I’d say the key moment in Cloverfield — just the very monster movie the post-9/11 world has been crying out for — occurs while a giant creature of unknown origin lays spectacular waste to New York City, and one of the characters screams: “I AM SEEING THIS SHIT RIGHT NOW!”
Cloverfield, from Alias and Lost creator JJ Abrams, isn’t so much about what we’re seeing, but how we’re seeing it. We’re watching a film of film assembled by the US government from found camcorder footage following a devastating attack on Manhattan. It’s a naggingly tricksy, metatextual device, and given how prominent Youtube, camera phones and Big Brother are in our shiny new media culture, it gives a big, fat zeitgeisty spin to the hoary old teens-in-peril/monster movie set-up. Which, essentially, is what Cloverfield is.
Chances are, if you have access to the Internet, you’ve already come across Cloverfield. As with The Blair Witch Project and Snakes On A Plane, the film makers have deployed all manner of viral marketing campaigns to whip fanboys into a froth, launching dummy websites, MySpace profiles, teaser trailers and, most recently, they’ve put on the web five minutes of footage from the film. Chat rooms and magazines (both online and of the dead tree variety) have feverishly attempted to decipher clues about the film: is it a remake of South Korean film The Host or an adaptation of an HP Lovecraft story, even a spin-off from Lost? Or is it, um, just a teens-in-peril monster movie with a gimmicky marketing strategy?
There is something achingly “now” about the whole thing. Whether it’s a statement on our increasing status as “observers” rather than “participants”, or simply a bunch of pony-tailed film execs in Hollywood reinforcing their hip credentials, it’s actually very hard to tell. There’s one scene during the initial attack, explosions rocking downtown Manhattan, people running screaming into the streets, when what looks like a large rock smashes into the sidewalk, crushing cars as it lands. It’s the head of the Statue of Liberty no less and, in the middle of all this chaos, people stop panicking, take out their mobile phones and start taking pictures as if they’re snapping their mate mooning out of the window of a 38 bus. I laughed, but I have to admit I don’t know whether this was a deliberate attempt at ironic humour on the part of Abrams and his team.
A minor digression, if you’ll permit. I went on holiday to Florence a few years ago, and was struck by how many tourists were either taking photos or filming with camcorders the gold doors of the Cathedral’s Baptistery. They weren’t actually looking directly at these primo examples of finely-wrought Renaissance artistry, but experiencing them one step removed from the reality, life seen through a lens.
Anyway, this is pretty much how we see Cloverfield. The film is shot on a camcorder held by Hud (TJ Miller), a twentysomething initially entrusted to film testimonials at the going away party held by a group of friends in honour of Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), who’s off for a new life in Japan. As New York is swiftly reduced to rubble, we follow Hud and his trusty camcorder, Rob, his brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and Jason’s girlfriend Lilly (Jessica Lucas) as they head towards Central Park to find Beth (Odette Yustman), the object of Rob’s desires.
Along the way, we get references to Alien, Escape From New York, King Kong and – most pertinently – news footage of the 9/11 terror attacks and reportage filmed in warzones ranging from Kabul to Baghdad. There’s even something in the way that each of the characters addresses the camera directly during the party sequence, leaving messages of good luck for Rob, that rather uncomfortably calls to mind those to-camera biographies suicide bombers record before setting off to blow up buses in the Occupied Territories.
Early on, we see a shot of people running (there’s a lot of running in this film) as a building collapses in the distance, a wall of dust and smoke rolling at surprising speed down the street. The sequence riffs on amateur footage of terrified New Yorkers trying to outrun similar detritus as the World Trade Center towers fell.
Later, as the army unleash an artillery assault on the creature, our plucky teen survivors cower in the gutters, as you’ve seen countless innocent Afghan and Iraqi citizens attempt to shield themselves during military skirmishes on the news.
“Maybe the government made this thing,” someone suggests while pontificating on the creature’s origin, echoing those bedsit conspiracy fantasists who spend hours on the Web trying to gather enough evidence to prove the CIA were behind 9/11.
Of course, as this film is shot first person, we have no context for what’s going on – what the creature is, where it came from. We’re locked solely into the plight of this group as they make their danger-filled way across Manhattan, through the subway and streets in flame. In fact, at a brisk 85 minutes, it’s almost impossible to stop and think during the film, it’s so loud, relentless and breathless. Had it been any longer, you suspect, and you would certainly start questioning some of the weaker elements of the film. The brain-dead dialogue, the two-dimensional characterisations, the eyebrow raising feats of impossible daring our group undertake on crucial occasions.
And, anyway, why do belligerent alien bugs on a mission to squish us puny humans always make a bee-line for America? What sort of persecution complex is at work here? Why not the genteel suburban climes of Banstead slimed by some giant extra-terrestrial gastropod, or the splendid dry stone walling of the Cotswolds trashed like Lego blocks under the scaly feet of a 80ft high Gila monster?
I guess Cloverfield is a technically very clever film, a smart summation of the way the digital native culture consumes and circulates information. Ain’t It Cool’s Harry Knowles has rather excitably called it a “milestone in film”, and those good folks over at Empire have given it a full five stars.
But I can’t quite shake the rather nagging suspicion I was watching The Blair Witch Project for the happy slapper generation.
Cloverfield opens February 1 in the UK
The official website is here