Cloverfield: Big-Monster Flick, or 9/11 Allegory?, by Michael H. Price
Ringed with popular anticipation in view of its producer’s involvement with the hit teleseries Lost, director Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield proves to be something more than the moviegoing customers might have expected.
The film is an American Godzilla, and I don’t mean the bloated Hollywood Godzilla of 1998. A larger-than-life disaster film, Cloverfield addresses the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in much the same way that Inoshiro Honda’s Gojira, or Godzilla, of 1954, helped Japan to come belatedly to terms with the bombings in 1945 of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
And yes, I know: Giant-monster movies are dime-a-dozen fare, and so what do we need with another one? We don’t so much need another one, as we need somebody capable of doing one right – the way Fritz Lang did with Siegfried in 1924, or Honda with the original Godzilla. Cloverfield makes the cut, okay.
Such impossible menaces, after all, have served since ancient times to literalize humanity’s fears of threatening forces beyond reasonable control, from the Tiger Demon mythology of primeval Siam through the Germanic and British legends of Siegfried and Beowulf. (Robert Zemeckis’ 2007 version of Beowulf is more a matter of digital-effects overkill than of mythological resonance.)
Never mind that the American movie-import market had treated the 1954 Godzilla as merely another creature-feature extravaganza, drive-in escapism with trivialized English-language insert-footage and enough re-editing to diminish the myth-making allegory. In its authentic Japanese cut, Godzilla is a national epic on a par with Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai – same year, same studio. It took a while for America to catch on: The fire-breathing creature known as Godzilla is the A-bomb, re-imagined in mythological terms.
Yes, and it takes time for the popular culture to get a grip on a real-world disaster. Hollywood dealt at first with the 9/11 destruction of New York’s World Trade Center by dodging the issue, then gradually addressing the loss in such lifelike dramas as Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002), whose allusions to Ground Zero pointed toward an explicit depiction of the crisis in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2006). There have been other such striking examples – but you get the idea.
Producer J.J. Abrams has shaped Cloverfield (due next week) as a New York-under-siege story that catches its characters as thoroughly off-guard as the 9/11 attacks caught civilization-at-large. Its major-studio distribution deal aside, Cloverfield radiates the spontaneous, searching attitude one expects from an independent production. The swath of destruction is immense, but the viewpoint feels intimately personalized. The counterpart to the collapse of the World Trade Center is a combination of generalized devastation with a singularly unpleasant fate for a still more iconic landmark – the Statue of Liberty.
An ensemble cast of little-known players, including Black Donnellys supporting actor Michael Stahl-David and The Class’ Lizzy Caplan, likewise enhances the indie-movie texture. Director Reeves, though a busy television-series talent in recent years, remains best known as a feature-filmmaker for 1996’s The Pallbearer, an ordinary-people drama heavily in the debt of Mike Nichols’ career-defining film of 1967,The Graduate.
Taking a cue from such tales-of-terror benchmarks as Robert Bloch’s 1951 short story “Notebook Found in a Deserted House” and Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’ The Blair Witch Project (1999), Cloverfield hangs upon the discovery of an abandoned video camera in the wake of a catastrophe. The camera’s operator appears to have been shooting a festive private occasion – only to be distracted by a breaking-news report involving a capsized ship.
A gigantic creature proves responsible. The situation proves urgent in short order as the attack moves inland. With the understanding that there is not much dramatic impact to be derived from a force of nature as large as a skyscraper and as impersonally menacing as a hurricane, Reeves and screenwriter Drew Goddard concentrate upon fearful anticipation and individual misadventures more so than upon the source of the threat. On a ghastlier near-human scale, the creature appears to be afflicted with parasites that serve to compound the terrors.
Cinematographer Michael Bonvillain renders persuasive the illusion of watching a video-camera document. Viewers predisposed to motion sickness may find the darting, frenzied images too convincing. Few amateur videographers, however, could manage such consistently smart visual-narrative compositions. Well-placed flashbacks ground the situation in a plausible reality: The better such movies aren’t actually about the cause of all that extravagant desperation – they’re about the human response, and about the combined fragility and resourcefulness that define the species.
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price’s Forgotten Horrors series of movie-history books is available from Midnight Marquee Press. Price’s new-movie commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com.