Some thoughts on Cloverfield

I went to see Cloverfield at a midnight show on Thursday night — and couldn’t get in, it was sold out. The theater quickly added two additional showings on two more screens, which also all promptly sold out. So I kind of knew before the movie started that it was going to be a monster hit.

It’s my feeling that Cloverfield is an instant classic, and if you are at all curious about it I strongly recommend you abstain from reading anything more about it and just go see it with as innocent eyes as possible. Below the fold, I’m not going to talk so much about the movie as I am about the critical reaction to it, but still, out of respect to the moviemakers, I announce Spoiler Alert.

The idea of Cloverfield is so simple and so pure — essentially, a remake of Godzilla by way of The Blair Witch Project — so bone-headedly obvious that it’s hard to believe it hasn’t been done before. But here it is, a simple idea with a simple script, executed with such a high level of proficiency that one feels like it is nothing less than a re-invention of the Monster Movie.

Now then: not everyone is happy with Cloverfield, and I’m a little confused by some of the reactions I’ve been reading. The people who don’t like it seem to fall into two camps: those who feel that it exploits our national anxiety regarding 9/11, and those who feel that the “gimmick” of the movie (a remake ofGodzilla by way of The Blair Witch Project) is shallow and boring.

To the people who accuse the moviemakers of exploiting 9/11, I’m not sure what to say. I read one critic who took pains to announce that the writer and director of Cloverfield don’t live in New York, and are therefore unqualified, somehow, to make a movie that deliberately summons the ghosts of 9/11. This I don’t understand — would it be somehow acceptable if Woody Allen or Spike Lee made Cloverfield instead (the mind reels)? Is there some geographical boundary, within which it is okay to allude to a national tragedy? If the moviemakers had lived in Florida or Pennsylvania or Missouri instead of California, would these critics have felt the same sting of offense? What if they lived in Paris, or Berlin, or Jerusalem? Would any of those cities give these moviemakers the proper license to “exploit” 9/11?

Because, I’ll tell you, anybody who complains that Cloverfield “exploits 9/11” does not understand movie history. Our theaters were deluged with “important” political movies this past fall, In the Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs, Redacted, Rendition, and they all bombed. They all bombed because no one wants to see a movie about this stuff. That is not to say that this stuff is not important, because clearly it is, it’s important to everyone. But, in order for a national trauma on the scale of 9/11 to be made palatable to a general audience, it first has to be turned into a metaphor.

Let’s say you have a proud, strong, upstanding nation, and you’re in the middle of a war, and every principle you were raised believing is suddenly called into question, and then suddenly your nation isn’t so strong or upstanding any more, and then, out of the blue, some unbelievable, unthinkable, unholy event occurs that completely changes the way everyone in your country thinks about everything, overnight. And suddenly the future is different, and all the plans you made are meaningless, and everyone in the country is scared out of their wits and they are forced to reconsider not only their priorities but their basic assumptions about who they are and what they stand for.

Well, that’s one way of looking at what happened to Japan in 1945. And there were a great many “important,” “serious” movies made about life in postwar Japan, and for the most part, nobody remembers them any more. You know what they remember? Of course you do. They remember Godzilla. Godzilla was Japan’s way of taking their national sense of horror, dread and unease and turning it into a metaphor that would allow them to experience and purge those feelings through a collective experience.

(Godzilla worked so well that it allowed Japan to not only experience their feelings of postwar horror, it allowed them to own those feelings. So that the horrifying monster of the first movie quickly became a defender of the homeland, and finally a comedy star. But that’s a subject that could fill up a whole book.)

So it makes perfect sense that a team of intelligent American moviemakers would look at their history and say “You know what this culture needs that it doesn’t have? A way to experience 9/11 in a work of art that successfully turns it into a metaphor. You know, like Godzilla did for Japan. In fact, you know what? Why don’t we do a remake of Godzilla?” After that decision has been made, the other question to be asked is “How do we keep it from sucking like that last remake of Godzilla?” And the answer is, tell the story in a way that has never been done before (at least not on this scale) and yet is instantly “gettable” by a huge general public.

Now then: there are these people who seem “bored” or “irritated” by the style applied to the shooting of Cloverfield. They call it “trendy” or “shallow” or “headache-inducing.” Again, I don’t know what they’re talking about, because I find Cloverfield to be exceptionally well written, acted and directed.

There is one critic who opined: “Not for anyone over 30,” and here, I think, is the rub. There is a generational split between people who “get” Cloverfield and those who do not. The ones who do not are not content to just say “Well, I didn’t like it” or “It didn’t work for me,” they feel compelled to call the characters insipid and one-dimensional (they are not) and the script simplistic (simple it is, simplistic it is not) and the direction one-note and grating (which, I don’t even know where to begin).

In case I have not made myself clear, let me say it again: Cloverfield is exceptionally well written, acted and directed. The structure, yes, is very simple. And for the benefit of discussion, I will recount it here — please read no further if you have the slightest inkling of seeing this movie.

Act I: A group of young people gather for a party, and there is some soap opera about who is bedding whom. Then, a gigantic monster attacks the city and our team tries to flee.

Act II: The monster destroys the most obvious point of egress from the city (why Team Human thinks Brooklyn will be safer, I don’t know) at the same time as one of our guys gets a phone call from a sort-of girlfriend who is trapped somewhere uptown. So, against the tide of humanity fleeing the city, the direct orders of the military, and the path of the rampaging monster, our guys make their way uptown.

Act III: Our guys arrive uptown. Or at least most of them do. All hell has broken loose. The military is swarming the place (I don’t know how they managed to lock down Manhattan and fill the streets with tanks and infantry in less than seven hours). They save their friend, they try to escape, the monster prevents them from doing so. The military bombs the shit out of the island and everybody dies. The end.

Look at that: simplicity itself. No complex character development, no stunning reversals or head-turning reveals, no subtext or deeper meanings, no intrigue, no plot complications. We simply follow a squad of humans, step by step, through a series of unique and physically grueling experiences. And you know what? That’s what it should be.

I am reminded of The Poseidon Adventure (a script I adore). Poseidon also has a strong central metaphor: the ship (that is, the nation) is upside-down. On an upside-down ship (of state), who will survive? (“WHO WILL SURVIVE?” was, in fact, one of the tag lines for the promotional materials.) So we see that the captain of this ship (of state) is dead, and the purser (who is interested only in the business of the ship) tells everyone to “stay where they are” (that is, retain the status quo) and the ship’s doctor leads everyone “up top” (even though “up top” is now under 90 feet of water), and it’s up to the fallen priest and his rag-tag group of outcasts to figure out how to survive in this upside-down situation. And there is much speechifying and gnashing of teeth, and much melodrama about who survives and why. And I love The Poseidon Adventure but I have to wonder, wouldn’t it be a much better movie if the characters stopped talking about all the subtext and let the audience enjoy the simple pleasure of following a squad of humans, step by step, through a series of unique, physically grueling experiences?  And some people live and some people die and if there are deeper meanings contained in the plot, say an examination of the national mindset, let the audience figure that out themselves.

(see, for example, No Country For Old Men.)

So, I’m sorry, where was I? Oh yes, this generational split between people who like Cloverfield and people who don’t. The people who don’t like it chide the characters for being “pretty twentysomethings,” as if their youth and good looks is code for “let them die.” The New York Times, no less, had a critic rooting for the monster to eat these youngsters. There is a whole faction of critics who hate these characters, which completely mystifies me. If they were presented as stupid or coarse or one-dimensional or fake, that I could see, but I found all the characters in Cloverfield to be genuine, warm and sympathetic. I’m 46 years old, and I know plenty of people just like this, and more than that, I think they would act pretty much like they do in the movie if, you know, a 300-foot monster came and destroyed the city. I find their interactions engaging and humorous, and would actually be curious to sit down with the moviemakers and find out how much of the finished movie is scripted and how much was improvised. Because there is an almost Altmanesque quality (yes, I said “Altmanesque” — so sue me) to a lot of the scenes, as though they shot hours and hours of improvisations and then ended up using just 80 minutes of the best stuff for the feature. There is a wonderful looseness to the movie, which is amazing when you consider the restrictions that must have been imposed by the budget, the format and the extensive special effects.

So why are these critics so angry?  Why do they hate this movie so much? I can’t say for sure, but I think it’s the fact that Cloverfield is told in the vocabulary of the “internet generation.” The characters live their moment-to-moment lives through multiple layers of irony, in their 21st-century kidding-but-not-kidding way, and they feel not at all weird about keeping their video camera going while the world ends.  Cloverfield distinctly captures a national moment in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a movie before.

One of the key images in Cloverfield, for me, comes when the head of the Statue of Liberty is lying in the street somewhere in SoHo, surrounded by people taking pictures of it with their phones. A giant monster has just passed through the neighborhood, but everybody is still going to take the time to get a shot of the head of the Statue of Liberty to send to their friends. The weird thing is, this moment, and dozens like it in Cloverfield, felt utterly real to me, funny and sad and scary and right, while I think an older generation, frankly, sees this kind of movie as a kind of a threat. Older critics, or critics with a pre-internet mindset anyway, see Cloverfield as an affront to their print-era sensibilities.  It’s an analog-vs-digital argument, as it were.  They seem to be saying, if a team of moviemakers can make an entertainment this effective using the base vocabulary of a hand-held video camera, then what’s the point of classically-structured, “thoughtful,” “great” cinema?

The pity being, they can’t see that Cloverfield is great cinema, in one ofits purest forms. The breakthrough of Cloverfield (a breakthrough Blair Witch attempted, and failed to achieve) is to make the street-level language of hand-held video, in a way, the protagonist of the movie, to show that the simplest, most common tools are capable of delivering the most visceral of images, some extremely sophisticated levels of narrative (I could write a whole piece on how, scene by scene, Cloverfield keeps things moving by telling us exactly what we need to know and nothing else), and a rather devastating emotional impact.

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66 Responses to “Some thoughts on Cloverfield”
  1. frawst says:

    telling us exactly what we need to know and nothing else

    There was never audience or cast omniscience in this movie, and at the point where we would normally receive our Act II into Act III omniscience fueling (in the tents after emerging from the tunnel) we are deliberately denied it.

    My greatest joy of this film (aside from the denial of omniscience) was the feeling that Godzilla was taking place, it was just taking place 3 blocks over, and these people were simply living their lives and making the sacrifices they need to make while that other movie was happening elsewhere.

    • schwa242 says:

      There was never audience or cast omniscience in this movie, and at the point where we would normally receive our Act II into Act III omniscience fueling (in the tents after emerging from the tunnel) we are deliberately denied it.

      I thought this worked so wonderfully well, and that it helped put the audience “in the movie”, because if you are in a situation like that, you won’t necessarily get a cut-and-dried explanation of what’s going on. Though you do sort of get a little hint in the final scene.

    • cornekopia says:

      My greatest joy of this film (aside from the denial of omniscience) was the feeling that Godzilla was taking place, it was just taking place 3 blocks over, and these people were simply living their lives and making the sacrifices they need to make while that other movie was happening elsewhere.

      Which Buffy did in The Zeppo episode years ago (making fun of its own established action movies with a story that focused on what was happening in the basement at the same time), but nobody got that at the time, either.

      Cloverfield is going to be evaluated and re-evaluated for years.

  2. e_ticket says:

    Thank you. A wonderful analysis and summary.

  3. thebitterguy says:

    God bless you, sir. You put it all into words so very well.

  4. black13 says:

    I wasn’t interested in Cloverfield (I figured I might borrow the DVD), but now I am.

    “Because there is an almost Altmanesque quality (yes, I said “Altmanesque” — so sue me)”

    I suppose you mean the other one, yes? Seeing as how you spelled it with only one “n”? ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. serizawa3000 says:

    Your review has made more sense than *any* I’ve read thus far.

    Godzilla worked so well that it allowed Japan to not only experience their feelings of postwar horror, it allowed them to own those feelings. So that the horrifying monster of the first movie quickly became a defender of the homeland, and finally a comedy star. But that’s a subject that could fill up a whole book.

    It *has* filled up a whole book. At least one I know of (and have read): Godzilla on My Mind, by William Tsutsui.

    What I find surprising, though, is that until very recently, no images of the monster (and its itchy little parasites) have been leaked. No official images, anyway. Around this same time in 1998, some images of the revamped Godzilla were leaked, and there was some waffling by the men behind the monster that time… “That’s not him! Those are older designs!” And all this before camera phones and high-speed connections.

    There’s quite a few images floating online sluglined “The Cloverfield Monster!” but none of them seemed right. More recently, there were some artists’ renditions based on descriptions given by people who caught early screenings. It’s like “The Blind Men and the Elephant” all over again.

    And, of course, there have been the inevitable bad camera phone images of the monster (aka “Clover” and “Mister Grumpy Pants”)… and while the monster is Godzilla-big, I thought its appearance owed a little something to Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion beasties.

    If memory serves, the tagline for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the original) was “Who will survive and what will be left of them?”

  6. Anonymous says:

    I really enjoyed THE NEW YORK KAIJU PROJECT too. I especially appreciated that the monster was actually monstrous — it didn’t look like a big lizard, or a ginormous spider, or a huge terrapin. It just looked like something … else.

    Were there any moments that genuinely surprised you?

    (I could write a whole piece on how, scene by scene, Cloverfield keeps things moving by telling us exactly what we need to know and nothing else)

    I’d like to read that.

  7. tamburlaine says:

    Though I’m a humongous fan of the TV show “LOST”, there’s only so much passive-aggressive viral marketing I can handle. JJ Abrams loves that shit, to the extent that he essentially made “Cloverfield” one big gigantic viral marketing clusterfuck, from initially calling the movie “1/18/08” to obviously engineering vague information leaks to the public to making a big whoop-dee-doo of keeping the monster’s appearance SUPER SEEKRIT OMFG.

    I’m 22 and I feel way too old for this shit. Leave this movie to the MySpace crowd, I’m going to go see “There Will Be Blood” again.

    I saw what the monster looked like, and lo, it was lame as hell. Also, as a Serious Fucking New Yorker, I do not want to pay money to see my city destroyed in the name of “OMG MY BFF JILL AND I SAW TEH MONSTER AND IT WAS TOTES CRAZY? WHERE U AT?” And that has nothing to do with the events of 9/11 as much as it has to do with my inborn rejection of stupid shit.

    If Marty Scorsese had directed “Cloverfield”, I’d probably go see it.

    • greyaenigma says:

      I read yesterday about the massive viral internet marketing campaign that preceded this — which surprised me, because I hadn’t seen any of it. All the info I’d seen was through the trailers in the theater and on TV, even though I live mostly online.

    • Todd says:

      My only awareness of the “big gigantic viral marketing clusterfuck” comes from reading other reviews of Cloverfield — I did not know of it until after seeing the movie. I had seen the trailers, and I thought they worked well, but I had no idea there was some “big mystery” about “what the monster looked like.” Nor do I think that “finding out what the monster looks like” detracts from the experience of watching this powerfully effective movie.

      For what it’s worth, I lived in New York for 22 years, 1.5 miles away from the World Trade Center, and while I didn’t want to see New York destroyed in The Day After Tomorrow, it didn’t bother me in Cloverfield, maybe because The Day After Tomorrow is an incredibly stupid movie and Cloverfield is not.

      • tamburlaine says:

        I don’t doubt the film has its small virtues, but even though I haven’t seen it, I don’t think Cloverfield has illuminated the world of cinema or sparked an innovative movement in film. I feel as if Cloverfield is nothing but regurgitated and expertly focus-grouped pop culture backwash that is being slammed (albeit delicately and with very careful manipulative marketing) down the gullets of an increasingly complacent audience.
        You think the film wasn’t stupid, I think that it’s not worth a $12 ticket. And that’s that. My comments were not intended to be an insult to you personally.

        • Todd says:

          So, wait, the marketing for Cloverfield has irritated you so much that you’ve decided the movie is crap without seeing it, but the marketing for There Will Be Blood hasn’t affected your opinion of that movie at all and you can’t wait to see it again, even though you didn’t like it very much the first time?

          • tamburlaine says:

            Seeing movies in the theater for me usually comes down to answering one question: Is this movie worth $12 for a ticket? I don’t expect to be blown away by most movies. I’m not. But I want to make my cinema experience count. I’m a tough customer and Cloverfield just isn’t making the cut for me. I find JJ Abrams’ projects manipulative and gimmicky, and though nothing out of Hollywood isn’t without a bit of glitter and bullshit razzle-dazzle, I’m tiring of the particular package sold by JJ Abrams. I still obsessively watch “Lost”, however. I’ll see Cloverfield when it comes out on DVD. After the movie making $41 million this weekend, I don’t think my decision and my opinion is that harmful.

            I may see There Will Be Blood again to see Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance, but I do acknowledge the film’s flaws. There were many pacing issues and holes in the plot that are unforgivable. I will see it again because I like the score, cinematography, and Day-Lewis’ and Dillon Freasier’s performances.

            And I’m not quite sure why I’m explaining myself here. This is a difference of opinion that I don’t think will be resolved, but I have taken your points into account.

            • dougo says:

              If you plan to see it at all, you should see it in a theater, on a big screen, with good sound, where you can’t pause it. A DVD won’t do it justice.

  8. moroccomole says:

    You did a better job than I of capturing some of the points I was trying to make about the film:

  9. greyaenigma says:

    Before I saw this last night, I was trying to guess what I’d be more disappointed if we saw the monster or if we didn’t. I was pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t when I saw it. It was interesting to realize that I’d already learned almost the entire plot from the trailers, and that didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the film.

    I myself still haven’t gotten over how Beast From 20,000 Fathoms exploited 9/11. I mean — what were they thinking??

    I did have trouble liking the characters, and, more importantly, differentiating them. Getting the cast winnowed down helped.

    It would be interesting to see a map of the monster moving around New York, sort of like Scott McCloud’s rampage map in DESTROY!!! The monster did seem intent on maximizing damage — why else destroy the bridge and head back into town? I was frustrated by how little information I had. I desperately wanted more info — where it came from, what happened afterwards. Of course, I recognize that frustration being a success of the movie (and of my own curiosity) rather than an artistic failure of the movie.

    At least the final shot answered one of the questions I had.

    • Todd says:

      Well obviously Cloverfield isn’t interested in examining the motivations of its monster — it literally makes no sense, visually, biologically or psychologically. The movie is primarily concerned with the emotional impact of the physical experience. Which, in Cloverfield‘s own way, does approximate the experience of 9/11, more so, I would say, than Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center. Over and over on 9/11, the predominant mood was one of shock and disbelief — why would an airplane fly into the World Trade Center? Why would a commercial jetliner fly into the World Trade Center? Why would two commercial jetliners crash into the World Trade Center? And so on. There were no answers that day either.

      • mimitabu says:

        this might just be a strange thing about me, but i like incomplete characters like the cloverfield monster… they are clearly acting with intent, but there can be no explanation of the intent. i like characters with perfect, inexplicable intent; intent that operates rationally, but when probed yields only an irrational blankness at some deeper level. in general, i’m sure good screenwriting needs not only its machinery to work, but also needs a good reason for everything to get started. to me, it’s nice when there just isn’t any answer at all for why the wheels started to turn, but they turn so compellingly that one can’t dismiss the character/story/whatever just because of its inexplicableness.

        anyway, i just wanted to chime in about how well-established the themes you mentioned in this entry are in japanese cinema/anime. godzilla is just the epitome of it, but the shocking reality of the bomb has been explored and interpreted and reinterpreted hundreds of times in anime especially. this has been done perhaps most notably in the-only-anime-most-westerners-knew-about-in-the-80s, akira), but also in pretty much every space/mecha/robot/giant-robot series and movie, to varying degrees of immediately apparentness. the most interesting example is probably neon genesis evangelion, which at face value is a weird, psychologically intense examination of human relationships… but also confronts full force the meaning of overwhelming catastrophic power and how this can affect individuals and societies.

        i mention anime partly to point out that cloverfield‘s “let’s do godzilla for the internet generation” is but one of many examples of “let’s do godzilla but from X perspective and displaying/targeting Y subculture” if you include anime in the mix. also, i just happened to read a book about it, and think about anime all the time anyway, so as a lurker of this journal i felt obligated to comment.

        i’m glad to see these themes popping up in mainstream american cinema, rather than more superficial treatments of the same subject matter (as in independence day, well before 9/11). inexplicable, world-changing power is compelling subject matter, and (as if it needed proving) its already been proven by anime that this theme can be explored (even subverted) in more ways than most people could likely conceive. the public/political drama of catastrophe can easily be channeled into personal drama, and america of all places could stand to see this happen more in cinema (and i don’t mean “let’s see the personal drama of people involved in catastrophe” as much as “let’s link the public and the personal while we see said drama”)… we live in a society where the private is largely (and methodically) alienated from the public (yet the private is seemingly so linked to the public via the internet). art that links them and examines their relationships and similarities could probably do us some good (and at best it would be more interesting than romantic comedies that frame personal relationships as some sort of foreign-to-the-political or foreign-to-the-economic sphere that exists on its own as a sort of diversion). i’m not sure anything i’m saying is that clear (or even right-minded), but it at least feels like i have a point, so i’ll press submit anyway.

        • Todd says:

          Thank you for all this.

          As Cloverfield has made back its budget and then some in its opening weekend, I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about it as Paramount stockholders’ quarterly statements demand. What I hope is that the powers that be don’t kill the effect of the original movie by “explaining” what the monster is and what it wants and how it was awakened from its millennium-long slumber by blah-de-blah-de-blah. Because you’re right, it functions much better as an unknowable Aaaaugh! thing.

          And also, you are correct: if there is one conceptual schism between American and Japanese horror, it is that American movies consistently need to quantify the horror, establish the “rules” of what the horrible thing can and cannot do, and then figure out a way to triumph over the horrible thing. Whereas it seems to me that in Japanese horror movies, it’s perfectly okay if weird shit just breaks out all over the place.

          One of the things I heard over and over again on 9/11 was that the World Trade Center exploding looked like something out of Independence Day. That right there says more about our generation than Cloverfield could ever hope to.

          • greyaenigma says:

            To clarify — while I personally desire to know the details and back story, I’m not actually asking for that from the studio powers that be or anything. I’m just commenting on my own visceral reaction. And as for my trying to figure out its motivations, I think that’s not merely cinematic analysis, but my getting sucked into the story — if I saw, or even was running from a giant monster, I’d probably be trying to figure out what it wanted (if anything) even as I was fleeing in terror.

            That being said, the movie does at least seem to make clear that this particular beastie isn’t a local boy. Of course, it could have had a millennia-long slumber before then.

            … but I’ll be willing to bet that if box office grows any more, someone will do an official explanation. Oh well.

            • Todd says:

              If it makes you feel any better, Mr. Screenwriter sitting in the sixth row was positive that the third act of Cloverfield was going to be about how the surviving characters, against all hope and logic, figured out how to kill the damn thing. The big surprise, of course, turned out to be that the movie didn’t have a third act.

              • Anonymous says:

                I was wondering if you were actually surprised at some of the story choices. Did you assume the studio would try to end it upbeat or were you simply expecting a third act that never happened?

                • Todd says:

                  Sure, I was surprised that the movie ended as abruptly as it did, but it actually closely resembles another of my favorite movies in structure, Miracle Mile, which is also about a good-looking twenty-something who learns the world is ending and goes to rescue his sort-of girlfriend, gets her to the getaway helicopter and — well, spoiler alert.

          • Well I wish I could say I found all this metaphorical depth you waded into when you saw this film but I didn’t. Yes, I’m over thirty and yes by half way through the movie I wanted to see them all dead. Why, well not because they were pretty but simply because were you found acting I found none.

            I think you give the developers behind this movie to much credit. I was only aware of the viral marketing of the movie and like you didn’t play into it. After seeing it I looked up some summaries of that viral content and I’m more than confident that this was a setup for a trilogy. Which I think is reinforced by the little snippet at the end of the film’s credits.

            You can project 9/11 issues on to this movie all day long but in the end this movie is more of J.J.’s bizarre twisting story lines than anything else, I mean hell he even includes the Dharma Initiative logo at the beginning of the film. This is just J.J. trying to recreate the first season of Lost on the silver screen.

  10. faroffstar says:

    I liked this film. I felt connected.
    When he talked to his mom on the phone…even though it was really brief… it really got to me.
    It seemed like every time they showed the monster it changed a little. Which would be an interesting take, I think.

    • Todd says:

      I’d just like to say that when I first saw your avatar, I thought it said “Leave your e-goat at the door.” And I thought, “e-goat? They’re marketing virtual goats?”

  11. jake82 says:

    To me the film was wholly disappointing, and not for either of the two reasons you stated people disliking it. I’m totally down with a 9/11-inspired monster movie, and I think the “gimmick” of the movie carries huge potential. Potential that was wasted in this case.

    Cloverfield uses the backdrop of a 9/11-monster attacking the city and all the chaos that creates to set up a character-study– much like the far more engaging 2006 Korean film The Host. As a 20-year-old, I don’t think this is a generational thing at all: The characters in Cloverfield just aren’t interesting.

    Lizzy Caplan’s Marlena is the only character I was at all curious about, and she blows up half way through the movie. Aside from her, we have Rob, whose only motivation is to save the damsel in distress– his sorta-girlfriend Beth who’s literally trapped in a tower guarded by a mighty beast; Lily, who seems a flat voice-of-reason foil for everyone to play off of (except that no one really listens to her when she suggests they try leaving Manhattan); Jason, who only lives long enough to impart xenophobic nuggets of wisdom onto his brother; and Hud, the drunk-cameraman sidekick and occasional comic relief.

    I’m not quite sure what you mean when you say these characters are living through multiple layers of irony, especially when you also call them “genuine, warm and sympathetic”. I’m inclined to agree with you on the latter accusation, but those traits aren’t synonymous with “captivating”. I think Cloverfield could have been a fantastic film, had its characters been more fleshed out and realistic. There’s no gray area in their actions, no moral ambiguity. Using B-movie gimmicks as a backdrop for a character study works when Cronenberg, De Palma or the Coen Broters do it– but J.J. Abrams & co. have nothing interesting to say here, even in a broader social context.

    This review in the L.A. Weekly sums it up better than I can:

    • Todd says:

      Well, don’t misunderstand me — while I found the characters in Cloverfield warm and real, I wouldn’t mistake the movie for a character study. We’re not talking about McCabe and Mrs. Miller here. I believed they were real people and I believed their actions, and I thought it was a plus that the movie didn’t take time to “flesh out” their backstories, that we just kind of have to catch up to them as the movie goes along. I thought that was one of the most sophisticated aspects to the movie, that it asks us to just follow along with the sketchiest of outlines for characters. In fact, I would argue that the movie works better because we don’t know that much about the characters (why is Rob going to Japan, who does he work for, is there some connection between the company he works for and whatever forces unleashed this monster, etc) — the whole point of the “handsome prince” model of protagonist is that the audience is able to project themselves onto his actions. Ideally, the less we know about a protagonist, the better.

      • dougo says:

        Ha, I didn’t even think about whether the company Rob works for might have had something to do with the monster. But I did appreciate that he was going to Japan. (What did the Japanese guy say to Hud, I wonder?)

        Also, when Marlena says “I’m not even supposed to be here”, do you think that was an intentional reference to Clerks?

    • Todd says:

      And thank you for the link to the LA Weekly review — I had no idea that the Godzilla/9-11 angle was being played up so explicitly.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I loved your thoughtfully written piece and I completely enjoyed the movie, which I can’t stop thinking about.

    The only thing I have to add to this discussion was that the teenagers and tweeners (Nickelodeon might have a copyright on that horrid buzzword) in the theater seemed to scoff at the lack of a directly shown and resolved ending. Either they were just ambushed by the sudden shock of the ending or stuck in the “too cool for school” phase or just too dumb to appreciate that ending. So this might not be the Internet generation vs Print Media generation debate you pose it to be.

    • Todd says:

      There were some audible “huh?”s in the audience where I was too, but nobody seemed too put out by the ending.

      “The internet generation,” of course, by definition, will always include those people who think “the internet generation” are a bunch of losers and sheep.

  13. samblasted says:

    I found this through someone else’s journal. I love your wording and I’m adding you.

  14. coachbear says:

    does this mean that every film made from now on that uses a handy cam and the premise of a found tape/disc etc will be a remake of the blair witch?
    aside from that i loved this flick
    i thought it was original
    the best aspects were that there were no archetype charachters, no mad scientist, no news reporter, no hero to save the day
    we were still left wondering…
    but you knew the outcome of the film from the name of it and that this was derived from the formerly known as central park
    anyway loved your synopsis!

  15. braincraft says:

    I liked it, but I also somehow managed to completely miss every single teaser, trailer, advertisement, and viral marketing gimmick relating to Cloverfield.

    Was anyone else bothered by the coloring of the monster? I felt that being fleshy-hued kind of ruined an otherwise servicable creature.

    It has been suggested to me that this may have been an attempt to differentiate it from the coloration of similar (copyrighted) monsters, and the color may very well have been changed several times over the course of inserting the special effects.

    • Todd says:

      I felt that being fleshy-hued kind of ruined an otherwise servicable creature.

      I think it was originally supposed to be neon pink, but it didn’t test well.

      • braincraft says:

        Well, keep in mind that they have to sell toys. Cloverfield monster with real cameraman-biting action! Twentysomething douchebag, cellphone battery not included!

  16. ndgmtlcd says:

    You’ve convinced me that Cloverfield is an interesting movie, certainly interesting enough for me to look forward to reading everything on it in the upcoming issue of “Les cahiers du cinรฉma” and other similar publications. I won’t go to see it, of course, since it seems filled with ugliness.

    The last film that you convinced me to go out and see was “Enchanted”. There was very little ugliness in it, and I enjoyed it greatly. There was a majestic goofup that had to do with ugliness at the beginning, when the heroine pops up in NYNY and some idiots who supervised lighting and makeup made her look so neon-lit ugly that the continuity with her animated character was broken. But that didn’t last long, and that kind of ugliness seems of a completely different scale when I read of what’s going on in Cloverfield.

  17. urbaniak says:

    To say nothing of the fact that its title is taken from my exit on the Santa Monica Freeway.

  18. gurudata says:


    For an alternate viewpoint (i.e. I disliked the movie but I’m not in either of the two camps you mention), I offer my review at

    Be forewarned: the camp I do fall into is the camp of people who found that the characters were morons. Sorry… Frankly, the “oooh, let’s take pictures instead of getting the hell out of here” scene was, to me, in fact proof of their stupidy. I’m not saying it wasn’t realistic, I’m saying it was nevertheless a sign of stupidity. ๐Ÿ™‚



  19. quirkstreet says:

    Interesting summary and very convincing. I had avoided a fair amount of the hype about this film …. which is not to say I was unaware of it, not even slightly, but I’m so used to viral marketing these days that I tune it out as needed.

    I expected The Blair Godzilla Project and I feel that’s EXACTLY what I got. What impressed me most, I think, was how closely they stuck to that one, simple, yet elegant idea.

    I’m not sure what to think about these reviewers who thought the characters were shallow or unlikeable. Um …. shallow or unlikeable humans exist, and I dunno, I think it’s only human to become (potentially) engrossed in their fate if they’re going through something traumatic and bizarre. So even if they WERE unlikeable (which I’m not sold on anyway) I’m intrigued by the way that an audience can wind up getting invested regardless. It strikes me that people who withhold that kind of investment are perhaps too busy being professional critics. That’s a normal fate, too, but it’s not the same as being an ordinary audience member.

    That said, I walked out of the film thinking “Hm, well done, nice 84 minutes.” The deeper resonance, if any, is available, but I think what the film does second best (after sticking to its simple premise–I have to bet there was pressure to make it more of a traditional narrative) is leave itself as open as possible for the audience to do the work of constructing that deeper meaning, if any.

    Now that the Godzilla template for “how to metaphorize a national tragedy with a monster” is already available to us, it’s clear that 9/11 is a good candidate for the same treatment. But the proof will come in whether the millions of people who’ve seen the film wind up telling their friends “yeah, go see it” or whether there will be a Blair-Witchy backlash as word of mouth gets around. I can see it going either way.

    Good analysis, again. Thanks.

    • Todd says:

      I dunno, I think it’s only human to become…engrossed in their fate if they’re going through something traumatic and bizarre.

      If the audience’s choice is between “unlikeable humans” and “300-foot tall creature of the deep” it’s pretty easy to pick sides, I think.

      • e_ticket says:

        Exactly — I think many people are bringing predisposed notions of “twentysomethings” only because, as you say so eloquently, that “their youth and good looks is code for ‘let them die’.”

        Quite crass and reverse-ageist, IMHO. These kids did *nothing* to make me explicitly *not* like them — as in most horror movies, where they make dumb decisions out of hubris or ego. In this movie, they acted out of fear and survival, and ultimately *love*, really.

        I’m SHOCKED at how people are lashing out at the “vapid, self-centered” characters, which I just didn’t see at all.

    • dougo says:

      what the film does second best (after sticking to its simple premise–I have to bet there was pressure to make it more of a traditional narrative) is leave itself as open as possible for the audience to do the work of constructing that deeper meaning, if any.

      My feelings exactly. It was remarkably single-minded– it just did one thing, as well as possible, and left everything else out. I sort of wish I hadn’t seen any commercials or heard anything about it, because it could have been incredible to see it without knowing it was a monster movie, but I didn’t find myself regretting the spoilerage at all. When the army shows up and starts firing missiles at the monster, I realized that it wasn’t at all trying to be an original or surprising story, it was about presenting an old, trite formula in a new, exciting way. And I think it wildly succeeded at that.

  20. Anonymous says:

    I have a wonky screenwriting question/discussion topic…

    I’m in that phase where I consciously look for act breaks when I’m watching something, trying to do some on-the-fly analysis as the movie’s unfolding in front of me. (And, luckily, as with Cloverfield, sometimes things are too… forcefully engaging to do that.)

    Anyway, I’ve been reading screenwriting books for several years now, and one of the things that I’ve learned (rightly or wrongly) is that there’s usually some kind of organizing principle for the second act. (Well, obviously there’s an organizing principle for all of it, but bear with me.) And that principle is usually called “the dramatic question” or something like that. So I had a different take on how the story broke down, act-wise:

    Act I: Party, explosion (the so-called “inciting incident”), all the confusion and running around, leading up the bridge, where Rob learns the girl is trapped in her apartment and decides to go after her. This leads to the dramatic question, “Will he find the girl and rescue her?”

    Act II: The journey to get to the apartment, all the crap that happens in-between, leading up to the climb up the skyscraper. They get to her, remove the bar sticking out of her shoulder, answering the dramatic question with a “yes”…

    Act III: …but now they have to get out and get to the helicopter before they all go kablooey. And, well, you know what happens here.

    What do you think? Valid? Or do you even buy into concepts like “inciting incident” and “dramatic question”? I mean, you need a real good idea of what your act structure looks like before you start writing a screenplay, but applying this stuff after the fact on a completed film, it seems like the goalposts are movable, which confuses things for me sometimes.

    I *think* there’s a real question in there somewhere. Anyway, regardless, thanks for this fantastic post, especially the part about the necessity of metaphor. Oh, and I’d love to see a scene-by-scene post one of these days as well.

    — Kent M. Beeson

    • Todd says:

      I’m not familiar with the phrase “dramatic question” but I’m a strong believer in the inciting incident.

      Let’s start by saying that the inciting incident of Cloverfield is the explosion in the harbor that announces the monster’s arrival. That sounds about right, right?

      Now then, let’s think about that. If the monster’s arrival is the inciting incident, then everything up to the arrival of the monster is wheel-spinning (or “backstory,” a word that sends shivers down my spine). That would mean that Cloverfield spends 20 of its 72 minutes of running time before an inciting incident.

      But let’s back up a second. Who is the protagonist of Cloverfield and what does he want? The protagonist is Rob and his goal is not “to destroy the monster” or “to elude the monster” or even “to rescue the girl.” I would say that Rob’s goal in Cloverfield is “to demonstrate his love for Beth.”

      What are the forces arrayed against Rob? There’s the job in Japan, the guy Beth is hanging around with, and then this big “going away” party, all of which are preventing him from attaining his goal long before the monster shows up.

      So I would say that the “inciting incident” is that Rob steps out of whatever his life’s path was, a month before the monster shows up, to spend the night with Beth and the next day at Coney Island. A seed was planted that day, a seed that germinates during the party scene and bursts into full bloom when the Brooklyn Bridge collapses. The monster is just one more thing that’s preventing Rob from demonstrating his love for Beth. That’s why the formal brilliance of the movie, which takes place in spite of the monster’s attacks, not because of them, works so well.

      Rob makes it to the top of the tower and rescues Beth, but he’s still not quite done. He’s still got to survive a helicopter crash and a face-to-face encounter with the monster before, in the final moments of his life, he’s able to tell Beth he loves her. And he does, and she says she loves him back, and the drama is over.

      I agree that the bridge is the first-act break, where the protagonist stops and says “no, I cannot run, I must stand my ground and fight for what I love,” and I would put the second-act break at the end of the military encampment, as they reach Columbus Circle. Then Act III is the rescue of Beth and everything after. That would be my guess, although with the movie being as short as it is, I would also accept an eight-minute Act III following Beth’s rescue.

      • Anonymous says:

        Wow, is it really 20 minutes until the explosion? And it’s only 8 minutes from Beth’s rescue til the end of the movie? Can I change my answers, then? ๐Ÿ™‚

        The thing about trying to figure out the act-breaks as they happen is that I don’t check my watch (er, phone), so I have to guesstimate — and I must’ve been really sucked into the party in the first act, cuz that really didn’t feel like 20 min.

        As I was lying in bed, thinking about the movie (and before I read your answer), I realized that the whole point of the story is that “I love you” at the end. And that was what was essentially driving Rob at each point in the story — a larger “thing” (I hadn’t really defined it as a goal) that held the “rescue” portion of the film, as well as everything before it. This, of course, is just a convoluted way of saying “To demonstrate his love for Beth”, which I would’ve had trouble defining, but makes perfect sense now.

        Anyway, thank you very much for the follow-up. My writing partner and I have been working on a screenplay that’s essentially about people fighting a monster, and while we’ve known for awhile that the best ones aren’t really about fighting (or in Cloverfield’s case, escaping) the monster, it’s still very difficult to figure out how to make it “three-dimensional” so to speak. But this post helps me out a lot.

        Oh, and I think you’re right about the end of Act II. That’s when the military guy says “you have until 0600 hours” — and isn’t that (that kind of outlining of the third act) a pretty common screenwriting tactic?

        Thanks again,

        –Kent M. Beeson

        Oh wait, P.S.: Please do a post on There Will Be Blood. The act breaks seem pretty clear but nearly everything else confounds me!

        • Todd says:

          Here’s the problem with the act breaks in Cloverfield: usually, there is what we call the “end of second-act low point,” where the protagonist has failed at everything he’s tried to do, and then suddenly remembers that one thing that he’d forgotten about before that will allow him to solve the problem.

          I kept waiting for the end-of-second-act-low-point to happen in Cloverfield, and I thought that when the helicopter crashed in Central Park was a pretty good place to start. I figured that was the end of Act II and then the three people left were going to figure out how to kill the monster. Little did I know.

          So the helicopter crashes and at that point there’s only about five minutes of movie left. So we need to go back a bit and divide the movie up in terms of physical situations. Act I is, I’d say, everything up to the Brooklyn Bridge because it’s all about Rob’s disillusionment with Beth. Then he learns that she’s trapped and decides he’s going to go and get her, even though it will very probably mean his death and the deaths of all his friends. So if Act II is “Let’s Go Get Beth,” that would, under normal circumstances, mean that Act II would end when Beth is rescued, and then Act III would be “Let’s Get The Hell Out Of Here.” Which is perfectly fine, but makes the movie a little lopsided, as there really isn’t much left of the movie after that. But you know what movie has a similar structure? You guessed it: Dumbo. A 61-minute feature with a third act that’s about eight minutes long.

          If it helps any, Jeffrey Katzenberg is a strong believer in short third acts. He says he once saw a beat-board outline of Snow White or one of the early Disney movies, and the board showed that Act I had ten beats, Act II had ten beats and Act III had four beats. The way he described it to me is that Act III has no “development” whatsoever, it’s a “race to the finish line” That is, by the end of Act II all the pieces are moving toward their inevitable destiny and nothing can stop them.

  21. drewmg says:

    Great review – I’m going to link to you from my LJ.

  22. Critics hate this film because it doesn’t “resonate” with the viewer the way vague indie films do with their ambiguous gimmicks. No one has ever been haunted by a roller coaster for days; instead, you leave in a fit of giggles and tell all your friends what a blast you had. And their reviews are the only ones that really matter…

  23. dougo says:

    I agree with all this; those critics are being idiots. But I was hoping you were going to talk more about the movie itself. Like, I still haven’t found an explanation for the title. (Is it because all that’s left of Manhattan in the future when the videotape is found is a field of clover?)

    Also, this is awesome:

    • dougo says:

      Oops, I forgot that I hadn’t finished reading the comments. I see you talked about the movie plenty, nevermind. (Although there’s probably a lot more to say.)

      Just curious, do you watch Lost?

      • Todd says:

        I happened to start watching Lost just the other night. I like it.

        • dougo says:

          Did you watch the first episode on DVD, or did you watch the annotated 3rd season finale last night? I’m curious if that managed to get any newbies up to speed or if it was just too confusing.

    • Todd says:

      I assume that “Cloverfield” is simply the code-name that the army intelligence people assigned to the whole “Manhattan being destroyed by a giant monster” event. It doesn’t mean anything, which is how the best titles usually work.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Hi Todd

    First time reader of your site but having seeing Cloverfield I just wanted to add my 2 cents.
    I could not disagree more with you regarding this film. It’s baffling how you can compare this to Godzilla and the Posiedon Adventure…both those films had a disaster that the storytellers at least attempted to explain. What we have in Cloverfield is Hollywood treating its audience with such contempt it’s staggering. Let me ask you this; which do you think is more plausible; That the studio execs greenlighted this because of some high minded notion of introducing NY post 9/11, or, that they said “let’s throw the statue of liberty around and put a monster in the film and not explain how it got there, because that would take too long and we want a small runtime to run more screenings per day and up our box office take” Godzilla was a dinosaur. This was a minotaur on steroids. My powers of suspension of belief are strong, which is a help because I enjoy sci-fi films, but this is another monster altogether. No explanation of what it is that’s destroying NY. No explanation of how it got there. Nothing. Just disaster. What’s even more staggering is that there seems to be alot of people who think it’s a high point in cinema. It is nothing of the sort. What I have learned from this film is not that the majority of people are extremely easy to please, it’s that a great many of the movie going public who like this rubbish are representative of a potion of American cinema today; a true lowest common denominator film. It saddens me to learn that you as a screenwriter praises this film in the way that you have. I can only imagine other screenwriters feel the same. From a technical delivery point of view the movie treads water well, but from a screenwriters point of view it is absolutely atrocious. I can at least take comfort from the fact that it is experiencing 60% plus drops weekend on weekend, which in movie business parlance means that it has no worthy word of mouth to help this “high point of American cinema” pass the hundred million dollar mark. Hopefully it’s ineptitude to perform well at the box office post it’s advertisement laden initial release will serve to remind Hollywood that making movies is about storytelling, the true foundation of great cinema. Releasing a movie absent of any story should reveal what these studio execs really think about you the viewer. Although that point seems to be missed on you because you adore this drivel. By the by, I’m not quite certain of the stats to date but if I remember correctly this will be the lowest grossing film at the box office as a function of its opening weekend, in the action genre, in over 25 years. Check out or for the stats if you’re so inclined.
    Respectfully yours,
    A great cinema fan.

  25. Anonymous says: