Cloverfield

It’s almost impossible to watch Cloverfield (IMDB) and not recognize the allusions to the September 11 attacks. The film opens with titles that explain that the footage we are about to watch was found in what “used to be called Central Park.” And the image of a shocking, unknown (and almost unknowable) monster attacking Manhattan cannot help but recall 9/11, especially when the Statue of Liberty, one of the iconic images of New York–and of America itself–is destroyed during one of the film’s early scenes. Shots of Manhattanites sprinting away from collapsing buildings, plumes of smoke chasing them down city streets, clearly recall familiar images of 9/11, as do the streams of people attempting to cross the Brooklyn Bridge. Aaron at Out of Focus is especially attentive to the treatment of 9/11, and I think he’s right to argue that the film seems to illustrate that “our fears, and therefore our monsters, are scarier, more spontaneous, less calculating and seemingly impossible to find and destroy.”

But while the Manhattan setting seems crucial to Cloverfield, I also found myself thinking, at least during one or two key moments, about the war in Iraq. During one key scene late in the film, Rob Hawkins confides to the camera that he and some of the other survivors are “caught in the middle,” trapped between the unknowable, unpredictable, and utterly amorphous monster and the U.S. military attempts to contain it. And, of course, the battle itself is unwinnable. During the attack on Manhattan, smaller monsters–possibly recalling terrorist cells–splinter off of the main monster, and all of the attempts to bomb the enemy into submission seem doomed to failure and, in fact, quite often endanger civilians, despite the best intentions of the military itself (in retrospect, I may be over-reading here).

Cloverfield also plays with genre conventions in interesting ways. When I first started to write a review, I was tempted to glibly suggest that it was “Blair Witch meets Godzilla with a twist of 28 Days Later.” But after looking at Aaron’s review and the Austin Chronicle review, I’m not sure that I’d mean that as an insult. Like Blair Witch, Cloverfield consists almost entirely of handheld, DV footage. The premise of the film is that Rob is leaving to take a job in Japan and his buddy Hud ends up videotaping the going-away party, and in fact inadvertently records over a tape made by Rob and Beth on a date to Coney Island, creating a nice flashback effect. Once the monster attacks, Hud insists on keeping the camera rolling. While Hud justifies this by arguing that it’ll be “important” to know what happened, there’s another way in which recording is essential for Hud. As long as he’s recording, he’s still alive. Much like the video camera provides Heather in Blair Witch with a “filtered reality,” Hud is able to protect himself–and to connect with others–only through the safety of the camera.

And like both Godzilla and 28 Days Later, the attack on a familiar city, the destruction of recognizable landmarks, functions as an allegory of contemporary fears. At the same time, the use of handheld camera throughout the movie created an intense focus on a small group of four or five characters also works well, as does the use of DV, with the camera work actually serving to tell the story (I’m reminded here of some of Chris’s comments about the relationship between DV and mockumentaries, although Cloverfield comes closer to the intimacies and clumsiness of home video).  I don’t want to oversell Cloverfield, and it’s worth noting that I anticipated many–if not all–of the major “plot twists.” But I liked the film’s engagement with the monster genre and its attempt to use genre to reflect upon the contemporary political moment.

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