Review: Cloverfield (2008)

Director: Matt Reeves

****

Roland Emmerich’s 1999 disaster movie (oh, the irony) Godzilla gave us a monster movie in which the monster failed to be either a threat or interesting. Instead, we got Matthew Broderick being annoying and Jean Reno regretting not doing The Matrix. It would be nine years before director Matt Reeves (under the watchful eye of producer J.J. Abrams) erased the memory of that horror with Cloverfield, a monster movie that’s both monstrously enjoyable and monstrously relevant.

An opening title card reveals the footage we’re about to see was found in the area “formerly known as Central Park”. Not a good omen for what’s about to follow. The camcorder footage reveals a going-away party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David) in a plush Manhattan apartment. He’s about to move to Japan (a sly nod to the original Gojira), and all his friends are wishing him well and singing his praises. Frankly, these rich morons are annoying, and you wish something would crush them. Wait, what’s that noise?!

Just as character development reaches its apex, skyscrapers explode and we glimpse the most daring piece of American blockbuster film since the afore-mentioned Emmerich destroyed the White House in Independence Day. The head of the Statue of Liberty is flung onto the streets of Manhattan whilst ‘some thing’ lets out a deafening roar. Since the attacks on the World Trade Centre, New York has been left mostly unscathed by the film world. The Day After Tomorrow may have got the ball rolling, but Cloverfield taps a nerve hitherto left to fester. Watching the panicked masses running through the streets is all too reminiscent of the handheld camera shots of civilians running from the all-engulfing plume of the former Twin Towers. Meanwhile, soldiers are running and firing at the ‘thing’, whilst temporary hospital tents are manned by doctors in biohazard suits, and all this is happening as the thing tears down buildings and landmarks. The monster’s origins remain unknown and is only glimpsed in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them fragments, deepening the mystery. Being an animal, motives are presumably null. As so many people asked on 9/11, “why are they attacking us”? It’s scarier when we genuinely don’t know.

For all the familiar references to events past, Cloverfield is still a very effective piece of blockbuster cinema, with explosions and threat everywhere (like Emmerich’s monster, this one’s pregnant too. Wait till you meet the kids!). Like many other disaster films, the characters just serve as monster food/cannon fodder, and romantic and friendly subplots are so-so attempts to add emotion, but the events surrounding them are infused with such pathos and knowing that you it’s hard not to be impressed. Cloverfield is an intelligent and frightening film that effectively taps into the fear of our time.

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