Monsters! Cloverfield

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Rob has a dilemma: should he take his big-deal job in Tokyo, or should he settle down with the woman he loves? It was a decision he thought was easy until the woman, Beth, showed up at his going-away party with a shimmering-gold party dress (yay!) and another guy (boo!). It doesn’t get easier when he must dodge monsters and army guys in order to save her stats

WHAT IS THE MONSTER? I’m aware that there is a small industry devoted to discussing the details of the nature of this beast, but as far as the movie itself is concerned, the monster is deliberately vague: it is a Big Irrational Thing that, for some reason, has risen from the ocean and decided to trash Manhattan island.

WHAT IS THE WARNING? Hang on to the one you love.

Cloverfield, I’m convinced, is destined to take its place among the great monster movies, if only because it is, if nothing else, a riveting cinematic experience. With a narrative that’s a sprightly 73 minutes long (plus 12 minutes of credits) and a (relatively) original presentation that puts the monster simultaneously both front-and-center and in the extreme margins of the action, plus a winning cast and a string of beautifully executed action-suspense sequences, Cloverfield makes The Creature From the Black Lagoon look like it’s on Xanax. Godzilla, Cloverfield‘s acknowledged spiritual forebear, feels like an Edwardian drawing-room comedy next to Cloverfield‘s hurtling, never-a-dull-moment narrative.

What keeps Cloverfield from being an assault? What gives it weight and balance? The movie is, surprisingly, a love story, and the monster, as hinted above, is a metaphor for all those things that get in the way of boys and girls connecting. Sometimes you don’t tell the girl you love her because you’re shy, sometimes it’s because you’re from different classes, and sometimes it’s because a gigantic monster from the deep is destroying the city. It’s tempting to label the monster something handy like "jealousy," except that it’s more than that: the barriers it represents take a number of different forms.

Structurally, Cloverfield feelslike a string of discrete sequences. Following only the action, it can be divided into a number of acts: there’s the 17-minute opening (which can be divided into four or five brief acts itself), the chaos that follows, which climaxes with Rob making the decision to fetch Beth, the trek through the subway tunnels climaxing in the sequence in the military HQ, the adventure climbing the tower to rescue the fair maiden trapped therein, and the final attempted purge. That’s five acts in 73 minutes. But if one looks at it purely as a love story, three elegant acts present themselves: in Act I, Rob attempts to flee Beth, in Act II Rob turns around and decides to rescue Beth, and in Act III Rob rescues Beth. This would put the Act I climax at the moment in the electronics store when Rob, absent all logic, decides to put his own survival on hold to rescue Beth, and the Act II climax at the point where the one Army Guy tells Rob the rules for Act III: get out of town by 0600 or you will be annihilated. In other words, Act I climaxes with: how much does Rob love Beth? And Act II climaxes with: no, but seriously, how much does Rob love Beth?

Punctuating the climaxes of these acts, unsurprisingly, are two other love stories. Because Cloverfield isn’t just about the love between Rob and Beth, it’s also about the love between Jason, Rob’s brother, and Lily, and between Hud, the cameraman, and Marlena. These three love stories, understated as they are against the carnage of the action, represent love in three different stages. Jason and Lily are in a committed, long-term relationship (as far as this movie is concerned), Hud and Marlena are at the very beginning of a not-going-very-well courtship, and Rob and Beth are in a transitional phase of do-they-love-each-other-or-not-ness. And lo! When looked at through the prism of a love story, we find that each act ends with the end of one of these love affairs: Act I climaxes with the death of Jason on the Brooklyn Bridge, Act II climaxes with Marlena’s untimely end in the military hospital, and Act III climaxes with Rob and Beth’s earnest declaration of love. Circumstance may come between others, but Rob will not be deterred: he will not let anything, not even the destruction of Manhattan, stand in the way of his love.

Given that it’s about a 350-foot monster wrecking a city, it’s surprising how light — and how subtle — Cloverfield is. The writing, while calculated, delivers its convolutions with deft understatment, letting the physical action carry the burden of driving the movie. The impression left is that Cloverfield is a movie about nothing except a handful of good-looking people performing a series of interesting, specific tasks under extreme pressure. And that, my friends, is as good a definition of "cinema" as you will ever find. I find the acting, by performers all unknown to me, to be quite excellent; all those party-goers, victims and military personnel deliver their plot-points with great nuance and wit. The smallest gesture, the silliest bit of dialogue, the most seemingly arbitrary camera move, everything seems fresh, natural and unforced, all while contributing to the story and helping to deliver the "message."

Much of the magic of Cloverfield is that it is both intimate and epic, conversational and operatic. JJ Abrams has said that the inspiration of Cloverfield was Godzilla, specifically that he felt that America "needs its own Godzilla," and if his idea was to create a monster that would have the cultural impact that Godzilla has on Japan, well, I guess in that regard Cloverfield falls short. Godzilla represented for Japan the physical manifestation of a great national horror, but the Cloverfield monster steadfastly refuses to represent anything. Even as lower Manhattan erupts in orange balls of flame and the Statue of Liberty’s head comes crashing down into the street, the beast fails to connote any threat to national security or to personalize any national anxiety. The characters of Cloverfield are too self-absorbed and distracted by trivia to have any patriotic or nationalist urges, and, unlike the characters of Godzilla, none of them give a moment’s thought as to what the monster wants or how it can be destroyed. Their concerns are immediate and specific, and wholly unrelated to the monster’s agenda. Cloverfield is a monster movie where the characters seek to avoid the monster. Their thoughts on the situation stop at "What is that thing?" There is no attempt made to understand it or solve the problem it presents. Which, now that I think of it, may make it a 9/11 metaphor after all, except that the Cloverfield monster does something more interesting than criticize America’s self-involvement; it brings out the best in its protagonist. With its clever flashback-visual overlay of "beginning of relationship with Beth" and "end of relationship with Beth," the events of Cloverfield show what is probably the best day of its protagonist’s life.


30 Responses to “Monsters! Cloverfield”
  1. The movie had me right until the ending. It bothered me to have the movie end at the climax.

    • blagh says:

      Yeah…I wouldn’t have minded a little epilogue, even if it were a little hand-wavey. Not even necessarily that all is well and good with the world, just a quick glimpse of less local consequences.

      • It could even have been done as like a news report feed somewhere, and then when that part was done, they could’ve made it look like someone turned off the tv with a remote. Some sort of denouement, anyway.

  2. teamwak says:

    I did enjoy Cloverfield, and I thought it did an excellent job of creating its atmosphere. And I loved the big damage it inflicted.

    But one thing at the end bothered me so much it took me out of the movie. After this monster has been pushing over whole skyscrappers, it then takes the time to see and personally kill one single human being, and still manages to leave the corpse in good condition. It was so silly it ruined the end of the movie for me.

    Oh well. I did enjoy the subway tunnels/night vision scene loads.

    • shocka says:

      You’re joking, right? The whole film is preposterous – the monster isn’t a character insofar as characters have motivations and actions that follow those motivations, rather it’s a boogeyman that rocks up whenever the flimsy plot demands it. Its crazy lice functions similarly as a replacement when the stupid monster physically can’t rock up to mess shit up. Cloverfield messes up its credibility too much for me to enjoy it. The monster is always there in a way that’s illogical and bizarre (Yes, why randomly eat that one dude at the end? Why randomly lash out at their helicopter? Why mess up that bridge when they’re trying to cross it? etc etc) and even though the movie gets away with murder nailing our sympathies for the poor boy who wants to save his friend/lover (going up the stairs to the slanty building is one of the stupidest things characters in movies have ever done) reflecting upon the nuance tears the whole thing down.

      • (going up the stairs to the slanty building is one of the stupidest things characters in movies have ever done)

        OMG yes! I remember complaining about that when I was watching it, too. (I was watching it as a dvd at home, while the bf was doing his own thing at his computer.) I mean, most people would not risk their lives climbing up that high just to save ONE person. It was insane.

        • swan_tower says:

          Yes, it was insane. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t believe it.

          C’mon, think about what the characters have been through. The hard decision to buy was the early one, that they’d go rescue her in the first place. Once you accept that love or stupid heroism or whatever drove them to make that choice, the rest follows much more logically; living through that kind of stress would render their decision-making processes more than a little warped. Rationality had gone out the window quite a while before they decided to climb up to the slanty building. Having gotten that far? Well, dammit, they came all this way and fought this hard and lost people along the way; they’re NOT leaving without her.

          To a mind in that situation, I have no doubt it seems entirely reasonable.

  3. nearside says:

    Depending upon how much of the “background material” on websites and so on that you want to consider official, the monster either represents the kind of thing that mankind uncovers when messing around with the unknown, or, if you want to completely discount that online side of things (I’m referring to the Slusho stuff that surrounded the movie initially) then the monster represents the random awful crap that can happen anywhere. It’s the “monstrous” reality of the real world invading our city.

    My 2 cents, anyway.

    • malsperanza says:

      the monster is deliberately vague: it is a Big Irrational Thing that, for some reason, has risen from the ocean and decided to trash Manhattan island.

      Nah, it’s a metaphor for the Republican party.

    • Todd says:

      “Depending upon how much of the ‘background material’ on websites and so on that you want to consider official”

      For the purposes of analysis, I prefer to stick to primary sources. Peripheral material is just that — it is not a part of the cinematic experience. Rob is going to some ill-defined job, the military somehow managed to evacuate, lock down and abandon Manhattan in less than seven hours, and the monster is a big whatsit that scampers about.

      • There’s a pretty excellent Creative Screenwriting podcast with the writer (here) where he urges everyone to consider only the images on the screen, and that even if he told us the creators’ intentions, they aren’t as important as the primary source. Which is nice. Fans demand so much these days. It’s never enough.

      • adam_0oo says:

        This is the kind of stuff that always gets me. Indestructible monsters from the deep I have no problem with. Anybody being able to evacuate Manhattan in that short amount of time, the National Guard showing up in what seems like 35 minutes with tanks, walking up 45 slanted flights of stairs and all the way down again, not getting lost in the subway tunnels…all of these are the things that irk me. I think Marlena exploded because of the pain from her feet after walking half the city in heels.

  4. creepingcrud says:

    My only real problem with Cloverfield was that I hated all the characters and wanted them all to die. Of course, Cloverfield delivers on this, so I ended up feeling fairly positively about the movie.

  5. curt_holman says:

    Two things I heard about the end of Cloverfield (after I saw it theatrically) was that in the final shot at Coney Island, you could see something splashing in the water in the distance; and after the credits, you could hear a staticky voice that says “It’s still alive.” So I watched those scenes carefully on DVD, but could not see a visible splash nor hear the ominous words. I’m not saying they’re NOT there, but they’re too subtle for my detection if they are.

    I love the “Roar!” musical theme of the closing credits — it’s a wonderful tribute to the soundtrack of the original Godzilla.

    Doesn’t the post-9/11 context of Cloverfield‘s destruction of New York City and esp. major New York monuments strongly imply that the monster is a metaphor for the anxiety over another Sept. 11-style attack?

    Wasn’t the Brooklyn Bridge also destroyed in the Will Smith I Am Legend, released in theaters just a month earlier?

    I love the fact that the film doesn’t “explain” the monster. I think any explanation would only diminish it.

    Speaking of “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (from a few days ago), are you going to do The Mist?

    • swan_tower says:

      I believe the voice at the end is run in reverse; you have to mess around with the audio clip of that weird, staticky noise to hear it.

    • thebitterguy says:

      The splashdown is definitely there. I saw it in the theatrical release and on DVD.

    • The splash is there, but I had to rewind it about 5 times on the dvd to see. It’s really small, in the lower right, in the last wide shot (the film ends on a closeup of the two of them).

    • I did notice the voice and splash, and chalked it up to incentive for a sequel. That having been said, this doesn’t strike me as the sort of movie which needs or should have a sequel. It struck me as a stand-alone project.

      Not that logic ever stopped Godzilla. 😉

  6. craigjclark says:

    I must confess this is one movie that I skipped when it came to theaters. I must be developing an immunology to things that are hyped as much as Cloverfield was. By the time people started dropping spoilers on message boards and chats, I had already made up my mind that a movie couldn’t be spoiled for me if I wasn’t going to see it anyway.

  7. I loved this movie a lot. We just watched it recently (my second viewing) and I can’t get over it. It’s intelligently written and is put together amazingly well.

    I don’t understand viewers who hated the main characters or derided them as vapid hipsters. Given the constraints of existence within an 80-minute movie about a monster destroying the city, I think they come across pretty well-rounded (if glib – but come on…).

  8. I’m sure Cloverfield is a very interesting film, but unfortunately I didn’t see it. I mean, I WENT to see it, I paid money to see it. Then I spent all but the first ten minutes with my eyes closed to stop from throwing up – motion sickness from the handheld camera. The person who I saw the film with did throw up (afterwards, in the bathroom). So it gets a thumbs-down from me.

    • Oh, I’m not surprised there. I saw it on the tv, so it wasn’t as bad for me. I wasn’t going to pay to go to a theatre with so little information on what the movie was supposed to be ABOUT.

    • robjmiller says:

      I am so sick of the handheld shaky camera trend. It’s supposed to add some sort of realism to action, but it just ruins the scene. When they did it in Bourne Supremacy I felt cheated. I mean, why bother having fight choreography if the camera is going to be pointed at the floor the whole time? Add the motion sickness and you get the worst development in cinematography ever.

      • swan_tower says:

        Bourne Supremacy overused that for no good reason, imho. Because it’s EDGY! And EXCITING! But that only works if you don’t bludgeon your viewer with it every bleeding second.

        I do think it has its uses, though. The entire structural premise of Cloverfield (the discovered footage) would have felt fake if it was done with steadicams. Weirdly, it never made me motion sick — but Bourne Supremacy almost did.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Count me as one of those that hated the characters and felt happy when they died. Since it was hyped that it was ‘realistic’, what with the shaky camera and stuff, I still can’t get over the fact that the women walked through all those dangers and ran away from the parasite things in high heels, that everyone had the IQ of a rock, and that a great chunk of the movie was spent watching the hipsters act like dumbass middle school children talking about who likes whom. Fuck that, glad they all died horrible deaths. The speech by that one dude in the balcony about ‘love’, before the first big action scene, sticks out in my mind as particularly nauseating.

    Seriously, WFT high heels? They stopped in a store; steal some goddamn Sketchers you dumb bitches.

    On the up side, Marlena had an awesome death.

  10. noskilz says:

    I really wanted to see this one at the local theater when it came out, but couldn’t manage it. I thought “oh well, the dvd with extras will be out soon enough.” Unfortunately, I still haven’t gotten around to seeing it(although that’s more a question of trying not to buy anything I don’t have to at the moment.)

    Do you think the rapid turnaround from theater to dvd is a problem? One of my friends refers to theatrical releases as “trailers for the dvd” and I usually don’t worry about catching a film at the theater unless it’s the sort of thing likely to benefit from a gigantic screen and sound system (it doesn’t hurt that the old theater was replaced, removing the earlier “dank, moldy wreck” issue.) Maybe it isn’t a problem at all, but it just seems like there are an awful lot of expensive movies being pushed through theaters at a brisk clip, which when one considers even a small town like Cookeville has a 12 screen multiplex makes me wonder if something isn’t going to have to give at some point.

    • noskilz says:

      Whoops, phrased that badly – I didn’t skip the film to wait for the dvd, I couldn’t get to the theater before it left and consoled myself with the notion that the dvd would soon be out with extra content.

    • The brief span between theatre and DVD is getting rididulous. I can’t recall offhand, but there was one movie which lasted so long in theatres, the DVD release almost overlapped. We know it doesn’t take long to convert the damn thing for disc and get it out, but they really should give it some time.

      I imagine DVD sales drive the bulk of profits, and some movies would sell better soon after the theatrical release than waiting 6-12 months. Nothing is more depressing than seeing a movie come out so quick and with so many copies, only to see them all in the $10 bin a few months later. It’s a waste.

  11. marcochacon says:

    I think one of the reasons Cloverfield failed to be as charismatic as Godzilla is that although scary looking as seen in the movie, the “long shot” of the monster is kinda goofy looking. I’d have a scale-clover-zilla on my desk if it was cooler.