Directed by Matt Reeves. Written by Drew Goddard. Produced by J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk. Photographed by Michael Bonvillain. Music by Michael Giacchino. Edited by Kevin Stitt. Production designed by Martin Whist. Starring Michael Stahl-David, T.J. Miller, Jessica Lucas, Odette Yustman, Lizzy Caplan, Mike Vogel.
Cloverfield is to Godzilla movies what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is to Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for those unaware, is Tom Stoppard’s famous 1966 play about the disconnect that occurs within an audience when two minor characters in a work they are familiar with are brought to the forefront. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are characters in Hamlet, supporting players at best, but in Stoppard’s play we follow them and only play peripheral attention to Hamlet, Ophelia, Claudius, etc. Hamlet may be about Hamlet, but what do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern care about Hamlet? Or, for that matter, Hamlet?
This device speaks to an essential human truth: in the show that is our life, we are the star, and that wouldn’t change even amongst people in a show where the hero is literally someone else. As a species, we humans are masters of self-absorption: in the grand story of our life, we are the hero, some are the sidekicks, and others are the villains. Any other configuration just would not do. How does the old joke go? When the actor who just got cast as the gravedigger in Hamlet is asked what the play is about, he responds: “It’s about a gravedigger who meets a prince.” Because of course it is.
Cloverfield is about some yuppies who meet a Godzilla-like monster. The yuppies are: Rob (Michael Stahl-David), Jason (Mike Hawkins), Hud (TJ Miller), Beth (Odette Yustman), Lily (Jessica Lucas) and Marlena (Lizzy Caplan). The monster is, well…it’s unnamed. We don’t learn about its origin. We don’t discover its plans. Our information about its anatomy and physiology is limited to exactly what our six characters learn, usually at unfortunate levels of first-hand knowledge. Absent are any brainy scientists, hotshot fighter pilots, or anyone else that would provide a familiar dramatic throughline for what to do about the monster. These people probably exist in the world of Cloverfield, but they are far offstage. Instead we’re stuck with Hud and the events that play before his camera, that most democratic of storytelling engines.
What does that leave us with? The affirmation that within any durable story, there are hundreds or thousands of stories happening simultaneously, and here the balance is shifted in one of those narratives’ favor. We’ve seen New York turned into a wartorn backdrop for standard action heroics more than once…but in Cloverfield what we get instead is a desperate—and poignant—gesture of pure human nature. The heroes’ motivation is simple: get off Manhattan. When that fails: survive the monster attack. When that looks bleak, it becomes simply a desire to find each other. There’s something touching about a movie that begins with happiness and ends with the near-hopeless desire to not die alone.
It’s probably true that every age gets the monster that it deserves. Dracula is of course an exploitation of Victorian-era sexual and venereal horrors, and Frankenstein is an answer to untempered technological revolution. The Mummy is a critique of rampant, careless British colonialism. The Wolfman is a comment on the hypocricy of civilization buttressed against baser instincts. Godzilla and his brethren are reactions to nuclear fears (especially post-Hiroshima Japanese fears). Freddy Krueger is a manifestation of “victimless” crimes committed by the Baby Boom generation. The Creature From The Black Lagoon is…OK, I’m not so sure about him. Jason’s…a guy in a hockey mask… Okay, so not every monster can have something deep read into him.
But this one can. Cloverfield is a deeply felt post-9/11 movie. While the effects of the September 11th tragedy continue to be felt like ripples in blockbuster entertainments (most perceptively, for example, in The Dark Knight’s meditations on the immoral totality of domestic terrorism), Cloverfield wears its iconography on its sleeve: this movie is about New Yorkers, wandering through a destroyed Manhattan, and while no dialogue references the events of 2001, there is a tinge to everyone’s state of shock that feels effectively weary: the subtext of almost every disaster scene is “We’ve been here before.” While the film’s signature shot of the Statue of Liberty’s head skating down a city street is strictly the stuff of movies, the scenes of terrorized mobs figuring out where to run or tearful phone calls about instant (and horrible) developments are, in a way, real. Not to mention a key (and terrifying) sequence that takes place in a shattered skyscraper. Many movies with 9/11 themes promote closure, but Cloverfield’s approach is like ripping open a fresh wound.
The overall effect could be tasteless. What is the height of escapism, after all, but silly monster movies, and this one dares to draw from the same bank of shared dread as the victim of the World Trade Center attacks? And yet Cloverfield is, on its own terms, a pretty terrific movie. Like many found-footage films, its aims are small: it wants to thrill, entertain, and drop a little dollop of story in your lap. Only a little, and that’s fine, because movies like this usually operate under harshly constricted timelines, and how much does a person really change in six hours? The movie is more intrigued with capturing moods than plot: the drama of a friendly party, a series of horrific attacks, and above all tiny, sweet registers of the little things that make us human and not monsters ourselves. Is there any logic for Rob, the guy who’s ostensibly our hero, to flee deep into the ruins of Manhattan to find the love of his life, Beth? Probably not. She’s probably dead. But, damn it, he goes, because that’s what people do.
The whole film unspools as if it is unedited footage from a sole video camera. The camera is actually owned by Rob, but falls into Hud’s hands when the latter is asked to film tearful goodbye messages for Rob’s going away party (he is moving to Japan on business). Hud, however, is not a skilled documentarian, or even much interested in anything other than the pretty Marlena, who brushes him off in a way that absolutely explains why a guy like Hud would be interested in a girl like her. Meanwhile, Rob swoons over the absent Beth, and then turns bitter when she shows up with a boyfriend in tow—other footage that occasionally breaks into the main story indicates that Rob and Beth are two good friends who became romantic, and Beth now seems to think that time has passed.
The party scenes go on just long enough, I think—like many horror movies Cloverfield gives the sense of one narrative slowly slipping into the control of another, and the party helps accentuate that feeling: the opening does feel like a slightly spiffier version of one of those videos a friend would show you that he shot as he got progressively drunk one night. The dialogue is not very polished, nor should it be, because it heightens the illusion that these are real people with everyday problems who do not have a flock of writers on their side crafting their every word. People criticize “found footage” movies for “bad dialogue” often, and I have to say I don’t get the criticism. Doesn’t real life have bad dialogue, too? The counter to that might be that such a thing isn’t entertaining, but I, personally, would gladly sacrifice a few entertainment points if it means a more persuasive sense of immersion.
The lovers part in a huff. Beth leaves angrily. And then—shortly after Rob’s brother Jason pulls him out to the fire escape and shares an important life lesson–something attacks the city. In agonizing real-time, the partygoers go from curious to alarmed to terrified as they peer into the skyline while standing on the roof of Rob’s apartment, and soon are dodging fireballs. The streets are littered with debris and dust, uncannily evoking post-9/11 imagery. (I’ll stop harping on it in a moment, but I really have to underline that the feeling is palpable). I won’t be spoiling anything by telling you a monster has attacked New York City, and for once the characters in a monster movie are terrifically unskeptical about the thing facing them. Usually in a movie like this, you get the one loudmouth who insists it’s all a mass hallucination or something, and then dies for his trouble. That doesn’t happen here. Except for the people dying part.
Cloverfield now settles into a very basic structure: one damn thing after another. The group make their way to the Brooklyn Bridge, which suffers a catastrophe…while everyone is still on it. Rob desperately retrieves a voicemail from Beth, trapped in her apartment building, in a well-acted moment that holds on the actor’s face for a long time. Rob goes on a suicide mission to find Beth, and the others, perhaps because they have nowhere else to go, accompany him: through subway tunnels, abandoned department stores, through Central Park and even up every stair of a skyrise that happens to adjoin Beth’s near-toppled apartment building. Along the way, the monster terrorizes the city as an amorphous menace that can pop up in front of our heroes at any moment (and frequently does). One shot goes from a quiet stroll to a chaotic battle between monster and marines with jaw-dropping scope, while Hud, against all reason, keeps right on a-filmin’.
The characters all slide into sorta pre-assigned roles, each of them embracing something that gives them purpose. For Rob, it’s finding Beth. For Hud, it’s capturing the whole incident on film (“People are going to want to know how it went down.”) Jason’s purpose ends up being not what he thought it would be. Lily insists on standing by her friends. Marlena becomes the most shell-shocked of the group, as she sees the creature the earliest and perhaps taps into defeatism from that moment on—it is noted that she’s not really friends with any of them, but it’s plain on her face that she’s given up thinking where she goes ultimately matters. What purpose Beth ends up serving I will not reveal.
It’s hard to talk much about Cloverfield since so much of its power resides in its ending, and the really nice way it discards nihilism (which you’d expect from a hopeless monster attack) in favor of existentialism—particularly the notion it has that tragedy through camaraderie is ultimately not tragedy at all. I’ll instead focus on the fact that the movie is pretty frightening at times, especially during an unnerving sequence in abandoned subway tunnels. You’d think that a 50-foot monster would not be able to threaten our heroes when they are underground, and technically you would be right. And yet.
Cloverfield was written by Drew Goddard, a frequent collaborator of two of the most influential names in television drama: Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and J.J. Abrams (Lost). Goddard is a natural fit for both men because he loves (as they do) to pitch worn tropes on their side. Here Goddard upends decades of accumulated familiarity with monster movies, but it’s not a gimmick, because through it all he crafts compelling characters (as shallow as they may first appear) who justify the narrative upheaval. The same technique is used in the forthcoming Cabin in the Woods (co-written by Whedon and Goddard), which also spins a hoary conceit and populates it with broad characters…except…well, that would telling. Let’s just say things are never what you think they are when these guys are around. Perfect example: Cloverfield cost $25 million (chump change in the studio system), and looks like it cost at least twice that.
I’ve always had an uncertain relationship with monster movies. For many, they are staples of childhood, but I pretty much missed the boat. Maybe I was always disturbed how monsters always come back and essentially become the hero of their own series. But Cloverfield is really something special—a horror/monster film that bestows a humanity to everyone, and keeps it in play all the way to the end. Lots of horror movies end with despair, which is gutsy. But this one is gutsier still, because after it’s all over we feel not misery but hope. Hope that when the time eventually comes, we should all be so—now isn’t this strange—lucky.
NOTES: Goddard mentions in an interview that an earlier draft of the script had the camera pass by a stock hero character having an argument, implicitly suggesting that the Michael Bay version of this material is happening just offscreen, somewhere. They were right to take it out. Too cheeky.
There is a surprise secret in the film’s final shot. I would describe it, but I don’t really know what It means. I kinda like not knowing what it means.
There is a musical score. Pay attention to the end credits to hear Michael Giacchino’s really rather terrific suite, entitled–heh–“Roar!”
Finally: The title means whatever you want it to mean. However, I will say this: it’s frequently been noted that clovers are the first things that grow back after nuclear fallout. So…that’s something.