Cloverfield (2008)

Another found footage movie has hit the theater

Cloverfield is the definitive 9/11 genre film. But this is not a case of a movie offering a lens into its time as an incidental byproduct of its construction, the way that, e.g., Top Gun captures the horny pre-AIDS ‘80s. Cloverfield is potently tapping directly into 9/11 imagery, and not even being coy about it. There’s a five minute window when the attack starts in which 1) a character ponders aloud “is this another terrorist attack?”, 2) multiple lines of dialogue cite their location as Manhattan, and 3) the Statue of Liberty collapses, its head crashing down feet away from our heroes. Liberty under attack. This is a movie unabashedly using the national mindset and an unforgettable moment of recent history, perhaps a few years too late, to drive its thrills.

To be clear, even though it’s a bit shameless, arguably even exploitative, I think this is absolutely riveting and compelling. Transcendent horror-via-zeitgeist. It heightens and electrifies the film. The state of confusion, chaotic masses frantically running through the streets, dust and rubble coating clothes and sidewalks, flashes of violence and suffering that hint at the broad destruction of humanity, memories of innocence only days previous — Cloverfield taps into these 9/11 images and ideas and uses them to ratchet up tension and sense of danger and dread, up through its apocalyptic ending. The central monster is a Lovecraftian horror: insidious and impossible to comprehend. It is a lurking terror ready to inflict despair like four planes crushed our sense of modern order.

The framework for Cloverfield is that it is a found footage film of an alien/monster attack of New York City from the eyes of twentysomethings holding a farewell party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who is headed to Japan. His brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and his brother’s girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) have organized a surprise party. Their loser buddy Hud (TJ Miller) is filming the event. Rob is trying to sort out some unfinished romantic business with his on-off lover Beth (Odette Annable) before he leaves. Also hanging around is Hud’s crush, the sarcastic Marlena (Lizzy Caplan).

These characters are not especially interesting, which is a bit of a problem, but only a bit. Their main purpose is to be the rails for the viewer, a lens for the subsequent attack by a large, mostly unseen creature that occurs abruptly at about the 20 minute mark. So, in general, it doesn’t matter that we don’t care much about them because they are not the actual subject in any direct way. But they’re also the people we have to spend the duration of the film with and whose motivations drive when and where the camera takes us. They are thin sketches, enough to convey the beats that frame the story, but not enough to tug the heartstrings.

The worst character is Hud, because he’s played by TJ Miller as basically himself. Miller wore out his welcome in the fifteen years since Cloverfield debuted, and hearing his voice as cameraman narrating the entire film pretty grating, though it’s easily the most restrained I’ve ever seen (well, heard) him in a performance.

Many found footage films have the genre-specific problem of the implausibility of said footage actually existing. Pretty much any rational human would stop filming 20 minutes into Cloverfield. The cleverest in the genre manage to deflect this problem: For example, The Blair Witch Project are about the making of a documentary, so obviously cameras would be rolling by default (The Last Exorcism, too, but I don’t want to accidentally call that clever).

Cloverfield doesn’t have much mitigation for this issue — although Hud declares he wants to capture this footage for posterity, it becomes borderline ridiculous that he’s still holding a camera (with apparently eternal battery life) when, e.g., making a dangerous jump across high-rise rubble. This is far from movie-ruining, though. All it really does is increase the sense that we’re on a thrill ride rather than immersive footage. The real appeal of found footage movies is not that they’re true facsimiles of amateur footage, but that they’re told in a first-person perspective with disarming naturalism. I’m personally pretty happy to ignore this oft-cited sin of the film.

More problematic is the movie’s repeated instances of horror character dumb-dumb syndrome. These characters make terrible decisions, one after the other. Some of this can be hand-waved as “chaos of the moment,” but it’s borderline hilarious when the characters all agree with minimal second-guessing to go deeper into the attack to save a person who’s most likely dead and crushed by a building. It allows us to see more angles and settings of the attack, but the second you start thinking about rational human behavior, Cloverfied falls apart fast.

Even purely as scenario and spectacle, I think the movie lags a little during parts of the second half. The giant leviathan monster also has a horde of child monsters that resemble the Xenomorphs in Aliens. They make for some fun pop-up scares and chase scenes, but lack the otherworldly sense of intimidation offered by the city-destroying titan that drives most of the plot. Their CGI is also notably mediocre. (The big monster doesn’t have great CGI either, but we don’t see it point-blank too often. It can’t look shitty if we can’t see it!)

The film is directed by Matt Reeves in his breakout film. He shows outstanding visual instincts throughout the film, with dozens of images that leave an impression: some original, some basically recreations of news footage. His work with the monster itself is less inspiring, but as a visceral thriller, it’s excellent work for a genre newbie. (Reeves only previous film was a David Schwimmer romcom.)

Perhaps my favorite touch in the film is that the footage of the night of the attack is intercut with some footage from a few weeks earlier that show two of the characters celebrating a romantic spring day in Coney Island. The quiet sense of peace of these scenes makes a blinding contrast to the chaotic monster attack.

Cloverfield is not especially dynamic as anything other than a thrill ride that evokes the seminal American event of the 21st century. But it is so astoundingly good and powerful at this that I still really love it. I can’t say whether that makes for an enduring classic or simply a bracing blast of energy after watching it one time, but it left me rattled in the best way possible.

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

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