Dir. Matt Reeves. Starring Michael Stahl-David, T.J. Miller, Odette Yustman
There are so many movies which really only have forty minutes of material and which stretch on for two hours or so. (Here’s a perfectly random example: I just watched The Lion in Winter, which is 135 minutes, and I’d say forty or so were interesting.) Cloverfield is an unusual movie because it has forty minutes of interesting material in an eighty-four minute package, and it seems like there should have been just a little more to fill the picture when it was already so succinct. The overall effect, structurally, is like watching a runner who has only ever trained for the 400m decide to run the 800m. You can feel the moment when the movie starts to heave and choke for air, and that kind of hands-on-hips pause is like death for a movie, almost 1920s short, which needs to make every minute count. It’s a shame, because through the first hour I enjoyed Cloverfield and in its final act it focuses entirely on plot cleanup. There are some classic horror setups in that first hour, so much so that you can see the storyboard. While walking through a dark subway tunnel, one character feels rats up against her leg. Looks like they’re running from something, someone says. Hey, doesn’t this camcorder have night vision? They turn the night vision on, turn around, and poof, little monsters. It’s predictable enough to be almost comforting, but there’s a satisfying enough payoff on the whole.
The shaky camera is Cloverfield, pure and simple. As much as the thin plot itself, the film can’t possibly go past ninety minutes because after that it’s hard to believe that anyone could watch the movie. Perhaps the popular imagination of the movie, for those who have and haven’t seen it, is a little excessive; there are many breaks within the film in which the camera is in fact relatively still. I admired Reeves’ patience in one moment when we see, from Hud’s (Miller) perspective, a group of people gathering around the severed head of the Statue of Liberty in the middle of the street. The camera is surprisingly still in that moment as it takes in the staggering consequences of the moment; Hud is a motormouth, the movie’s consistent comic relief, and here he doesn’t have a single word to say. It’s easily the closest Cloverfield comes to moving, and it’s certainly among the most thoughtful bits of the film. Cloverfield is as much a 9/11 allegory as Godzilla was about Fat Man and Little Boy, and in that moment, after an enormous dust cloud has swept the avenue and an iconic American structure lies in the street, we can see the beginnings of the fear and grief that 9/11 spawned. Dialogue, for fifteen minutes and more, is entirely in the mode of “What is that?” and “What do we do now?” and “Where do we go?” and “I can’t believe s/he’s dead.” Cloverfield imagines a scenario which is so unpredictable, ridiculous unless you’re living inside of it, and because there’s no way to prepare for it there’s no way to live in it decisively.
The film begins with a lengthy party sequence in which characters are introduced and a rumor spreads. It turns out that the tape Hud is using is one that Rob (Stahl-David) treasures because it has a record of his surprising night with Beth (Yustman) followed by their day trip to Coney Island. When Rob’s brother is killed on the Brooklyn Bridge by one flailing limb of the creature, there’s a stampede to safety. At the end of it, Rob has to lean up against a Sephora, catching his breath, finally processing the fact that his brother has been wiped off the face of New York. The quotidian is disrupted in a way that feels much more likely than it does in, say, The Avengers, in which New York finds itself under a similarly frightening siege. In much the same way that 9/11 became synonymous for terror, a signification that no longer has other meaning for most Americans, we find how May 22 will take on a similar meaning in the world of Cloverfield. This is a movie which not only has a sense of history, but decides to emphasize that sense of history in its own world. Somewhere in the course of the night, Hud seems to realize that he can’t put the camera down even if carrying it around is inconvenient or even counterproductive. He knows that he’s making a document which will matter to someone decades on. That sense of history carries over to its existence as a film, too. The Statue of Liberty is decapitated to lie at rest in the street, Escape from New York-style. Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) explodes after being injured by one of scurrying little monsters, a death that is not unlike watching the alien pop out of John Hurt’s torso. Cloverfield is Godzilla without the geopolitical commentary, but the movie at least makes little nods at Japan: Rob is moving to Japan for work, there’s a little shot of a Japanese flag during the party, and Hud makes an offhand comment about whether or not the monster is the product of the something the U.S. government has done.
Cloverfield replaces geopolitical commentary with socioeconomic commentary, which probably isn’t purposeful but which comes off well enough. Rob’s apartment is in Manhattan and looks to be the single biggest apartment in the world; goodness knows how many of his party guests, presumably of the same social stratum, survive the night. The small group of survivors, by now limited to Rob, Hud, and Lily (Jessica Lucas), finally makes their way to the abandoned section of Manhattan where her apartment is. To get into her building, they have to go up through the one next to hers, as they’ve fallen together. In the lobby they see the remains of a chandelier. Before the monster, this was an obviously opulent place to live. Now it’s the place where they take the elevator as far as it will go before walking out onto the exterior of one building to get inside the other. The movie depicts the monster’s disruption of everything, but for us in the audience it is primarily the disruption of the urban haute bourgeoisie. Cloverfield doesn’t push this reading very far, but it’s certainly there.
Where the movie ultimately falls flat is a failure of scripting. As obviously foolish as Rob’s quest to find Beth is, it gives the movie a reason to focus on this group of characters, and it makes their journey mean more than mere survival. We see, a block or two away, a large column of people surrounded by the military moving to the place where they’ll eventually be evacuated; Rob, Hud, Lily, and Marlena go in the opposite direction. The issue is that the movie makes finding Beth into its end-all be-all. When they do find her, it’s a letdown. She’s there, for one thing, still alive by virtue of the fact that she’s been impaled on a rebar. I was fully prepared for her to die in front of Rob, which would have been relatively satisfying. Instead, the three survivors pull her off of the rebar (which is also kind of satisfying, in a pleasantly gross way) so she can run around New York with them. (Somehow this feels more unrealistic than watching a giant monster smash up Manhattan, but I’m not a doctor of medicine or scripts.) For the rest of the movie, even though there are moments which I suppose are designed to be spectacular, it feels like a long slog to the end. The movie was not made for Rob and Beth and the rest of these nice yuppies to survive; it was made for Rob and Beth to find each other once again, a task it completes much too soon.