“My name is Robert Hawkins. It’s 6:42 AM on Saturday, May 23rd. Approximately seven hours ago, some… thing attacked the city. I don’t know what it is. If you found this tape, I mean if you’re watching this right now, then you probably know more about it than I do.”
Thud. Thud. Thud. Boom.
The opening credits are exactly what you’d expect of the genre – ominous impending doom as heard through the steps of a monster. Then the found footage starts rolling, announcing that this tape has been requisitioned by the US Department of Defense having been found in the “area formerly known as Central Park” and that it contains “multiple sightings of case designate Cloverfield”. Your interest is piqued, the mystery is set, so it is only natural that the monster of this monster movie isn’t heard until minute 18 of 80, or seen until 30 have passed. Wait, what?
Despite the fact he was only a producer on this project, this is very much a J.J. Abrams movie. Shrouded in secrecy, as is his style, J.J.’s name was the most that was known about this film when it was first teased. No title (for a while it was only publicly known as 1-18-08, the film’s release date), no plot details, just a short clip of an interrupted party ending with the spine-tingling shot of Lady Liberty’s decapitated head rolling through the streets of New York. So started the virtual rabbit hole of fan theories and a viral campaign which has given Cloverfield a significant mythology for a short, standalone feature film.
The movie itself starts with a split-time account of Rob Hawkins, a New Yorker preparing to move to Japan whilst working out his love life, and his friends organising his surprise leaving party. The tone is light-hearted and fun but also manages to set up the shooting style of the film – the viewer is one of the group, a privileged POV into their world, with jumpy cuts between scenes as the camcorder is turned off and on and handed around. The film’s diminutive running time, 80 minutes from first to last shaky moment of video, is the standard length of a camcorder tape (remember those?). We meet the cast through a series of testimonials to camera, leaving notes to Rob, and as a fly on the party wall. Rob, Lilly, Jason, Hud, and Marlena. All is comparatively well for 18 minutes, then boom! shake-shake-shake the room.
How would you react to this? Confusion, panic, fear? What would you think it was? Is it an earthquake, a terrorist attack? In the wake of 9/11, all of these thoughts cross the minds and faces of the partygoers. Matt Reeves (director), Drew Goddard (screenplay) and Abrams (producer) set out to create an American monster to match Godzilla, now firmly a Japanese citizen, seemingly forgetting that Roland Emmerich had already done this… Like Godzilla, monsters in movies have always acted as analogies for public fears – whether that is nuclear radiation, global pollution, or terrorism – and Cloverfield is no exception. They simultaneously prey on the anxieties of the audience and offer a release from these – after all, Godzilla is not a nuclear bomb, just an unbelievable, destructive, figment of the imagination. The standard “any similarity to actual events is unintentional” line in the credits actually feels false here – if a symbol of fear knocking down skyscrapers in New York isn’t meant, on some level, to be an intentional metaphor for 9/11, then pass the conspiracy theory Kool-Aid.
Our leads make the interesting decision to ignore all safety advice and go to the roof of the party’s apartment block to see if they can see more. And they do see more – they see a massive explosion raining fire and stone down on Manhattan. Now it seems almost certain that America is under attack (correct!) and that a bomb has been set off (wrong!). We get caught up in the panicky stampede to escape, as buildings collapse; chaos and a frantic energy reign as the emergency kicks in. Out on the streets, the aforementioned beheaded statue, symbol of all that Americans hold dear, smashes off buildings and comes to a grinding halt in the road. People emerge from the clouds of debris, walking slowly, stranded in the street, shellshocked, in scenes which vividly recall 9/11. The dust is far from settled, the fear is truly here, and we are still yet to see our monster.
During this panic and confusion, the camera is dropped and lies on its side still recording until it is rescued by the appropriately-named Hud, the main cameraman of the story (as well as frequent actual cameraman on set). He explains that he’s going to keep filming because people are going to want to know what happened, which justifies the continual recording and found-footage nature as evidence-archiving. Throughout the film you see many different cameras and camera phones, as you would expect in reality. Any event, be it a concert or a road traffic accident, is subject to recording now that cameras are in the pocket of a vast number of people, meaning that multiple angles of this event would likely be being filmed in real time. This is established from the start and has even been mooted as a possible source of sequel material. The night we are about to watch happened to thousands of people – what stories would their footage tell? Imagine, as you watch Cloverfield, if you could follow an intrepid news reporter looking for the best footage, or the military as they attempt to stop the rampage – the possibilities are endless, but that is a point this movie wants to make without making that this movie. A sequel’s recurring monster attack is often seen as being too rinse-and-repeat, but the same attack from another angle? That’s got potential, although sadly we may be waiting a long time on that one.
The first hint that this is a monster is a hulking shadow, shrouded in smoke as it passes a gap between soon-to-be-razed skyscrapers. We are left, like the trembling crowds, to piece together a puzzle from different audio and visual clues. We don’t know what we saw, they don’t know what they saw – some say it’s alive, some say it is huge, some say it was eating people. News reports on TVs show other angles, and now it is certain, even if only through glimpses, that the city is facing some terrible and never-before-seen creature. Time to turn tail and run. The movie’s creators have said that their monster is freaked out by its new environment, and could actually be a baby looking for its mother – perhaps the New Yorkers should be grateful that the parent doesn’t turn up. As a result of its confusion, the monster is thrashing around wildly, and this leads to disaster for our central group and sets them on a new course.
If it weren’t for an attack on the Brooklyn Bridge, killing fleeing civilians including Rob’s brother, Rob would not have been able to respond to his lost love’s cry for help; Beth is in trouble, and Rob wants to save her. He couldn’t save his brother and he has seen and felt the damage that loss has caused. The group heads away from the evacuation, back towards the monster in Midtown. The death has forced them to confront the unreal reality of their situation, leading them to think about the last things they said to loved ones. At this point it becomes apparent that it doesn’t matter that the most we have seen of the monster is its tail; monster movies are rarely about the monsters, focusing instead on fathers and sons, or lovers separated by the attack.
Caught in the firing-line as the military try and fail to repel the invaders, uselessly unleashing the full firepower of the infantry on the main monster and the hundreds of smaller, dog-sized, vicious parasites which drop off it, we are given a startling face-on view of the monster for the first time, mid battle-cry, forcing the group underground. Looking back on it they must have realised it was a bad idea to try walking to Beth’s apartment through subway tunnels, for what do they find in the pitch black, with spooky sounds echoing off the walls and rats fleeing en masse? In a terrifying night-vision reveal, the camcorder unveils that the tunnels are filled with things that go beyond bump in the night. As they run for their lives, the moment of high tension is interspersed jarringly with clips from Rob and Beth’s day out at Coney Island as the camera switches off and on, the change in scene as shocking as the contrast between this night of horror and their day of joy.
As the friends emerge from the darkness of the tunnels into the dazzling brightness of a shopping mall, and finally out into the night, they are another team member down, in a grizzly and too-good-to-spoil death. They have made it. The streets here are abandoned – a ghostly horse and cart trots slowly by as if in some ghoulish nightmare – but they have made it to Beth against all odds, and they even make it to an evacuation helicopter – the happy ending we have come so often to expect from Hollywood. As they rise into the sky we get a good look at the monster as a bombing run begins, explosions running up its back and felling it. But just when you think it is all over, a limb lunges out of the smoke and tears the chopper out of the sky to land where it all began – Central Park.
The camera remains on the ground, unable to capture the action for some time, as the survivors of the crash landing struggle from the wreckage. Military radio confirms the target is still active and that the “Hammerdown” protocol – razing the city in a final attempt to stop the creature – is coming. As you’d hope, the survivors start to run, leaving the camera to watch the wreckage. But Hud comes back for us, which turns out to have been a fatal mistake. Pan up for the mother of all monster-moneyshots, looking more than a little like the M.U.T.O. monsters of the latest Godzilla – the viewer is treated to the full view of the creature inspecting us and then lunging in. That sound you hear? That is us, or at least our eyes into this catastrophe, being eaten. Hud’s mangled body is dropped to the ground, leaving the camcorder’s autofocus to flit between the gross and the grass.
Cloverfield ends with Rob and Beth, separated lovers at the start, alone but together, hiding under a bridge in the park. The war wages on, above and beside them. In a callback to the opening party they deliver their final messages to the camera before the sirens start. But the message from the film is that love conquers all; even if they are defeated by the monster or the bombings, they are together at the end and that’s what matters. Their last intelligible words are “I love you.” When the camera is buried by a massive blast, it cuts for a final visit to Coney Island, a moment of peace at the end of an 80-minute rollercoaster. We never know the monster’s origins, we never know its fate. All we have is one group of friends’ snapshot into a night of destruction, a drop in the ocean of this story – but boy is it a good story.
“We’ve got like three seconds left. What do you want to say?”
“Um… I had a good day.”