Film * Matt Reeves * Monster! *2008
This is one of those movies where five minutes in I’m already thinking “well, I hate every single one of these characters.” Luckily not too much longer after that a giant monster shows up and makes the movie more bearable. The characters in question are less actual humans than a collection of wealthy, attractive young people who hang out and have parties in giant Midtown apartments with a large number of other wealthy, attractive young people. I guess they have relationships with each other? The main guy is Rob, who was about to leave for Japan (get it? because Godzilla) but is still kinda enmeshed with this girl Beth. They had a fling which was fun but then he had to leave and blah blah blah. None of this is why we’re here, you know? I’m still trying to decide why the decision was made to use such insufferable rich idiots as main characters. Were the filmmakers having a little joke? Was the thought process like ‘these people are all useless and terrible so it’ll be fun to watch them get ate?’ Or was it a more cynical studio decision along the lines of ‘hey, teens are vapid idiots who probably aspire to this level of noxious existence?’ Either way, I enjoyed watching them get ate.
Much more interesting and fun is the manner in which the story is told. It’s a found footage situation, a trope that was admittedly getting a little thin even in 2008. Still, instead of using the technique to make a low-budget horror flick, Cloverfield has bigger aspirations. This is a giant-monster-smashes-everything movie, which is traditionally filmed from a perspective that allows us to see the scope of devastation. In other words, we’re generally on the scale of the monster in these kind of movies. Not so here. Instead the entire story is told from the point-of-view of a single dude (TJ Miller as the only remotely likeable character) with a video camera. This places the film firmly on human-scale, which makes the wonton destruction more impressive. If I cared about the characters, I’m sure the tension would have been even greater. As it is, it’s still pretty fun watching the chaos unravel at street level.
At heart, this is still a classic monster movie. A big creature shows up and starts wailing on skyscrapers, puny humans run around screaming until they’re either eaten or crushed underfoot, then eventually the army shows up and attempts to murder the creature with bazookas. That’s it. The perspective is everything in Cloverfield, and it’s well done. A particularly effective scene is when Rob decides he’s going to save his not-girlfriend Beth and charges into the path of the monster, his dumb friends in tow. There’s a lot of yelling and whatever, but he’s all determined because Rob feels guilty about something (look, I wasn’t paying that close attention during the people-centric scenes) and is dead-set on rescuing the girl. Not so much because he’s a hero, but to assuage his own guilt. Anyway, they’re following the path of destruction and suddenly find themselves between the monster and the army. They take cover while the army shoots the shit out of the monster (which has little effect) and the monster does monster stuff, and everything is just an unmitigated cacophony. In fact, that’s pretty much the movie in a nutshell. Cloverfield: An Unmitigated Cacophony.
Maybe I’m being a little dense, but I’m not so sure there’s much in the way of hidden depth with this thing. There is an attempt at making us care about the relationship between Rob and Beth, which falls entirely flat, mostly because the characters are paper thin. The conceit is that the tape we’re watching is recording over footage of Rob and Beth’s date to Coney Island where they fall for each other but not really but maybe. Occasionally there are little snippets between the noise and destruction that is Beth looking pretty and riding a roller coaster or whatever. I suspect these are an attempt at contrasting sweet normalcy with the current chaos and death. Of course since these people are of no real interest, these scenes are just interrupting the cool parts. There is one other thing, though. If you take this thing into account, these little clips of normalcy become a little bit more profound. This thing isn’t terribly subtle, but neither does the movie really harp on it, which is good because this is still a fun monster movie, and if Cloverfield were more heavy-handed with the thing, it would ruin the fun.
The monster is 9/11. That’s the thing. The video clips of the dipshit kids being all careless and fancy-free at the amusement park represent New York City on September 10th, 2001. After that, all is darkness and chaos. This became abundantly clear when the monster first shows up. All our idiot party-goers run outside when they feel the initial explosions. There’s a shot across the water and there’s a brief view of the fire-bloom and smoke. Once they’re in the street, nobody knows what’s happening. Then the Statue of Liberty’s head comes rolling down the pavement. Which is pretty rad. Shortly after that, a building collapses and suddenly a bunch of confused New Yorkers are running from a giant, billowing cloud of dust and debris. You’ve seen this before. If you were watching this in a theatre, you saw this seven years earlier as tiny humans were subsumed by massive clouds of what was once the World Trade Center.
The visual is a deliberate choice that is absolutely meant to evoke those images from 9/11. Obviously, the filmmakers weren’t intending to make a stealth film about the attacks and New York’s response to it. That would have been a much more serious, probably more annoying film. Rather, I think the filmmakers decided enough time had passed where such scenes could be used to evoke the scale and terror of the attacks without feeling like they’re being vultures about it. Besides, the building collapse is really the only image that really stands out as being an obvious use of 9/11 iconography. The film takes place at night, so there’s no bright blue skies, nobody jumps from buildings, or anything like that. Which again, is for the best.
There is a good deal to talk about when it comes to 9/11 and our notions of the apocalypse. It was very much an apocalyptic day with profound repercussions on how modern history has unfolded. However, this otherwise silly and fun monster movie is not the time to have an in-depth discussion about it. Rather like how the Godzilla movies were obviously rooted in fear of nuclear warfare (from the only country to have suffered nuclear attacks), Cloverfield is rooted in a similar fear of the post-9/11 world. Yet much like Godzilla movies are better suited for Mystery Science Theater 3000 than a serious discussion about nuclear policy, Cloverfield is intended to be a dumb good time. Especially if you like watching annoying characters get ate.