Cloverfield is not so much a monster film, but a film about survival. Sure there’s a monster whose attack on Manhattan makes the American Godzilla’s rampage back in 1998 look like high tea with the Queen of England. Cloverfield is about those normally nameless and faceless folks running about underfoot, trying to escape from the giant beast’s rampage.
The film starts ominously enough, with an title card stating the following footage is property of the Department of Defense and was “found in the area formerly known as Central Park.” What follows is footage shot by a group of twenty-something Manhattanites on the night the city is attacked by some giant monster. It starts off innocently enough for them, as they are throwing a going away party for their friend Rob (Michael Stahl-David) who is heading to Japan and a new job. One friend, Hud (T. J. Miller) has been tasked with gathering video greetings from all the partygoers, a job he takes to heart by telling everyone, “I’ve got to document the night!” He doesn’t know how true his words will become.
The party is interrupted by an earthquake and momentary power outage. Rushing to the roof, the group sees an explosion light up the Manhattan skyline. The group then heads down to street level, just in time to see the Statue of Liberty’s head come crashing out of the sky, landing in front of them, claw marks across her famous visage. (In one of the film’s few sly, humorous moments, several New Yorkers begin snapping pictures of Lady Liberty’s head with their cell phones.) Moments later, the Rob and his friends see an immense, impossible creature making its way through the smoke and dust of the destruction it is causing. The run for safety is on.
It’s easy to imagine that this film was pitched to some Paramount Studios exec as “Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla!” but the film is much more than just that. There’s a solid character arc that runs through the picture as Rob attempts to make it through Manhattan from Greenwich Village to Columbus Circle to rescue Beth (Odette Yustman), the longtime friend for whom he is starting to have romantic feelings for. Their relationship is at that confusing and volatile phase, and Rob doesn’t want the last thing he said to Beth to be some angry words exchanged at his party an hour before the attack. It’s an effective hook and the film even manages some flashbacks to their growing relationship that still manage to cleverly work within the confines of the film’s “found footage” conceit. While it may upset those expecting a more traditional monster movie story, this is the story element that gets paid off at the end of the film. The film also does a good job of setting up the other various characters in the movie during the camera’s movement through the going away party and footage shot prior to that evening.
Much like Ishiro Honda’s original Godzilla (1954) was an artistic reaction to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Cloverfield definitely works as an allegory for the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on Manhattan. As the partygoers first take to the sidewalk, clouds of smoke billow up the street, preceded by people running in fear. Minutes later, after the monster has passed, the characters reemerge onto the street to an ash covered landscape, papers fluttering down from partly demolished apartment buildings. During a quiet moment when two characters are morning the lost of a mutual loved one, another character confesses to a friend, “I feel like I’m supposed to say something, but I don’t know what to say,” echoing the shock and helplessness many felt in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Late last year, The Mist attempted to generate scares with strange monsters only half glimpsed in the surrounding fog. And while it worked effectively in that movie, the technique works even more so here. For most of Cloverfield, the attacking monster is only seen in brief flashes and never all at once. The immensity of what is going on around the characters is something that is revealed slowly and only pieced together by them, and by extension the audience, during their race across Manhattan to save their friend. There is no explanation for the monster’s appearance, no scientist who conveniently explains what is going on, where the monster is from or what its motives may be. The attack is a random, violent thing and the characters’ overriding imperative here is not to comprehend what is happening, but to survive the events they find themselves trapped in.
Cloverfield is an incredible film that transcends its genre roots. While some films have tried the “found footage” conceit before, none have managed to create as strong a character arc as is found here. As a monster movie, Cloverfield works by turning the typical genre conventions upside down by virtue of its storytelling. But it is the film’s allegorical nature that ensures it will be studied years from now as one of the first truly important films to have been produced about 9/11.