I remember the first time I saw Cloverfield like it was yesterday… As I holed up in a sizable screen in Leicester Square for a midday showing, I noticed that the screening I had caught was far too early to have a full crowd (try about 7 people) but nevertheless I settled down to watch this collision of the Kaiju and Found Footage genres.
I’m not quite sure what I was expecting; Found Footage movies where somewhat of a mixed bag that usually got their power from what they didn’t show you, whereas your average giant monster movie positively revels in it’s money shot moments of huge beasts making cityscapes crumble like an over-dunked biscuit – could the two things possibly align? The answer, clearly heard above the screaming and explosions, was not only a resounding “hell yes”, but in my opinion resulted in undoubtedly one of the greatest American kaiju movie ever made.
As camcorder footage retrieved from some sort of mystery event unspools, we are introduced to a cast of twenty-somethings as they bustle around trying to put together a farewell party for Rob, who has secured a new job in Japan. As brother Jason, his girlfriend Lilly and his best friend Hudson (aka. Hud) bicker about who will take the camera around the party taking testimonials, Rob is having relationship issues with Beth, as their friendship has recently entered the next level. However, before this all has a chance to sort itself out, a massive explosion rocks everyone out of their melodrama and news reports claim something has climbed out of the ocean and marked it’s territory by hurling the head of the Statue Of Liberty in land like a god damn shot put. As this gangly limbed monster starts literally throwing it’s weight around, the gang, along with friend of a friend Marlena, try to evacuate Manhattan island only to have the aimless creature wreck the bridge they’re on. Worse yet, Rob gets a call from Beth, who had left the party early and is currently lying wounded in her apartment across town and in an effort to make things up to her, sets off through the deserted city with Lily and Hud in order to save her – but as the military tries in vain to subdue the gargantuan thing that’s rampaging through the city like a drunk raging incoherently in a 7-11 at three in the morning, can the friends possibly get out of dodge in time?
Much like The Blair Witch Project, which also was released under a veil of secrecy thicker than an elephant’s hide, it’s easy to forget how much a big deal Cloverfield’s release was. Trailers appeared with no pre release, leaving audiences to wonder what the hell Cloverfield was actually about and an esoteric viral campaign was launched covering such random items as a fake soft drink featured named Slusho. Now, this level of mysterious is to be expected from anything that has anything to do with J.J. Abrams (here producing) but at the time it was revolutionary and thankfully the film delivered.
Having an unfeasibly pretty cast playing a clique who are going through relationship issues only to have their plans literally stomped on by a giant monster may initially sound like Friends vs Godzilla, but in channeling the spectre of 9/11, Cloverfield seems to be seeking the same social catharsis as the original Godzilla provided in 1954 for a nation still stinging from the bombing of Hiroshima. The images of New Yorkers coated in white dust staggering dazed in the streets are horribly familiar and give the movie far more gravity than the usual Kaiju romp that we’ve had since Ishiro Honda cast his camera over Godzilla survivors dying of radiation poisoning.
As grim as this all sounds, director Matt Reeves (who went on to finish up the Planet Of The Apes franchise in style and is currently rebooting The Batman) keeps things fast, exciting and, most surprising of all, pretty fucking scary – something giant monster movies rarely achieve. The scattered glimpses of the collossal city stomper are genuinely unnerving as the camera wielding Hud just can’t quite get it into frame and having a having a first person view of ground zero of a monster attack had never been done on this scale before and proved to be completely overwhelming – especially considering the cinema I first saw it at had the sound up way too high.
The monster designs are awesomely gnarly with “Clover” (the filmmaker’s affectionate name for the marauding beastie) giving us many “what the fuck is that!” moments before it’s final act reveal and for bonus points, the gurgling, insect-like parasites that drop from it’s carcass and attack people with their toxic mandables score the scariest scene in the movie thanks to a spidery close-encounter in a subway tunnel.
Despite the (deliberate) restrictions Found Footage movies often place on their visuals, Cloverfield manages to still find a way to still give us the hefty scenes of destruct-o-porn that a good monster movie demands and while there’s plenty of shakey-cam doing the rounds, the film also knows when to pause on an image to get maximum effect. Clover’s tail remodels the Brooklyn Bridge with devastating effect and the filmmakers recreate the iconic Escape From New York poster by drastically relocating the bonce of lady liberty and every single glimpse of the lanky armed Kaiju is shot as if you’re actually there which is unique in a genre where every long shot has to be a helicopter shot considering your leading man is the same size a Grand Central Station.
The leads, made up of a bunch of recognizable face early in their careers, include Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, Mike Vogel and the sarcastic drawl of T.J. Miller but all of them do well in the realms of running from toppling buildings and whatnot.
As much as the movie borrows off the original Godzilla (stick around during the credits for an awsome Akira Ifukube inspired Kaiju theme by Michael Giacchino), Cloverfield has proven to be pretty influential itself, ushering in a gritty, realistic look for giant creature features that was adopted by Gareth Edward’s for his 2014 crack at the Big G – not to mention the hyper realistic politics of 2016 Shin Godzilla.
Some of you may be surprised by how much I’m gushing about this movie; but as a life long fan of the genre, Cloverfield was a very familiar concept done in a way that not only hadn’t I seen before, but also put me in the middle of a monster invasion in a way I’d never experienced before.
Outstanding in it’s (Clover)field.