If, as some critics have suggested, Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1954) was a collective catharsis for Japanese filmgoers regarding the atomic bomb disasters that befell Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, then Cloverfield can be seen as a similar cinematic exorcism for Americans still reeling from the 9/11 disaster.
Using lightweight recording devices and a high-definition digital format, director Matt Reeves has created what appears to be nothing more than a modern take on a hoary movie cliché as he gives us a victim’s eye view of what it would be like if a monster, 50 stories tall, came to your town and had it for lunch. Utilizing camcorders and all of the positives and negatives inherent to that format, the director is able to create an immediacy in the action that’s exhilarating and frightening. The whipsaw camera movements, jittery hand-held shots and the visual confusion created while filming on the move is effective in underscoring the chaos of the premise. Many have referred to this as The Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla and while that is an oversimplification, it is an apt description of Reeves’ aesthetic. Yes, there will be those who bitch about only getting occasional glimpses of the monster in question, but in taking this approach, Reeves generates a sense of terror by keeping the military-engineered baddie under-wraps.
More importantly, he’s emphasizing that the creature is not the focus of this endeavor but the plight of the victims is, as they find themselves in the middle of an inexplicable urban disaster that quickly changes and spreads, tearing their lives asunder at a moment’s notice. Sound familiar?
The plot by Drew Goddard is a model of economy as it features a small cast of characters and a simple premise both of which helps Reeves create a sense of immediacy amidst this large-scale disaster and the ability to tell this tale at a crisp pace. Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) is leaving New York City for Japan to take on a new job. His brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and his girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) have arranged a surprise going-away party for him and among the guests are Hud (T.J. Miller), who’s given the job of documenting the evening’s events on video, and Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), a young lady who the reluctant cameraman has a crush on. Also at the festivities is Beth (Odette Yustman), Rob’s best friend whom he’s recently had a falling out with. Alcohol flows, hook-ups are made, arguments ensue, Beth and Rob have a blow out and then all hell breaks loose.
The first tremor and the blackout that follows are treated as odd but not catastrophic. However, a sense of dread begins to set in when gigantic explosions rock Midtown and the Statute of Liberty’s head winds up rolling down a Manhattan street. As chaos reigns, Rob receives a phone message from Beth who finds out she’s trapped in her apartment and he sets out with Jason, Hud, Lily and Marlena in tow to save her.
The film becomes a travelogue through an urban nightmare in which all that was familiar has become obsolete and survival becomes a question of luck. Scenes of city canyons filled with ash, smoke and debris, exploding skyscrapers and the sight of injured, fleeing citizens seem all to familiar and while the context here may be fiction, these scenes are all the more horrific because they allude to similar moments in our not so-distant past. This isn’t a monster movie but a metaphor of our modern world in which uncertainty is around each corner, trust in the government is a quality held only by the naïve and guarantees regarding life and love are transparent.
That being said, the monster in question is a nasty motherfucker that’s virtually unstoppable, is seemingly omnipresent, as our heroes cross its path far too often, and can regenerate itself at will, as smaller cloned versions of it flake away from its skin to devour anything in its path. It’s a perfectly engineered, biological weapon and its ability to strike suddenly and quickly as well as multiply rapidly serves as an effective stand-in for the brand of terrorism that’s plaguing the world today.
There are many things that separate this film from other monster mashes (its relevance to current affairs, its documentary feel, etc.) but it’s the poignancy it generates that distinguishes it. Reeves and Goddard employ a simple but effective narrative device in which we catch glimpses of the last good day Rob and Beth spent together, the video record of which is being taped over by Hud as he documents the attack on the city. When he pauses the tape, we are treated to scenes of the young, happy couple playing, flirting and in love. These moments end abruptly and as we are thrust back into the carnage, we’re reminded of all that can be lost, inexplicably in a moment. In the end it’s Cloverfield’s uncompromising look at the world we live in, where life can be immediately erased by inexplicable violence that makes it unique and bracing.