Cloverfield (2008) ***½
In the summer of 2007, the poor suckers who paid full price to see Transformers in the theater were partially compensated for that wretched film by a very interesting teaser slipped in among the trailers. A few moments of Shakycam footage showed an explosion visible between the skyscrapers of Manhattan, after which a hail of debris fell to the street surrounding the camera a good many blocks away. Most conspicuous among that debris was the scored and severed head of the Statue of Liberty. Then, within the smoke billowing down the street from the explosion, some huge thing could be faintly and briefly discerned moving around between buildings, and a male voice could be heard shouting, “I saw it! It’s alive! It’s huge!” That was all, apart from the Paramount logo and a projected release date. No title, no credits, no “In a world…” voiceover— nothing.
Around the same time, the canniest viral marketing campaign since The Blair Witch Project cranked into motion. Websites with “.jp” domain suffixes popped up, purporting to advertise an imaginary soft drink called “Slusho” and a much weightier corporate entity called Tagruato, the latter apparently the imaginary Slusho bottler’s imaginary parent company. Fake Facebook and MySpace pages appeared for a circle of Manhattan-dwelling twenty-somethings, including both a man who was angling for a job with Slusho’s advertising department and the girlfriend of an aspiring eco-terrorist whose organization was gearing up to take on Tagruato over the company’s drilling activities near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. There were counterfeit foreign-language news sites that ran stories about strange doings on and around Tagruato’s deep-sea drilling platforms, climaxing with the sudden and unexplained destruction of one such rig. Internet sci-fi and B-movie fandom went nuts trying to figure out what this mysterious movie was going to be, floating speculations that ranged from the conceptually spot-on (albeit legally implausible) to the obviously absurd. Kaijuphiles wishfully called it a new American Godzilla movie; Lovecraft enthusiasts inexplicably decided that it was a 50’s-style monster rampage flick with Cthulhu playing the part of the Rhedosaurus; anime fans evidently took a whole bunch of drugs and proclaimed it a live-action Voltron film. A few very perceptive folks might even have guessed what it really was: a completely new, from-the-ground-up monster romp in Blair Witch-y pseudo-verité style, from the main “Felicity” writer and the producer of “Lost” and “Alias.” That might not sound like an encouraging pedigree (certainly writing a soap opera about college kids, aimed at an audience so shallow that the biggest controversy it ever generated concerned the length of the female lead’s hair, does not obviously qualify one to direct a movie about an enormous monster running loose in New York), but however long the odds against it, the enigmatically titled Cloverfield is a much more satisfying example of its endangered genre than most of what has passed for plus-sized city-smashing since Godzilla’s first retirement in 1975. You just have to go into it knowing that it bears almost no structural relationship to the pattern codified by The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Them!.
The first thing any slightly intelligent viewer will ask is what in the hell cloverfields have to do with anything. The real-world answer is that producer J. J. Abrams takes the Cloverfield exit when driving to his office in Santa Monica. The diegetic explanation is that CLOVERFIELD is the military designation for an incident that occurred at Site US-447— “formerly known as Central Park,” as a line of onscreen text ominously clarifies— on the morning of May 23rd, 2008. The film we’re about to watch is a camcorder tape found at the scene during the aftermath. The first few minutes were recorded about a month earlier. They show a young man named Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) and his apparent girlfriend, Beth McIntyre (The Unborn’s Odette Yustman), as they prepare to spend a day together at Coney Island. Brief snippets of this recording will intrude upon the action throughout the rest of the tape, each time something jostles the record head out of place, and whenever the tape is supposed to be halted, rewound, and fast-forwarded to approximately the original stopping point. For the most part, however, what the cassette shows is the night before and the morning of the CLOVERFIELD event. The people who made it had no way of knowing that when they started, however, and so far as they’re concerned, the occasion is Rob’s going-away party. He’s an advertising agent by trade, and he has just been hired by a Tokyo-based firm, presumably to help coordinate the launch of one of their products in the American market. (Those who saw Rob’s mocked-up Facebook page know that he’s going to be selling Slusho, but there’s no explicit mention of that in the film itself.) Rob’s brother, Jason (Mike Vogel, from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Deaths of Ian Stone), has been charged by his girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas, of Amusement and The Covenant), to immortalize the event on videotape, and to collect testimonials and well-wishes from as many of the attendees as will cooperate. Jason hates the idea, so he palms the thankless gig off on a friend named Hud (T. J. Miller), pitching the recording project as a chance to chat up Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), a close friend of Lily’s with whom Hud is infatuated.
If the foregoing sounds like a perfectly suitable premise for an episode of “Felicity,” there’s probably an excellent reason. Lord knows the party takes a markedly soap-opera-ish turn the moment Beth arrives in the company of a boy named Travis (Ben Feldman, from the Friday the 13th remake), whom neither Hud nor any of his friends have seen before. Evidently Beth is not Rob’s girlfriend after all, but merely his best friend— this despite the fact that we first saw her lying naked in a bed only recently vacated by Rob. Coney Island Day, we now learn, came immediately before word of the Tokyo job arrived. A trans-Pacific romance being obviously fraught with difficulties, Rob reneged on every one of the implications of that night and day he and Beth spent together (let me tell you— I fucking hate it when that happens), and worse yet, he did so by breaking off all contact with her, without a single word of explanation. We may assume that Beth is thinking less “bon voyage,” and more “go fuck yourself with a cruciform tire iron” when she turns up at the party. Rob eventually retreats to the fire escape to sulk, and Hud and Jason (the former still doggedly persisting in his mission to “document” the party, despite the fact that it has long since turned into something that no one will want to remember) follow in the hope of persuading him that the non-retarded thing to do in his situation is to patch things up with Beth.
The melodrama is cut mercifully short at this point (although I imagine many viewers will contend that a shorter cut still would have been significantly more merciful) by the single sharp shockwave that unexpectedly shoots through the island’s landmass. Manhattan isn’t normally prone to earthquakes, and in any case, this sounds and feels much more like a massive explosion than any natural seismic phenomenon. Someone in the apartment turns on the TV as soon as the accompanying momentary power failure sorts itself out, which works out to be just in time for an alarming news bulletin reporting the capsizing of an oil tanker in the approach to New York Harbor, in between the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge. It should go without saying that a quarter-million tons of tanker ship don’t turn turtle in response to anything likely to occur in such sheltered waters, and while nobody actually mentions the names al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden, both must surely be scudding just beneath the surface of all these New Yorkers’ minds in response to word of the disaster. Everyone files up to the roof in the hope of seeing something for themselves, but the bird’s-eye view they get is a lot more than they bargained for. You remember the scene I described from the teaser trailer? Well, that’s what Rob and his well-wishers see first from their perch on the roof, and then from street level after they flee to the ground to escape the rain of burning rubble.
Obviously, the smart thing to do at this juncture is to get the hell out of Manhattan— as Rob points out, the one thing anyone does know about whatever it is that’s come to town is that it’s still someplace pretty close at hand. Also, Marlena got a slightly better look at the giant creature than any of her friends, and she’s pretty sure she saw it eating people. The nearest route out of Manhattan is via the Brooklyn Bridge, so that’s the direction in which the partiers-turned-refugees now head. Things turn complicated almost immediately upon their arrival at the bridge, however. First, Rob gets a call from Beth (who must have left the apartment unobserved sometime earlier) on his cell phone. The connection is terrible, but it sounds to Rob like she’s saying that she’s trapped in her apartment, that she can’t move, and that she’s bleeding. Given the location of Beth’s building relative to Rob’s, that would be a horribly plausible thing to have happen. Secondly, it turns out the monster has waded back into the harbor, and it takes a piece out of the Brooklyn Bridge’s suspension span with its tail while coming up for air— the piece right about where Jason was standing, I might add. The crowd on the Manhattan side of the break has no choice but to flee back toward midtown (unless perhaps they fancy plunging into the harbor along with the unraveling wreckage of the bridge), and if he’s going to be stuck at ground zero either way, then Rob determines to make the one positive thing he can of the situation. He’s going to rescue Beth. As tall an order as that would be anyway, it’s made taller still by the fact that the Army is now in Manhattan, fighting the monster with all the firepower it can bring to bear. Bullets, bazookas, and even artillery don’t seem to be good for much beyond pissing the creature off even more, but the collateral damage is plenty spectacular enough for one wrong step en route to Columbus Circle to get Rob, Hud, Lily, and Marlena killed. Also, there’s something else you should know about the monster: it has fleas, for lack of a more accurate term. Fleas, mind you, scaled proportionately to a host that towers about 350 feet tall in its most upright stance, and fleas with a tendency to become dislodged by all the explosions and banging about attendant upon that host’s ongoing dispute with the United States Army. Fleas, most importantly of all, that don’t mind trading parasitism for predation when suitably sized prey comes along, and that are just as effective at vectoring disease as the barely macroscopic variety we’re more accustomed to dealing with. Something tells me that Site US-447 is no longer nearly so popular a picnic spot or an open-air drug market as it was back when it was still called Central Park…
In the decade since The Blair Witch Project threatened to revolutionize the horror movie industry, surprisingly few films have done more than poke suspiciously at the gauntlet it threw down, or perhaps wiggle one of the fingers a little. Some overly complex internet-based marketing here, a little consumer-grade video cinematography there, the odd bit of found-footage conceit slipped into an otherwise normal movie over there, but certainly no serious attempt to reassemble the whole package. Therefore, to Cloverfield goes the honor of being the first widely disseminated film whose creators seem to have learned anything from Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s experiment. Indeed, J. J. Abrams, director Matt Reeves, and writer Drew Goddard build extensively upon that nine-year-old foundation, solving several of the problems to which their predecessors clumsily succumbed.
The truest mark of the kinship between Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project is the manner in which both movies’ marketing campaigns enrich and enlarge upon the material presented in the film itself, but unlike the earlier picture, Cloverfield remains a complete and autonomous work even if no attention is paid to the internet-only back story about Tagruato discovering a curious organic substance while drilling over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, clandestinely exploiting the mood-elevating properties of that substance as the active ingredient in Slusho, and (presumably) accidentally awakening the monster in the course of their extraction efforts. None of the characters with whom the movie concerns itself know the first thing about any of that, nor is it directly relevant to the military mobilization against the creature— and since it makes no difference to the story as told from the perspective of Rob and his friends, it also makes no difference if we in the audience are unaware of it. Compare that to The Blair Witch Project, in which the background information tucked away on the web was both plainly possessed by the central characters (who, after all, had just spent several days interviewing everybody in Burkittsville on the subject) and necessary for decoding the events shown (or, more accurately, hinted at) on film.
Cloverfield also offers some of the most credible reasons I’ve ever seen for keeping the civilians in harm’s way in a horror or monster movie. Evacuating the area is the very first thing that Rob and his friends try to do, but they are thwarted in the attempt by the monster itself, and they have other, competing concerns by the time a second opportunity arises. The military, after all, has more pressing claims on its resources than rescuing one injured girl from the ruins of her apartment building. And on a related note, I can’t tell you how refreshing I found it to see a group of young people in a modern movie depicted as banding together and rising to the occasion when faced with a situation this horrible, rather than instantly descending into bickering and backbiting. Better still to see their courage under fire so realistically interwoven with undisguised fright and their competence in the face of monster invasion so realistically hampered by lack of training, preparedness, and resources. They do what they can with what they know and what they have, and it frequently isn’t quite good enough.
The one expected hurdle that Cloverfield fails to clear is the most fundamental one of all— it’s never quite believable that Hud would film everything that appears on the tape. Goddard expends every effort in that direction, it must be said. The real reason the god-awful party scene goes on as long as it does is to establish the sense of purpose and importance that Hud derives from the camera, and when Jason directly tells him to knock off shooting during the ill-fated crossing of the Brooklyn Bridge, Hud replies that the ever-popular “they” are going to need to see how everything went down. There’s also a very clever scene set in a pitch-dark subway tunnel in which first the camera’s on-mount spotlight and then its infrared night-vision setting become indispensable navigating aids for the group. (The contrast between natural light and night-vision also serves to set up the most effective scare in the whole film, but that’s a separate matter.) That stuff helps, but not enough to counteract all the moments when Hud has the camera not merely running, but actually held up to his eye in the midst of doing something that would be suicidally risky even with both hands free.
As should be obvious by now, Cloverfield is put together literally upside down relative to the standard pattern for kaiju-type monster-rampage movies. There is indeed the expected army in the field to fight the beast, measures are in place to evacuate the embattled city, and occasional references can be found in soldiers’ dialogue to things going on at the strategic level of the conflict. We know from what little we see of the various battles that Rob and his friends must sneak through that the offensive against the monster eventually becomes a combined-arms operation, with the Army units on the ground supported by both an Air Force bomber wing and at least one Navy carrier battle group. And news reports early on give us just the faintest hint of a pattern to the monster’s movements. Never, however, are we made privy to the planning or decision-making behind any of that, nor is any explanation of the monster’s nature or existence ever offered. This approach seems likely to frustrate anyone who comes to Cloverfield looking for something like the American Godzilla movie it was occasionally speculated to be, and I can sympathize with that frustration to some extent. Nevertheless, the last twenty years’ worth of Godzilla movies (both ours and Japan’s) suggest that perhaps the point of diminishing returns has been reached for the standard recipe, and while it remains to be seen whether Cloverfield is suitable for replication as a new model, it shows at the very least that new models are available to those willing to look for them.
Finally, Cloverfield demonstrates how much sheer spectacle can be crammed in on a limited budget, provided that the people in charge understand how to economize strategically. The deliberately mediocre video quality (which gets worse over the course of the film, as the camera lens accumulates dirt, scratches, and other imperfections) was a godsend for the special effects department, and all concerned exploited the opportunities it offered to the hilt. The level of detail in the digital image rendering and the sophistication of the physics models employed by the animation software were surely no greater than what so often disappoints in similarly effects-heavy movies made for twice Cloverfield’s production cost (variously reported between $25 and $30 million), but a given standard of source quality always stretches further as recording or playback fidelity decreases. Eiji Tsubaraya knew that the wires supporting Ultraman’s opponents wouldn’t be visible on the 13” television screens his audiences were watching in 1967, and Cloverfield’s creators similarly understood that the high-end consumer-grade cameras they were working with would capture the real world no less imperfectly than their computers could fake the destruction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Consequently, the only respect in which Cloverfield fails to convince visually is in the design of the monster itself. Simply put, there is no environment on Earth, be it on land, in the water, or under the ground, where the main creature’s anatomy makes any adaptive sense, and the better we see the creature, the more obvious that becomes. Nor can any remotely reasonable family tree be drawn for this organism within the realm of Earthly biodiversity— and while Goddard never comes out and says the creature is from Earth, an even bigger set of problems arises if it isn’t. Now Cloverfield certainly isn’t the first monster movie to exhibit this flaw, but the great majority of such films have an excuse that this one doesn’t. When your monster has to be something that you can build, and maybe even hide a stuntman or a puppeteer inside, you get a lot more license for implausibility than you have when the computer allows you to depict literally any sort of creature you can dream up. The fan speculation didn’t stop when Cloverfield’s true nature was finally revealed, and an enormous array of suggestions were put forward regarding what the thing laying waste to New York would look like. As good as Cloverfield is in all other respects, it should humble the filmmakers a little that every single fan-spec monster design that I saw circulated on the internet in the waning months of 2007 was better than the one they actually used.