Cloverfield: 9/11 meets Godzilla
With its wobbly camera work and spoilt-twentysomethings storyline, Hollywood’s new monster movie leaves one shaken but not stirred.
‘People are going to want to see this. They are going to want to see how it all went down.’ This is the response of Hud, Cloverfield’s sole cameraman, to the question of why he doesn’t stop recording and concentrate on running. After all, a monster – huge, peeved and with one angry tail – is currently on the lash. But no, such is Hud’s commitment to citizen journalism, he is determined to video as New York burns.
Insofar as the jerking, strobing camera work sets Cloverfield apart (see trailer below), Hud, frequently intoning droll bufoonerisms, is the real star of the piece. Providing his journalistic subject matter are Rob and his would-be beloved Beth, surly Marlena, Jason, Lily, and, of course, a monster. The latter doesn’t actually make an appearance until about a third of the way through, but, after 25 minutes in the company of Hud’s buddies, you’ll be relieved when it does. Up until this point we’re subjected to footage initially of Beth and Rob, before it cuts to a recording of Rob’s leaving party a month later where he and Beth are decidedly chilly towards one another, a problem not helped by Beth’s decision to bring a new boyfriend to the dull do. Beth has enough and departs in a huff.
So far, so OC-lite. Luckily, just as the party starts to tax even the most ardent of Live Big Brother fans, the monster finally makes its appearance by lobbing the head of the Statue of Liberty into lower Manhattan. Now that’s an entrance. The party ends, chaos and confusion ensue, and Rob, accompanied by cast and camera, sets out to rescue Beth who’s lost and hurt somewhere in Manhattan.
Sadly for Hud and his band of the blandly beautiful, we’ve seen ‘how it all went down’ before. Or at least bits of it. Godzilla, War of the Worlds, Escape from New York, Alien: all make noticeable contributions to Cloverfield. Even the shaky handheld camera work of poor Hud recalls The Blair Witch Project a little too easily, or so many of the film’s critics would have you believe. But, above all, Cloverfield is a film that pilfers its resonance from 9/11. And it’s at this point that the déjà vu is transformed into something like its opposite: namely, a half-lit insight into the apocalyptic aspect of the contemporary Western imagination.
This, I should add, is not to damn the film with pompous praise. Rather, it’s to point out that Cloverfield does draw on 9/11, just not in the way that many have suggested. In short, 9/11 features less as a literal source, a visual checklist if you like, and more as a figure of the end, an image of the apocalypse.
Yes, the elements of the attack on the Twin Towers are, at points, all too palpable. The dust and debris billowing down the streets can’t help but invoke its immediate aftermath, while the handheld camera footage is reminiscent of the mobile phone footage prevalent at the time. But in the fictional context of Cloverfield, the literal elements become figurative. 9/11 becomes a mere image of the end, just as the monster itself is no more than a figure of the antichrist. In this sense, Cloverfield is a movie that belongs to the ‘age of terror’, rehearsing and replaying the pre-history of the epoch in which catastrophe becomes not simply imminent, but immanent. Just as the opening credits for the film studio and production company are permeated by a growing, thudding boom, every temporal moment is pregnant with ‘the End’, be it ecological, terrorist, or, in this case, a very bad Loch Nessie.
Not that any of this is apparent in the first 25 minutes or so. Instead, we see Rob strolling around a high-rise apartment belonging to Beth’s dad, before we then see him feed her the obligatory strawberries. Sensuous stuff. The following 20 minute focus, in the main, on Rob’s leaving party a month later and this is the point at which the camcorder perspective becomes interesting. For the monster’s attack is not only seen entirely from a panicky individual’s vantage point, but from within a particular twentysomething milieu.
This is why the party sequence is so extended. It’s not sympathy being elicited, but antipathy. We’re encouraged to see their conversation as fatuous, their indulgence as undeserved, and their self-absorption as unthinking narcissism. Indeed, never has a generation taken so many pictures of itself on a night out. But more importantly, we see in the searing complacency of their spoilt lives an existence oblivious to 9/11. It’s as if it hadn’t happened. Which is precisely the point of the film’s opening.
They lack an adequate sense of crisis, an awareness of the immanent terror, and as such their lives lack urgency. Rob would rather pursue some managerial position in Japan, home of Godzilla, than get it on with Beth, clearly signposted as ‘the one’. This is a portrait of decadence, a will-to-nothing-very-much manifest in the under-motivated, under-determined nature of their lives. It is adolescence arrested by the lack of anything towards which to strive. Moreover, it’s the begining of the age of terror in miniature, a period of numbed self-absorption that invites the day of reckoning. In other words, it evokes a time before 9/11. The critics’ gleefully evinced ‘they deserve it’ sentiment acquires a different meaning in this context.
The moment the head of the Statue of Liberty comes rolling down the street on a wave of dust and debris comes, then, as a moment of awakening. To live, misquoting Karl Jaspers, is to live in crisis. And just like that, the key protagonist, Rob, suddenly conscious of that which matters, sets out to rescue beautiful Beth. Catastrophe can prove a galvanising force it seems.
The lack of tension apparent in what should be a terrifying journey is more than compensated for by the massively disconcerting camera work. But it is a lack of tension, nonetheless, and as such has significance. The disaster here does not promise renovation – there is nothing at stake, nothing to be renewed – hence it does not bring forth heroism on a world historical scale. This is no Independence Day. It merely brings a little purpose to the everyday nihilism of an affluent twentysomething New Yorker.
Insofar as Cloverfield erases and then reinvents the figure of the contemporary apocalypse as the corrective to decadence, it is one of the most interesting disaster movies in yonks. And in doing so, it does something else: it recreates 9/11 not as documentary fodder, or cheap symbolism, but as myth.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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