A look back at the now 10-year-old monster movie
It just hit me the other day that Cloverfield turned 10 this year. Wow!
I remember how galvanized the theater was when we saw the trailer for the first time. It didn’t even have a title yet, and was just referred to as 1-18-08, which would be its release date. The trailer was quite easily the absolute best thing about The TransFormers (I could fill up pages and pages about the cinematic shit that movie is).
JJ Abrams was inspired to make the movie on a trip to Japan with his son. Looking at a Godzilla toy, he said he realized the U.S. had no true monster of its own. King Kong is as close as we get, but although he has monster-like tendencies, he really is, even in his earliest carnation, too humanized. He can smash cars, throw trucks, hurl the elevated train off its track, and can even scale the Empire State Building or the World Trade Center Towers (depending on the movie). However, there is a reason he does all of this. Not just to do it, and not because he is fighting another monster, but because he is trying to reunite with the object of his desire: the blonde woman famously played by Fay Wray, then Jessica Lange, and most recently Naomi Watts. You could call this lust, but let’s not be cynics for a second, and let’s open ourselves to our inner child – which is essentially what Kong is – and call it love.
Godzilla is too primal for love. He is a force of nature.
Therefore, JJ was inspired to create a real monster for the U.S.
Although, he was not the first to see the potential in Godzilla. American studio execs saw that right away, and when the original Godzilla movie was released in the U.S., the movie was re-edited with Raymond Burr spliced into it. In 1998, the creative team behind Independence Day tried to bring Godzilla to the modern age with the tag line, “Size does matter.” While the trailers to it were quite fun, they forgot about an engaging story. While Matthew Broderick is the only choice for Ferris Bueller, he was not quite the best choice here, and neither were any of the stars in it. The movie was clunky, clumsy, and disappointing.
So, with America lacking a true monster of its own, JJ went to work, and he created Cloverfield, named after the street where his offices were in Santa Monica. (I am not sure if his offices are still there.)
The movie is a found-footage film; meaning its presented as if the events in the movie actually happened, and the footage that has been found comprised what we see. It’s shot with a handheld camera, which sometimes results in annoying shaky-cam footage, but not too often. And honestly, this hand held camera is the masterstroke that sets this movie apart from Godzilla (1998). Had this movie been shot standard, it would have been just one more monster movie with characters who were young and good-looking, but in the end nothing more than monster food. With the camera at ground level and being forced to stay at camera level, we see only what the characters see. We are on the streets with them as the Army rockets fly over their heads in an attempt to destroy the monster.
The other reason this hand-held, shaky camera works so well is that it never lets us see all that we want to see. We can only see what the camera holder is fast enough to catch, and usually that is not much at all. A glimpse of towering legs as they move between the towering canyons of Manhattan. Dozens of glowing eyes in the dark from spindly, spiderlike creatures with snapping jaws.
The other masterstroke in this movie is T.J. Miller as Hud. Although his face has very little screen time, his presence is felt throughout. He is almost the narrator who takes us through the nightmarish scenario, breaking the tension with his levity from time to time, and screaming at other times when it just gets to be too much.
If the movie has a flaw, it’s the fact that the first 12 or so minutes (I swear it feels like 20), are SO tedious. It’s necessary, but it’s tedious. This is when we meet the people who are going to take us through the story and learn their relationships to each other. It’s needed, but the drama feels so forced and so inconsequential. It’s the kind of drama that you get to see every week on every single show on the CW. The one highlight of this drama is Hud and his clumsy/awkward attempts to talk to Marlena. We don’t need to know much more than the story presents: Hud has a crush on her, he’s nervous around her, and the results are quite funny.
Thankfully all that melodrama ends once the lights go off and the monster starts its siege on Manhattan.
There are echoes of September 11th as the dust clouds from collapsing buildings roll through the streets and blanket everything in dirt and darkness. While some might say this is a cheap move on JJ’s part, I applaud it as a bold move. After all, Godzilla was Japan’s response to the atomic bomb – it’s the reason Godzilla’s skin has that signature look: it’s modeled after keloid scars as seen on survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Also, Cloverfield is JJ’s response to the terrorist attacks. For instance, Godzilla is a metaphor for the atomic bomb, and the Cloverfield monster, Clover, is a metaphor for terrorists, the people who turn are familiar lives upside down and cause us to find out how far we will go to be with the people we love. In this movie’s case, the character climbs into a building leaning against another building in order to save his girlfriend. It’s a risky and bold move, but it worked for me.
Furthermore, the Cloverfield monster as a metaphor for terrorism works on more than just that level. The movie’s last shot shows us something falling from the sky and splashing into the ocean off Coney Island. Look on the right side of the screen when it first starts playing.
This, I believe, is supposed to represent the monster’s arrival to earth. And since the day at Coney Island happens about a month before the main action of the movie, it means the monster was lying in wait to strike. Just like the terrorists who caused the attacks on September 11, 2001. Though there was certainly more planning on the terrorists’ part, they waited to strike until the moment was right, on a day when air passengers would be low and the number of people who might resist would also be lower. The monster of Cloverfield was hiding, sleeping, lying in wait in the ocean, waiting until just the right moment (when it was big enough and strong enough) to announce itself and attack like a force of nature.
The ending of the movie, for as loud as the whole movie is, is actually fairly quiet. The cast of characters has been whittled down to two, and as the world falls down and blows up around them, they declare their love for each other with their last breaths.
However, the best thing about Cloverfield is the score, and most people don’t even know it has one. For the most part, the soundtrack to the movie is made up of Hud’s narration and the ambient noises of the street, the source noises of their getaway. There are some songs playing during the going away party in the beginning, but aside from that, the movie is entirely devoid of music until the end credits roll. Then, we get treated to a hauntingly operatic piece of JJ Abrams favorite, Michael Giacchino. Not everyone stays and watches the credits, so its likely that not many people have heard this piece. If you haven’t, you’re missing out, so I’ve posted it below. Also, if you really like it, you can purchase it on iTunes.
While the sequels (2016s 10 Cloverfield Lane and the newly released on Netflix The Cloverfield Paradox) have perhaps gone in different directions than JJ Abrams saw with his initial entry.
It’s safe to say that with Cloverfield, JJ did indeed created a monster that has every right to stand next to Godzilla.
Now, what would it take for the two to face off?