There are just some things you had to have been there for, and the phenomenon surrounding the monster movie Cloverfield was something that you truly had to be there for. It was the summer of 2007 (Fourth of July weekend to be exact) and Michael Bay’s Transformers was loudly muscling its way through the box office and changing Hollywood for better and worse. It was already a crowded, franchise-heavy year that saw new entries for Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek, Harry Potter, Spider-Man, and more.
Perhaps this is part of the reason why, as audiences left the theater with Linkin Park’s “What I’ve Done” ringing in their ears and images of Autobots pissing on beloved indie actors slowly receding from their minds, the thing that was being talked about most was a mysterious teaser trailer that played before the movie. All that’s shown in the teaser is a gathering of young New Yorkers throwing a going away party for a friend named Rob, until the city suddenly falls under attack by some unknown force. Explosions rock the buildings, people flee into the streets, and the head of the Statue of Liberty itself comes hurtling through the air before landing in front of the group. No title is given. Only a date flickers across the screen: 1.18.08.
The brilliance of Cloverfield’s viral marketing campaign merits a full, in-depth article all its own. Online speculation about the cryptic movie was just as rampant as anything you would now see for an upcoming Marvel Studios entry, with message boards filling up with rumors and meticulous fans poring over every single frame of the untitled teaser trailer for potential clues. People were so desperate to learn something, anything about the movie to the point that some were willing to believe even the most absurd theories – like when a considerable number of devotees misheard the line “It’s alive” as “It’s a lion” and wondered if it was a massive lion attacking New York City, or if the film could possibly even be a Voltron reboot.
The title wouldn’t be revealed until a second trailer dropped in mid-November, alongside an official website that offered more clues (including a clip of the monster’s roar for those that solved a puzzle) and sites for the film’s fictional companies like Slusho! and Tagruato. Once the date finally arrived and the lights went down in theaters across the nation, the anticipation was palpable.
It’s interesting to note just how much legwork was done by that viral marketing campaign, as the movie itself proved to be considerably light on any kind of deep, intricate plot in favor of a story about a small, tight-knit group of friends attempting to survive one horrible night. Cloverfield is a found footage film, one that came out at a time when that style of filmmaking still felt like a novel idea. It would be another year until Paranormal Activity and REC captivated audiences and several years until the much-maligned Chernobyl Diaries and Area 51 would prove the gimmick had worn itself thin (the subgenre has since pivoted to presenting itself more through phone and computer screens than any kind of handheld camera).
The found footage technique here works in creating the most “on the ground” perspective possible, telling its large-scale story through a small-scale lens. What cinematographer Michael Bonvillain as well as cast member T.J. Miller – whose character Hud is the one filming throughout the night – accomplish here is likely the most intense and action-packed form of cinéma-vérité to date, turning a relatively modest $25 million budget into what looks, feels, and sounds like a massive $150 million and up blockbuster.
The film opens on a scrawl of text that informs the audience that what they’re watching has been repossessed by the U.S. Department of Defense as part of a collection of evidence surrounding an event designated as “Cloverfield”. It then cuts to home video footage of a young man named Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) spending a romantic day with a woman named Beth McIntyre (Odette Yustman), and we learn that the camera and its footage belonged to Rob before whatever catastrophic event took place.
Rob has just scored a high-level position with Tagruato, a deep-sea mining company, but the job will force him to move to Japan soon. His brother Jason (Mike Vogel) decides to put together a surprise going away party with the help of his fiance, Lily (Jessica Lucas), and another close friend named Hud gets roped into operating the video camera in order to document the night and film testimonials from all of Rob’s friends.
But what starts as a celebration quickly turns into nightmarish tragedy as the mysterious monster arrives and begins wreaking havoc throughout the city. After being rocked by a series of earthquakes and explosions, the group takes to the streets where they are greeted with constant mayhem, destruction, and panic. Cloverfield‘s style, along with the great performances from its cast, ground the film’s somewhat silly premise in a sense of gritty realism. With only a few cuts throughout, the night’s events more or less play out in real time.
Its first-person POV and its lack of any real musical score allow for an immersive experience that showcases the technical mastery of director Matt Reeves (who would go on to helm the final two installments of the most recent critically acclaimed Planet of the Apes trilogy and is set to release the newest Batman adaptation), perhaps a bit too well – many audience members found themselves suffering from headaches and motion sickness due to the film’s shaky and frantic camerawork.
The film’s most memorable scene comes about midway as Rob, Lily, Hud, and an unlucky acquaintance named Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) find themselves caught in the middle of a harrowing battle between the monster and the National Guard. As soldiers and tanks roll the street firing upon the massive creature, the friends attempt to take cover behind some cars, and Hud is separated from the rest of the group. Explosions, bullets, and roars completely envelop the movie’s sound, deafening both the characters and the audience as the battle rages and the group attempts to make a break for it into a nearby subway entrance. This moment, as well as an earlier one that takes place on the Brooklyn Bridge, are when the movie is at its most effective, truly selling the illusion that what you’re watching – as fantastical as it may be – is something real. The terrified street level perspective only furthers the intensity.
Cloverfield offers quieter, character driven moments as well, such as when the group is forced to wait out whatever destruction is being wrought above them as they sit in fear on the abandoned subway platform. It’s here that they are forced to reckon with the insane and inexplicable situation they’ve found themselves in; Hud and Marlena try to make sense of the things they’ve witnessed while Rob and Lily grapple with the death of Jason, who is killed in the earlier pandemonium. Likewise, a tender moment showing Hud attempting to comfort a gravely injured Marlena that occurs later is particularly potent, and does a brilliant job of reminding us of the humanity at the center of this monster movie spectacle.
Many observations have been made about how Matt Reeves evokes the feelings and imagery of 9/11, and this is true on several levels. The most obvious is a shot early on of a New York building collapsing with panicked citizens desperately fleeing the oncoming wave of dust and debris, only for those who survive to be caked with ash and a look of utter, shell-shocked bewilderment on their faces. Before anyone knows that it’s some sort of creature causing the catastrophe, several people in the background even speculate that it could be another terrorist attack.
The film’s found footage style itself also reflects the way people experienced the September 11th attacks, which, occurring right at the turn of the digital age, was captured by an extensive amount of amateur videographers as it was happening. The film occasionally has Hud focus in on television screens showing the news, giving the film a few brief instances to show the event and the monster from a larger perspective. This is used again near the end as the survivors view the city overhead from a helicopter, showing us the full scale of the monster and its rampage.
If Cloverfield is about anything deeper than what’s on its surface, it’s the way people are capable of incredibly heroic acts even in the face of unprecedented catastrophe. When Rob receives a call from Beth informing him that she’s trapped in her apartment across town, he and his friends deny their own chance at escape, defying the evacuation orders in an attempt to rescue her. It may be foolish but it’s also undeniably brave, and an untold number of similar personal stories exist from 9/11 as well as other tragedies.
A point of contention may be the way the film comes across as overtly bleak. Rob is hardly rewarded for his selflessness, as both him and Beth, as well as Hud, are dead by the film’s end (at least they had each other?). Whether or not Lily survives has been an endless topic of debate. Perhaps this is just a way to nail home that Cloverfield is intended to be a tragedy, but that terrifying sense of hopelessness stings a bit more in a world like today where that feeling has infected more people than ever. Or maybe I’m just getting older and it’s not as fun to watch the characters in a movie all be killed off anymore. Either way, that bleakness can be read as a direct response to violent world-changing events like 9/11, and it’s a feeling that’s seemingly only grown since then.
The concept for Cloverfield was initially thought up by J.J. Abrams, who was inspired by Kaiju like Godzilla while visiting a toy store in Japan with his son. Abrams wanted to create an American monster, one with far more intensity than something like King Kong, something visceral and genuinely scary. What followed was a genius level marketing strategy that led up to an action-packed, 9/11-evoking horror film that was box office gold. It pivoted an entire film movement while launching a franchise that’s now spawned two loosely related spin-offs (one widely acclaimed, the other not so much) with talks of a direct sequel coming soon, backed by more fan speculation than ever. Doesn’t get much more American than that.