Back in 2008, before J.J. Abrams became world-famous for directing such massively successful films as 2009’s Star Trek and last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he teamed up with Matt Reeves, the director of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Drew Goddard, the writer of The Cabin in the Woods to create a found footage film disaster-thriller following a group of friends who find themselves trapped in the ruined city of Manhattan during the destructive attack of an unknown giant monster. Cloverfield was released in January of 2008 and received generally positive reviews from critics and audiences alike.
The movie stars a group of unknown actors, some of whom have gone on to become bigger names in Hollywood, particularly T.J. Miller, who currently stars on Silicon Valley, and Lizzy Caplan, who, previously to this film, appeared in 2004’s Mean Girls, and currently stars on Masters of Sex. Miller plays the role of Hud, our cameraman who records the entirety of the night’s events. The film begins with Hud being given the responsibility of recording testimonials from party guests at a surprise going-away party for his friend Rob, who’s moving to Japan for a work promotion. During the party, Rob gets into a fight with his friend Beth, who then leaves the party abruptly.
Hud and Rob’s other friends know that Rob is in love with Beth and that they should try to be together before Rob has to leave.
During the party the monster’s attack begins, forcing Rob, Hud and the others to flee into the streets of Manhattan, where they are faced with the monster’s onslaught and the desperate response from the U.S. military. Instead of evacutating, Rob takes it upon himself to rescue Beth who is trapped in her apartment, and Hud and the others decide to accompany him on this journey across the city. The group of friends must work together to survive a night of horror and destruction that will test their courage and change the world as they know it forever.
Cloverfield is a movie about the emotional impact and consequences of sex. The first scene of the film is being shot by Rob in the morning after he and Beth have had sex for the first time. This sexual encounter completely changes the parameters of Rob and Beth’s friendship and neither one of them is prepared for the huge emotional step forward thathaving sex forces upon both of them.
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This causes Rob and Beth’s budding relationship to come under stress, culminating in their fight during Rob’s party. The threat towards their relationship is made manifest by the attack of the mysterious monster, which becomes a literal barrier that keeps Rob and Beth apart for a majority of the film. For Rob, the monster also represents the emotional challenge that comes with admitting his true feelings for Beth, which is something he has struggled with for years. Rob must find the courage to face this monster, and in the process, face his fear of confessing his love for Beth. “Forget the world and hang on to the people that you care about the most”. These are the last words spoken (to Rob, by his brother, Jason) in the film before the monster’s attack begins. Rob takes these words to heart, and he spends the remainder of the movie fighting to save the person he loves most, despite the impossible situation the world is throwing at him.
Like many modern action/disaster films, Cloverfield is also a commentary on 21st century paranoia in the United States and the persistent fear of outside invasion and attack. The film addresses these fears by recreating 9/11-like imagery, such as people fleeing through the streets, people covered in ash, thedestruction of skyscrapers and major New York City landmarks, paramedics and police trying to help people, etc. This grueling imagery works to reawaken the very real sense of fear and paranoia that gripped the United States on September 11th, 2001, and in the years that have followed. The monster itself is a flesh-and-blood representation of that paranoia. We don’t know where this thing came from or what it wants or how to defeat it. All we know is that it’s out there and that it means to destroy us.
A third theme that runs through Cloverfield is confession. Hud begins his documenting of the night for the sake of recording goodbye testimonials at Rob’s party. Through that we see the loving connection Rob’s friends have with him, including in a confession from Beth, who secretly cares for Rob just as he does for her. Later in the film, when asked why he is still filming everything, Hud explains that he wants people to know what really happened on this night, thereby turning his entire video into a dramatic testimonial.
The film ends with three more testimonials, the first two from Rob and Beth just before their presumed deaths. Rob and Beth address the camera directly and give their names and understandings of the nightmarish situation. These testimonials become Rob and Beth’s only way of letting the world know who they were and what they died for, which is love. The final testimonial comes after the recording has stopped and footage cuts back to the previously recorded footage of Rob and Beth’s trip to Coney Island, during which Beth admits to the camera that she has “Had a good day”. These are final words spoken in the film, a darkly ironic statement that mirrors the horrors of Beth and Rob’s final night on earth. Cloverfield is nothing if not a romantic tragedy.
The plot of the movie itself is pretty basic. It’s a Campbellian story of a hero who goes on a journey to save a princess who’s locked in a tower that’s being guarded by a fire-breathing (Or in this case, parasite-spewing) monster. It’s a story of self-realization and ascension that virtually anyone can relate to, and that’s what makes the movie work. Any person who’s ever been in love knows exactly what Rob is going through and wants to see him succeed in his journey.
The audience can also connect to Hud’s story as he attempts to get closer to Marlena (Caplan’s character), the object of his affections. In this sense Cloverfield is a movie about courage and love just as much as it is about a giant monster tearing apart Manhattan landmarks.
Found Footage Cinematography
The problems with Cloverfield begin when we examine the film as a supposedly genuine found footage document. The filming of most of the footage is simply unjustifiable, as any reasonable person caught in this situation in real life would have left the camera behind before Rob’s party had even ended. Hud is something of a creep when it comes to filming people, so in a sense that justifies some of his awkward recordings, but for the most part, his excuse of wanting to create a testament of the nights horrific proceedings proves to be just that… and excuse. Despite the mostly forced reasoning for this footage to exist, director Matt Reeves does a pretty excellent job of making the camerawork appear realistic and genuinely amateurish. During scenes where Hud is either physically or emotionally distressed, the camerawork becomes far worse, suggesting that he has lost track of his shot, just as he would in real life. What best sells Cloverfield as a supposedly real found document in the use of cut scenes dispersed throughout the film, depicting flashes of Rob and Beth’s trip to Coney Island, which is the footage Hud is recording over. This adds to the sense that Cloverfield is a homemade video that was found somewhere in the ruins of New York City, and this home video comes complete with the lost memories of victims who made it. Essentially, the best day of Rob and Beth’s life is being erased and replaced by the worst and finalday of their lives.
Found Footage Purity
In short, Cloverfield looks like a real found footage document, and the actors all sell you on that idea by being spontaneous and natural. But ultimately the film only does a moderately good job of selling itself as a genuine found footage document.
The collection of footage is simply to perfectly linear and insensibly shot, and the story itself is too perfectly cinematic to have occurred in real life, not to mention the fact that the destruction of New York City by a twenty-five story monster is something that has obviously never actually taken place. The instantly recognizable setting of Cloverfield makes the film a dead giveaway as counterfeit. On the other hand, movie’s plot is highly immersive, holding up as a solid piece of narrative filmmaking, if not a realistic piece of found footage. It’s easy to become emotionally invested in these characters and their survival. The monster itself and the conspiracies surrounding it are fascinating and immersive as well. This is a paranormal universe worth exploring and expanding upon and hopefully the upcoming pseudo-sequel 10 Cloverfield Lane, set for release this March, will do just that.
Cloverfield is not a perfect movie and may not hold up for hardcore fans of believable found footage aesthetics, but for fans of large-scale blockbuster entertainment, this movie has a lot to offer. J.J. Abrams,Matt Reeves and Drew Goddard are all huge talents who have gone on to give us great films over the past five years.
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It’s an undeniable treat to go back and revisit a film that got their careers started. Cloverfield is a science fiction epic of the same scale as Independence Day or Man of Steel, but by literally keeping the film grounded, Reeves achieves a level of first-person gritty realism that few other disaster films can ever come close to.