Cloverfield (2008)

Director: Matt Reeves

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

A strange unease has overtaken me in the waning days of 2009. Suddenly, the filmic hills are alive with lists and best-ofs not only of this year, but of the entire decade. We’ve reached another tick on the artificial ruler of time, and I’m feeling I ought to produce some Aught talk. Fortunately, I was presented with a question last week that asked me about the film that most conveys the spirit of the double-0s. It was a question I could answer easily; indeed, I have been meaning to address just this question and film for some time. It was thus with a sense of purpose not only to my own intentions, but also to my many colleagues who can’t seem to exist without placing each film into its properly ranked cubbyhole, that I steeled myself to endure the queasicam extravaganza Cloverfield.

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Cloverfield is one of the most cleverly constructed films in recent memory. A monster movie in the classic tradition—giant monster inexplicably pitches up in big city to wreck inexplicable havoc, while a small band of plucky civilians mess around in the war zone of monster and military on a rescue mission—it updates the possible source of and response to the threat by posing electronic communications and mass-marketed DV cameras as the worm-riddled fruit of the 21st century tree of knowledge that atomic energy was to the 20th century. In so doing, it provides commentary not only on the seminal event in recent American history (and because of its position as the ascendant nation of the 20th century, the world)—the terrorist attack on New York City—but also on the cultural self-absorption that comes with mitigated reality that far exceeds the almost quaint film critiques of television that came in the previous few decades in such classics in the field as Network (1976) and To Die For (1995).

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Reeves prepares us for a movie within a movie by opening with a title card, an apparent military description of footage from an operation code-named Cloverfield from a camera found in a sector “previously known” as Central Park. Cut to the video showing Central Park from a posh 39th-floor apartment that borders it. The video was shot by Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), who has just spent the night with Beth McIntyre (Odette Yustman), whom he then ambushes with his camera as she lounges in bed. Cute love talk ends with a plan to go to Coney Island and an abrupt shift, time-stamped a month later, to a going-away party for Rob in lower Manhattan.

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In a nod to the antecedents of Cloverfield, scriptwriter Drew Goddard has written Rob a promotion to vice president (of what is never revealed) whose new job is in Japan. Rob’s best friend Hudson Platt (T. J. Miller) is given the job of recording farewell messages from the partygoers by Lily (Jessica Lucas), the girlfriend of Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel). Hud gets in the face of Marlena Diamond (Lizzy Caplan), a girl he’d like to get to know better, despite her insistence that she barely knows Rob, doesn’t want to record a message, and definitely doesn’t want Hud hanging around her. When Beth shows up at the party with a date, Rob is jealous; Hud follows Rob and Beth out of the apartment to record Beth’s complaint that after the Coney Island trip, Rob never tried to contact her. Hud can’t contain himself; the juicy story of two long-time friends suddenly becoming lovers makes the rounds of the party, only to be interrupted by a sudden jolt. Earthquake? People pour out of the surrounding buildings. They witness a bomb burst, flames, and then the head of the Statue of Liberty comes bowling down the street, skidding to a stop in front of Lily’s building. Cellphones come out to photograph the sight.

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Soon, a figure is spotted in the distance. On television, live feeds show an enormous creature breaking down buildings and depositing spiderlike “babies” that begin attacking people. Back at Lily’s, Marlena says she saw “it” eating people. The race away from the death zone is underway until Rob gets a call on his cell from Beth saying she is trapped and hurt in her father’s apartment. Rob decides to go to her rescue; Lily, Hud, and Marlena agree to accompany him. Their bleak odyssey through the streets, subways, and finally through Central Park forms the rest of the film.

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As a film, Cloverfield sets up believable actions for its main characters—avoiding the firefight aboveground by making their way to midtown through the subway system, creating a plan to rescue Beth that within the conventions of science fiction work well, even having Marlena join the band because she really doesn’t have anywhere else to go. The effects work well, and Reeves understands the effectiveness of the symbology he has chosen to strike horror into viewers, from the decapitated Lady Liberty to a gaping hole of fire in a tall building in lower Manhattan. The film is masterfully shot as well, with the monster obscured tantalizingly at first, great camera angles making scenes such as the crossing from one building to another look possible and yet still treacherous, and editing with precise pacing to keep our hearts pounding with dread and hope.

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But it is as a work of sociology and social critique that Cloverfield works so brilliantly. Putting the video camera in Hud’s hands is the first great move Reeves makes. The character is socially awkward, a clown. He wants to chat up Marlena but doesn’t know how, so he forces her to provide a farewell message just so he’ll have a pretext to keep talking to her. He absentmindedly brings up a horror story of homeless people being set on fire in the subways while the band is making its way through the tunnels, then suddenly realizes that his comments are in poor taste. He hangs onto the camera even while making a dangerous crossing from the hi rise Beth’s crumbling building is leaning against: “People need to see this, you know? It’s gonna be important. People are going to watch this.” It’s hard to argue this point given the circumstances he is recording—not to mention the fact that the fictitious military authorities viewing this archive of Operation Cloverfield and we are, in fact, watching—but the comment is eerily similar to one Suzanne makes in To Die For: “On TV is where we learn about who we really are. Because what’s the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody’s watching?” Hud is enough of a narcissist to think that what HE is doing is important, regardless of what he’s filming.

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In fact, most of the characters in this film are afflicted with some level of narcissistic disorder. Rob is very concerned that Hud is using the tape that recorded his day with Beth: “I had a tape in there…something important.” His record of his love affair is precious, yet he didn’t see a reason to keep in touch with Beth herself. “What’s the point?” Rob tells himself. “I’m leaving.” Then what was the point of making love in the first place? His actions reduce their relationship to that of “friends with benefits,” an incredibly blasé relational designation of the X generation, and his brush-off little more than a delete-unread e-mail. His brother calls him a douche bag, so all understanding of interpersonal contact has not disappeared. Yet Cloverfield is more interested in the failure to connect, the deep penetration of mitigated reality into our social fabric. In this film, Rob breaks into an electronics store instead of a gun shop to arm himself—with what?—with a new battery for his cellphone so he can call Beth. His crisis is not that a monster may eat him; it’s that he can’t connect without his gadgets.

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Marlena seems a truly lost soul—angry, blunt, staring at her cellphone instead of engaging with Hud. Based on her farewell-to-Rob video, admitting to being drunk every time she’s “met” Rob, it’s pretty clear that she absents herself in any way possible from the world around her. Later, Marlena saves Hud from one of the spiderlike creatures. He thanks her for coming back to help him. She can only reply defensively, “Do you think I’m the kind of person who wouldn’t do that?” When he says he “knows” she’s not that kind of person, she softens. But how would he know that? Based on her previous actions, even she seems to know that he’d be justified to think she wouldn’t lift a finger to help his sorry ass.

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And what of Beth? What of sacrificing all for love? She set out to hurt Rob at his party instead of talking to him long before that when he failed to call. She’s a girl who clearly has internalized “The Rules,” except that The Rules are written for players, not real people. The phoniest part of the film comes at the end when Rob and Beth give a foxhole declaration of love to each other. Reeves wisely ends with the last bit of the original Coney Island tape, with Beth saying, “I had a good day.” This smiling, shallow assessment of a day that supposedly meant the world to her is as honest as it gets.

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The larger lesson comes from Hud and Rob’s speculations about where the monster came from: Deep-sea trenches? Outer space? The elitist world is teetering like Beth’s leaning tower of privilege on Central Park. We might easily have noticed the enemies from without and the American-born and bred monsters within our own borders. But the media shined its light elsewhere. And we didn’t stop texting soon enough to see the evidence with our own eyes. l

  • Pat spoke:
    14th/12/2009 to 6:00 pm

    I have to admit, I didn’t much interest in this one, but after reading your review, my interest is definitely piqued. I’ve been seeing the “best of the decade” posts everywhere (some good ones at Salon today), but I’m resisting doing one myself. So far, anyway.

  • tdraicer spoke:
    14th/12/2009 to 6:49 pm

    I can’t help noting that Goddard is a child of Joss Whedon’s Mutant Enemy, and wrote for the last seasons of Buffy and Angel (and later Lost).

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/12/2009 to 9:26 am

    TD – THAT’S where I saw the name before. Thanks for clearing that nagging sense of familiarity from my mind. No wonder I liked the script.

  • J.D. spoke:
    15th/12/2009 to 9:56 am

    This is one of my faves of the decade as well. The film’s aesthetics are quite ingenious: taking an epic, Godzilla-like monster movie and filming it a la THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, thereby giving it a more intimate feel. I think that’s what filmmakers like Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich feel to realize. They are too caught up in creating CGI-heavy action spectacles which look cool but mean nothing because we don’t care about any of the characters or what happens to them because we don’t have anything invested in them. CLOVERFIELD doesn’t make that mistake and which is why I think it will stand the test of time whereas films like TRANSFORMERS (both of ‘em) and 2012 will, I don’t want to say forgotten, but don’t hold up to repeated viewings.
    I also wonder if the filmmakers were fans of a neat little ’80s gem MIRACLE MILE starring Anthony Edwards as the structure of that film is eerily similar to the one in CLOVERFIELD.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/12/2009 to 10:05 am

    I never saw Miracle Mile, JD, though this is the secnod time I’ve read about it this week. I must check it out.
    The difference with Cloverfield and the other films you mention is that Goddard and Reeves actually had something to say, not just something to sell. This will be a classic, just like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Godzilla, and others of this type.

  • Patrick spoke:
    15th/12/2009 to 6:10 pm

    Good writeup, I saw this one and didn’t get half of that from it, makes me want to see it again.
    I was a little put off by the excessive camera shake. To me it looked like someone deliberately trying to create an effect, versus what they wanted to do – simulate amateur video (obviously). Even an amateur cameraman is going to know you try to be at least somewhat fluid with the the camera. Overall though I liked it and thought it was pretty effective, I just wish they had throttled back a little on the shaky cam bit.
    Don’t get your hopes up too much for Miracle Mile, my memory of it is not good, although it’s been 21 years (release year) since I saw it.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/12/2009 to 8:03 pm

    Patrick – I have an enormous problem with queasicam – actually threw up watching Blair Witch. It was established in this film that Hud hadn’t done this before and the camera wasn’t his. The film actually got less shaky as it progressed, which made logical sense. Hud gets the hang of it, gets better. I was very impressed with the attention to detail that this and other aspects of the film showed.

  • Daniel spoke:
    16th/12/2009 to 11:42 am

    Wow, pretty brilliant defense of this one as a representation of the decade, Marilyn. I passed it off when I saw it as an updated, gimmicky, otherwise empty version of Godzilla, so your points about this film as a cultural mirror in terms of our obsession with technology and narcissism are really intriguing. Maybe this really IS the movie that defines the decade.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/12/2009 to 11:56 am

    Thank you, Daniel. The film struck me immediately that way when I saw it. I’ve walked out of every other queasicam film I’ve tried to see – I forced myself to stay with this one because I really felt in the presence of an urgent greatness.

  • Stephen spoke:
    2nd/01/2010 to 4:38 am

    An excellent review, Marilyn.
    I wrote something a thought about the monster on my blog and I’ll paste it here:
    ‘The catalyst for the narrative in Cloverfield is the budding coupling of main protagonist Rob and Beth.
    The monster arrives (dropping into the ocean in the distance) on the very day they get together as a proper couple. The monster makes itself known in the city just as Rob is voicing his concerns about moving to Japan and leaving Beth. The monster’s fate is decided in a hail of gunfire at the same time as Rob and Beth finally declare their love for each other.
    The monster is a manifestation of Rob’s growing fear. He is going to Japan and the Japanese are well-known as pioneers of the city-invading monster. This is not coincidence.
    Cloverfield is a dance to the death with Rob’s insecurities. This makes the final declarations not just a sweet and touching coda but an open question: Has he conquered his fears and does love conquer all?’
    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/01/2010 to 8:58 am

    There’s a song from the 80s with the lyric “eaten by the monster of love.” I wonder if there might be something to what you say, Stephen. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Dennis Polifroni spoke:
    19th/10/2010 to 9:32 am

    This is a tremendous review and just what the doctor ordered to sway me into seeing it. I had left a comment at WONDERS IN THE DARK asking anyone for a personal take on this film as I had yet to see it and had purchased a copy of it, for 5 dollars, at a local video store. I had heard some good and some bad and, I must admit, being a fan of J.J. Abrams LOST and his take on STAR TREK last summer, thought I needed to investigate CLOVERFIELD (which he produced).

    I don’t like jumping without a safety net when a film is touch and go with the critics. My time is very limited and extremely valuable to me. Rescuing me, Marilyn came on like Errol Flynn in THE ADVENTURES OF RODIN HOOD, swinging from a tree and directing me to this site and this wonderfully probing review. I had alot of good things to say about Spielberg’s metaphorical meditation on the senselessness of terrorism, WAR OF THE WORLDS, and Marilyn invoked the same interest I had in that A+ actioner/sci-fi film with her take on the movie reviewed above.

    I’ll be heading to SAM JULIANO’S house for a 6pm dinner of Italian food and helping his five kids do homework later on today… However, armed with the copy of CLOVERFIELD and the memory of this superlative essay here at FERDYONFILM, I am, most definately, going to set up a screening of CLOVERFIELD downstairs in Sam’s basement theatre (on a 50 inch LCD with DTS sound no less) with the five Juliano little authorites on the horror film genre.

    Thanks again, Marilyn, for linking this site and review to my query on CLOVERFIELD. It more than did the trick…

    It INSPIRED!!!!!!

    Dennis

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/10/2010 to 10:00 am

    Goodness, Dennis! I can tell you’re a good friend of Sam’s because you have the same enthusiasm and graciousness he has. I wish I could be there with you – I know you’d all be tremendous company. Thank you very much.

  • Dennis Polifroni spoke:
    19th/10/2010 to 10:24 am

    MARILYN-Yes, yes, SAM’S enthusiasm does rub off after being in his company for almost 20 years (he has a lot of friends at WONDERS IN THE DARK, but my distinct difference to all of them is that i have known, loved and fought with him the longest-LOL! He really is a great guy all around. My best friend.). I have tenndency to be as effusive as he is when a film, book or TV show gets me excited (I differ from SAM when I get my testicles in a twist though, I can really be the most aggrevating and nasty bitch when I’m in an uproar and Schmulee will attest that, when I get like to that point, nobody wants to be in the room with me as I assassinate all prisoners! LOL).

    However, there was alot to get effusive over. The fact that you came in and rescued me when everyone else wanted to battle over the merits of this film when all I was asking, basically, was is it recommendable, you came in and cleared the path. The review was another point too. Well written, thought provoking and totally without preference, you pointed a harsh critical eye and unveiled it as something to seek out and consider.

    For that, my new found friend, I am eternally grateful.

    I’ll be shooting over here more regularly. This is a really terrific site (as SAM has mentioned to me before). I ususally hone in exclusively to WITD as my time, per day, is extremely limited. However, reading through some of the other pages here, I think I have found another kindred spirit.

    Thanks again!!!!

    See you soon!!!

    P.S. Yes, it is too bad you don’t live close to us. SAM and I would, most likely, call it an honor to see you break bread (actually its a cold antipasto, tomato and white bean crustino, ceasar salad opener, followed by pasta and Lucille’s famous meatball and hot italian sausage gravy) with us and share in a viewing of film down in the dungeon. I think I speak for all (being Myself, Sam, Lucille and rats-Sam’s 5 wonderful kids-Melanie, Sammy Jr., “Psycho” Dan, Gillian and Jeremy-he’s so cute), when I say that you are welcomed to join us in the splendors of Italian knoshing and intellectual conversation ANY time!!!!!

    Take good care…

  • Jamie spoke:
    19th/10/2010 to 2:47 pm

    this was linked from wonders, so I stopped by. I didn’t see this film when it came out as it didn’t interest me in the least. I think now I’ll see it, though I’m still highly skeptical.

    I can see your points about our modern milieu and how this film approaches/comments on it. I’ll reserve more statements later after I’ve seen it. I do think, the way you describe this film, that you may like THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE (if you haven’t seen it already). That’s a film that, in 5 years time will be seen as a film that articulates much about the latter half of the decade. I can’t say this with authority as I’ve admittingly not seen CLOVERFIELD, but I’d take a safe bet that TGE is more scathing, more accurate, and more probing in its condemnation (and probably better to look at/directed). But then again, I love that film.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/10/2010 to 3:18 pm

    Jamie – Thanks for your comment on The Girlfriend Experience. I have not seen it, so it’s my turn to say I’ll watch it and see what you mean.

  • Dennis Polifroni spoke:
    20th/10/2010 to 10:53 pm

    Profound and truthful, this film makes its points without comments from outside forces to intrude on the randomness of it all. I had no problem’s with the hand-held camera as i truly feel that it was this concept that seperates CLOVERFIELD from just another run of the mill monster movie/horror flick. By never making anything clear about the beasts origin and staying steadfast with the characters (warts and all) I began to feel this air of lost hope and questioning permeating the film. I imagine alot of what is seen and done in this film is very similar to the personal experiences of some of the 911 attack survivors.

    Similarly, I feel the director/writer/producer/cast/crew effectively emoted a metaphorical statement about terrorism being a concept we Americans really only know from TV prior to the tragic events of that fateful morning 9 years ago and were ill prepared because we never really thought the rest of the real world would come to our door-step. It was apparent to me from the start of the film that the idea of making an entertainment was the furthest thing from the film-makers mind as they really had bigger fish to fry here.

    The use of the Coney Island remnants were a perfect punch into the complacentcies that reminded me of why life and peace should be valued. I would rank this film riht up there with Spielbergs WAR OF THE WORLDS as anti-war/terrorism statement disguised as entertainment.

    Thank you so much, Marilyn, for pointing me towards this movie.

    I agree with you whole-heartedly…

    THIS IS A GREAT FILM.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/10/2010 to 11:18 pm

    Dennis – I’m so happy that I didn’t steer you wrong. I agree that the points about terrorism were conveyed in a subtle, but insistent way, along with so many other social comments. It’s really a tour de force. I’m so glad you enjoyed your evening at the Julianos and capped it with this excellent film.

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