Cloverfield (2008)

First published by musicOMH

In a Manhattan apartment, Jason Hawkins (Mike Vogel) and his fiancée Lily (Jessica Lucas) are throwing a surprise going-away party for Jason’s brother Rob (Michael Stahl-David). Rob is about to leave for a job in Japan, in spite – or perhaps because -of  his confused feelings about not-quite girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman). Jason has asked his friend Hud (T.J. Miller) to record ‘testimonials’ from all the guests on Rob’s digicam, although Hud’s attention is more focussed on Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) – but then something unforeseen and incomprehensible comes crashing into all their lives, and Hud’s video recording of the night’s events becomes a testimonial of an altogether different kind.

A huge object colliding with a skyscraper. Clouds of smoke crawling along New York streets. Desperate calls to loved ones. Frantic dashes in the stairwells of unstable buildings. Authorities scrambling to catch up with events on the ground. Devastation and death on a monumental scale. Yup, there is no doubt that Cloverfield is no less directly inflected with the events of 9/11 than Paul Haggis’ United 93 was – although if it has become a cliché to describe the collapse of the Twin Towers as ‘like something out of a movie’, then Cloverfield divides its inspiration accordingly between the real terrors of 2001 and the cinematic horrors of King Kong or Godzilla.

In fact the only thing, apart from timing, that sets Cloverfield apart from any of the countless other disaster/monster movies previously set in the Big Apple is the way in which it has been filmed. For like a host of recent, post-9/11 horror films (The Zombie Diaries[Rec]Diary of the Dead), Cloverfield masquerades as reportage, shooting its terrors entirely from the ground up by confining its visuals to footage supposedly recorded on Rob’s domestic camera. The result is a vertiginously shaky experience that will fix some viewers to the edge of their seats while making others feel sick – both responses, of course, approximating the nervy hysteria of the characters themselves, caught in the most traumatisingly monstrous of situations.

Director Matt Reeves does the best he can to squeeze from so limited a medium every imaginable variant, including tunnel scenes illuminated by the camera’s built-in spotlight and even a horrifying night-vision sequence, but had Cloverfield been any longer, it would probably have collapsed under the artificiality of its own frame. At a mere 85 minutes, however, the film races along so fast and furious that the more preposterous elements of its plot only catch up with you after the final credits roll, when you have time to contemplate the camera’s absurd robustness under the most extreme conditions or the characters’ insistence on continuing to point and shoot in circumstances where simple survival would seem a more obvious priority.

In a sense, the film’s barreling pace and uncompromising immediacy represent both the film’s best and worst assets. For as long as you are sat in the theatre, Cloverfield just does not let go, and by presenting a destructive, terrifying bugbear that it never bothers to rationalise (except, perhaps, in a cheeky last shot that many viewers will miss), the film manages to drift towards the terrain of science fiction while still leaving viewers with a sense of disorientation and confusion that never feels anything less than real.

The problem, though, is that it fails entirely to convert its sensationalist thrills into anything more substantial than a momentary monster, or to reflect in any interesting way (like George A. Romero’s superior Diary of the Dead) upon the new media that it exploits. As a consequence, no matter how gripped you may be as the queasy reels keep rolling, once the film has fully run its course there is little left to take away with you beyond rattled nerves, a mild sense of nausea, and the uneasy suspicion that the true horror of 9/11 has just been reduced to a dumb-assed entertainment.

Anton Bitel