Anyone could make a movie about an event that changes us for the worst: that bad phone-call, that bad diagnosis. These are monsters that wreak havoc on our lives. Even yesterday, with all its petty complaints and insecurities, might look like paradise through the barbed wire of today. What makes Cloverfield special is not how well it presents the monster (it’s queasily unframed through a run-time that at 84 minutes miraculously manages to feel long enough to be merciful). It’s special because it never loses sight of yesterday. It’s one of the only monster films I’ve ever seen that has a psyche.
The point-of-view shot was made for cheap horror. It scares the person in the theater seat, rather than the one on-screen. It victimizes you to that claustrophobic 35 mm box, a clever alternative to writing compelling characters, which Cloverfield avoids on purpose. It avoids it so hard it makes it an art – unlike the Friday the 13th films, which are actually not compelling, the Cloverfield people become more empathetic through mundanity. They are so uninteresting that they must be real. This is how director Matt Reeves weaponizes the handheld camera that other found footage films trivialize into a gimmick. The film’s psyche comes from the use of it as a mentality rather than just as a medium: it is a monster film cobbled together out of average reactions, rather than the fantasy of big-budget actions.
So the military, which have always been so intrusively important in Godzilla films, are aloof and impotent in Cloverfield, dying in the background from a threat they can’t handle. And since the protagonist isn’t a stolid jughead fighting the monster in a robot suit, there’s no guarantee that they – the uptown yuppies, the military, New York – will even survive this disaster. Our view is from the people getting trampled, who are so comparatively small that if they see the monster it’s only in glimpses of a part too small to discern the whole. This is scary by the medium of sight alone. It requires no gag, no timing except what is already provided by imagination. At one point, the monster (I’ll call her a “her” and I’ll call her “Clover”) is just a Godzilla-esque tail thrashing a bridge. At another, she’s a strange prehensile foot at the end of a praying mantis arm that arcs out of view. At still another, she’s four jaws and bug eyes warbling menacingly like a clicking cicada mixed with whale song. How many tongues does she have? As in those overstated Grecian monster myths, it could be a thousand.
The film occurs script-less before our eyes (you almost want to have your own set of brakes to stop and process the impromptu tragedies, like one of those nervous driving instructors). T.J. Miller plays Hud, who is the self-proclaimed documenter of Rob’s (Michael Stahl-David) last night in New York. Hud’s viewpoint I’ll describe as awed amusement: he’s a monster junkie (who never says “Godzilla” probably for copyright reasons) and a basically nice guy. He’d chase skirts if he thought they’d let him (at one point he looms up to a girl at a bar and swoons from her view just before he can nerve up to her). One of the secrets to the generally pleasant reception of a film that gave people vertigo in the theater is that Cloverfield is, unexpectedly, T.J. Miller’s movie.
Hud films with a camera that Rob had used the previous week when he playfully documented his last day with Beth (Odette Yustman) before his new job in Japan came between them. The tragedy latent in Cloverfield comes by literalizing the celluloid of the camcorder: when Hud turns it off to clean the lens or run without distractions we, who are watching this on playback, see parts of Rob’s perfect day with the perfect girl. This is the ephemera in Cloverfield that elevates it. By memorializing normal life in these clips, the film becomes not about what the monster is doing, but what it’s cost us to find out. This should happen more often in the film because it’s the best idea that Reeves and writer Drew Goddard (known now for the new Planet of the Apes films and The Cabin in the Woods, respectively) can come up with. The rest is the release of the wind-up of their concept and they almost seem to have no sense of where it’s all going.
This is particularly true of the cinematography itself, which to be more realistic is never framed. The real experiment in Cloverfield is not the brilliant concept or the implosion of secretive marketing, but making a film without making one, a goal worthy of Roger Corman. Hud is no director and proves something rather startling. We all knew that meticulously constructed suspense would beat an actor pretending to be a real person pointing a camcorder at just whatever. But what I wasn’t prepared for was how much better Cloverfield is than the average summer horror film, by pointing at just whatever.
The footage is literally found in this case: the opening is an archival plate that stamps the film with a serial number and calls it case evidence in a file on “Project Cloverfield,” recovered in the area “formerly known as Central Park.” This is diabolically unnerving. Not only do we know that the problem of the film will be solved (if people remain to document it), but also that it will come at a cost too drastic to praise.
This film lurked in the depths of Wiki pages for what felt like a long time before surfacing, and its strategy to continue the conversation was to answer no questions. Dude-bros in the film consider that Clover might be from the ocean or outer space, but no one knows nothing, as they say. She seems to have no goal in mind, though she does shear the head from lady Liberty and shed little baby crabs that teethe on clavicles. I make light of them because they’re genuinely silly: they cackle like a drunk jock’s impression of Donald Duck, aliens as George Lucas would make them but with the added non-committal (Cloverfield is PG-13) to blood and gore.
The pretentious secrecy of Cloverfield is intriguing, but it only lasts if the film remains believable. This is T.J. Miller’s film debut: our knowledge of him now taints the original intention to cast unknown people as unknown people, but that’s no one’s fault. What does dampen the towel Cloverfield drapes over your face (rooms feel darker and smaller when you watch it, always like the T.V. is too close) is a series of realism-deficient impressions that kept bugging me like a crab wrapped around my clavicle. A big film could outlive its details, but Cloverfield is all detail by design and injured by even tiny grievances, like pinholes in an airlock.
Why does Lily (Jessica Lucas) not remove her heels until they have to climb a skyscraper, leaving them on even for the sprint from crab monsters in the subway tunnels? Why does anyone go with Rob to save Beth when there’s a perfectly good evacuation helicopter within their reach? How is there an evacuation helicopter with room for anyone? Why does the camera never need to recharge? And how does it survive something that destroyed the Central Park in which it was found? And so on.
Cloverfield manages to encourage us to hold on to those we love and enjoy any day that isn’t the last day of our life. It manages to do so on the run, which it owes to a snappy script and Miller’s motor-mouth, his comedic tension, his well-meaning worry. It may not be monster enough to please monster fans, but at least it knows its real audience: those who think of fan-Wikis as research, who love to be right so much that they’d rather no one know what’s going on than share the knowledge with the masses. Did you think those little bugs were babies? Or did you compare their anatomy with Clover’s and deduce that they’re symbiotic lice dropping from the host to feed? If so, you are equipped to watch Cloverfield, which you cannot stop watching in your mind, so long as you’re curious about the last day of the old Hollywood, and the movie whose marketing will secretly re-color it forever.