CLOVERFIELD and its spectacular Monster

CLOVERFIELD has apparently been the recipient of a great deal of Internet hype, which I must confess, I was totally unaware of. In fact, I almost skipped seeing the film, thinking it might be just another awful fifties monster on the loose rip-off. However, on the basis of hearing that Phil Tippett’s Berkeley studio was in charge of creating the Cloverfield monster, I felt it might be worth checking out. Then, when I read Paramount’s brief synopsis on the film, I became a bit apphensive again. It states: “Five young New Yorkers throw their friend a going-away party the night that a monster the size of a skyscraper descends upon the city. Told from the point of view of their video camera, the film is a document of their attempt to survive the most surreal, horrifying event of their lives.”
Well, I hate the kind of jittery, cinema-verite camerawork that usually serves no purpose, except making you want to throw-up, so I began to have some second-doubts about seeing the film. Of course, when I finally saw the picture, to my great surprise, I was quite delighted by it. I found it to be the kind of exciting old-fashioned monster on the loose movie that not only scared you when you were 12 or 13 years old, but in fact still scared me at a somewhat more advanced age. It also was quite a lot of fun to watch.
In fact, CLOVERFIELD is really quite an impressive achievement, considering how hard it would be for anyone to tell a coherent story as if it were told and seen entirely from the POV of an amateur cameraman. Obviously, this can also be seen as a stunt, just as Hitchcock’s one continuous long take was seen as a stunt when he made ROPE (in 1948). But even granting that, I think it’s a stunt that works not only well, but succeeds spectacularly.
Quite amazingly, director Matt Reeves and screenwriter Drew Goddard (working from an idea by producer J. J. Abrams) have brought this concept off extremely well, and have made it all come together. Obviously, they all did a great deal of painstaking work that was needed to make a professionally shot studio film look so incredibly spontaneous. In the press notes, director Reeves notes some of the limitations it placed on him as director: “It was an incredible readjustment because in trying to create the illusion of only one camera, you are working without the usual cinematic tools. So there is no big wide shot, no reverse shot to show the other person watching and listening. Everything you see and know comes from a single camera.”
On top of this, Reeves had to deal with complicated special effects shots, which had to be carefully preplanned, using animatics, to be placed in the cinema-verite footage. Reeves says, “we had to take a lot of things that were really well-rehearsed and find a way to make them seem accidental.” Producer J. J. Abrams adds that “Reeves did a lot of things that are incredibly complicated – like making shots look as if they were continuous and staging things in a way that felt spontaneous, which they hardly were!”
Scriptwriter Goddard also sets a solid foundation for the story, by introducing us to the four leading characters at a going away party in lower Manhattan that lasts nearly 20 minutes. Once again there is a comparison to Hitchcock, who did the same kind of slow opening in THE BIRDS, allowing the audience to become familiar with his main characters, before plunging them into total stark terror.
Likewise, Goddard has by design, allowed a somewhat tedious opening sequence to drag on, forever it seems, until we get to the big payoff, where an an unknown attack suddenly shatters the tranquility of the party sequence.

Then, once the unexpected attack of the monster occurs, we are plunged into rapid action, but without the benefit of the long opening set-up, everything that follows would become quite mechanical and lack any real emotional impact, just as you got when watching the stock characters running away from horrifying events in Ray Harryhausen’s fifties monster films like THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS.  In fact, in those old Harryhausen’s movies, you were usually rooting for the monster to win, and somehow hoped he might outwit what seemed to be incredible stupid human characters. But in CLOVERFIELD, we are always pretty much on the side of the human beings, although as producer Abrams notes, they still wanted to get some sympathy for their “beastie.” “He’s like a baby,” says Abrams. “He’s brand-new, he’s confused, disoriented and irritable. And he’s been down there in the water for thousands and thousands of years.”
Indeed, like Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury’s BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, it would appear that the Cloverfield monster may have been disturbed by the global warming of the polar ice caps and has awakened from his nocturnal slumbers to come and attack New York City. But as screenwriter Goddard says, “We don’t actually say where he’s from, quite deliberately. Our movie doesn’t have the scientist in the white lab coat who shows up and explains things like that.”
While Goddard wisely leaves out any specific explanation for the origin of the Cloverfield monster, it’s also easy to see it as a metaphor for the disastrous policies the United States has pursued under the current administration of President George W. Bush. Besides the similarities to seeing building topple in Manhattan like the 9/11 attacks, how else can you interpret the head of that supreme icon of American Liberty (namely the Statue of), being decapitated and shown landing like Medusa in the streets of Soho?
Emma Lazarus’s famous poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty states many of the best American ideals that the Statue represents, yet it also seems to go against the grain of everything that President Bush has done in his last seven years in office:
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows worldwide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I also found it quite illuminating that in 2007, Hollywood finally came out against the war in Iraq in a such a big way. Movies such as Rendition, (quite a marvelous film), as well as The Kingdom, The Mighty Heart, The Valley of Elah, and Lions For Lambs all addressed the Iraq war and the failings of the current Bush administration policies. The problem was, that for the most part, all of these movies were far too literal about their anti-war bias.
So leave it to a science fiction film to come to the rescue!
Where else can you say what you really mean to say so clearly and then claim it’s only a monster movie should you be attacked as unpatriotic?
On that level alone, I would urge you to see CLOVERFIELD, but it’s certainly also quite a thrill ride, and indeed we even see the main character at Coney Island, obviously a tribute to Harryhausen’s undersea Beastie that attacked Coney Island’s rollercoster way back in the cold war age of 1953.
Finally, here is a quote from director Matt Reeves, referring to GODZILLA, which was nothing more or less than Japan’s indirect response against the United States use of nuclear weapons, ten years after the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s also rather sobering to realize that the U.S. is the only country in the history of the planet to use offensive nuclear weapons against another nation.

“In the same way that GODZILLA was about the anxiety of the nuclear age, and the atomic bomb and Hiroshima, the monster in CLOVERFIELD is a metaphor for our times and being able to find a way to approach those feelings without diminishing or exploiting them.”–Matt Reeves

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7 Replies to “CLOVERFIELD and its spectacular Monster”

  1. Just a suggestion: Why don’t you stick to reviewing movies on their merit or lack of same, and leave the sophomoric political analysis to someone else, huh?

    I’m getting really tired of cheap shots from sportwriters, critics, and all the other wannabe political columnists. I can’t help but feel that you don’t really see a strong metaphor for the Bush administration here, you just decided to twist things around so you could get in a poke here and there.

    As Laura Ingraham titled her book, “Shut up and Sing.”

  2. <p>A few points:</p>
    <p>1. This “review” is actually part of a regular column. Part of the purpose of a column is to give a writer latitude to get into personal opinions, including political opinions.</p>
    <p>2. bandicoot calls the analysis “sophomoric” and says that Lawrence French did not see a metaphor in the movie, but bandicott never makes an argument to support his point; he simply “feel[s]” it.</p>
    <p>3. The reference to the title Laura Ingraham’s book is particularly inappropriate in this context. Ingraham was addressing herself not to reviewers but to artists. She herself tends to detect liberal messages in movies, but I doubt you will find bandicott writing to her and saying, “you don’t really see a strong metaphor … here, you just decided to twist things around so you could get in a poke here and there.” Why not? Because Ingraham disapproves of the liberal messages she finds.</p>

  3. I’m not sure on the political aspect yet. The image of the SOL head flying down the street is powerful and conveys urgency, things out of control, and whatever it was, damn it’s big. So it works well in the context of the film without reading deeper into it. I agree, though, that it could be interpreted as a political statement without reaching. It’s not like horror films shy away from that sort of thing: they tend to be perfect for it for the reason you noted. On another note, the viral/disease carried by the little fellows reminded me of the germ the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’ blood carried. Nice to see some nods to “classic” horror.

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