen.

The movie next takes us into the subway where we get one of the scariest scenes of the decade. The characters crawl through the subway in complete darkness when they hear the noise. The crawling. Using night vision on the camera, we see the parasites clinging to the creature. They bite Hud’s stalking interest, who falls ill and once quarantined behind a sheet explodes. It’s a sequence of precision.

The characters reach the injured Beth in another sequence of precision. Seriously, this film is nothing but well executed beats. It’s incredibly tense, feeling as epic in my head as a scene much longer. We get exactly what we need here.

This is a good moment to discuss the film’s editing. So much of the footage consists of stops and starts. There is not a continuous stream of filming. It’s obvious the camera has been put down and picked up many times. It creates an unsettling staccato rhythm. We don’t get the moments to breathe that likely happened between filming. This really creates the film’s sense of scale despite a the short run time. The bridges are so well built in our heads.

The rescue itself is shot very well. We feel like we’re in the room. The lighting is right. The set is, well, a set. In the few really clear shots we get, the realism is briefly broken. That’s not an issue. The film cost 30 million after all. Not the cheapest but far from the budget of a film this scale.

The characters escape and we get one of our few good looks at the monster as it crashes their helicopter. The design is instantly iconic, so much so producer J.J. Abrams more or less reused it in his next two films. Yes, it’s a shame we don’t see it more but I feel like that’s highly effective. The monster is a stalking presence, always on our mind. Besides, we get to see it eat Hud. That’s cool.

Then it ends with Rob and Beth hiding under a bridge, lucky to be alive. But not for long. They say their goodbyes and the camera glitches out, suggesting New York City has been nuked. There’s a final shot, an artifact of what was taped over, then no sound. The end credits initially roll quietly before Reeves’ frequent collaborator Michael Giacchino’s great tribute to Akira Ikufube’s Gojira theme plays.

Cloverfield was released to mixed reception. After a strong debut that doubled the budget, it plummeted at the box office. Why this reception? The film’s camerawork, a third to half of which was actually done by T.J. Miller, was highly disorienting. Motion sickness was common. I understand why that turned people off.

However the film works for that reason. Take away the found footage element and it’s a generic monster movie. Shooting it as if it were a home movie of a real event gives the film its power. We’ll never have an actual kaiju attack, physics don’t allow it. But this it what it would feel like. And again, the giant monster proves a cathartic way of capturing what it’s like surviving a less comfortable attack.

The big complaint I heard at the time was that nobody would actually film such an event. They’d put the camera down and run. I disagree and as proof I point to the Joplin tornado. 158 people were killed in that event and practically every moment of it was captured for viewing on Youtube. When Hud is asked why he doesn’t stop, he says “Yeah, people are gonna want to know how it all went down.” He’s right. The advent of easy video cameras in everybody’s pocket has proven him right.

That, coupled with the echoes of 9/11, is what makes Cloverfield more than a good monster movie. Cloverfield captures the zeitgeist in a way few films have. It captures our mindset, who we were in 2008. There have been many found footage movies. None had the power of this masterpiece.

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