By Don Simpson | March 2, 2009
Director: Matt Reeves
Writer(s): Drew Goddard
Staring: Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, TJ Miller
In 1954, the original Godzilla was released. Created as a metaphor for the United States – viewed by many in Japan (and worldwide) as a nuclear monster in the wake of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 – Godzilla masterfully represented the fear in a society after undergoing an atrociously inhumane (and environmentally detrimental) act by such a powerful, relentless and seemingly indestructible beast. The word Godzilla is actually an Americanization of the monster’s correct name: Gojira; although Gojira resembled a Tyrannosaurus Rex, the name is from the Japanese words gorira (gorilla) and kujira (whale). Got that? Good. I’m moving on…
While visiting toy stores with his son during a recent visit to Tokyo, producer J.J. Abrams noticed the large quantity and variety of Godzilla toys. He decided that the U.S. needed a Godzilla to call their very own – thus, the conception of Cloverfield. We all know what happened in New York City (not to mention Washington D.C. & rural Pennsylvania) on September 11, 2001 – in fact, we are constantly reminded of it every time “Rudy” Giuliani makes a campaign speech. For Abrams’ take on the Godzilla monster, it only makes sense that the monster would attack Manhattan – thus building upon the fear, anxiety and hopelessness experienced during 9/11 when Manhattan was terrorized by an unknown enemy for unknown reasons.
A difference between 1945 and 2001 is that the 9/11/2001 attacks were immediately photographed and recorded by every Tom, Dick and Harry’s cell phone and MiniDV camcorder. Cloverfield cleverly toys with the notion that everyone is holding a piece of recording technology in the palm of their hands by telling the story via a found video tape (insert comparisons to Blair Witch Project here) recovered from a site formerly known as Central Park. At this point you are supposed to ask: how and why is this tape in the hands of the government and what the hell happened to Central Park? (Thus begins the unanswered questions.)
Cloverfield starts off totally unassuming. The handheld video footage alternates between the pre-existing images of April 27th — as Rob (Michael Stahl-David) and Beth (Odette Yustman) videotaped the day after the culmination of their love — and the “present day” footage which is inadvertently being recorded over that precious footage – the May 22nd going away party for Rob hosted by his brother, Jason (Mike Vogel), and Jason’s girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas). The Vertovian man with the movie camera at the party is Rob’s best friend, the film’s comic relief and our narrator, Hud (T.J. Miller).
Directed by Matt Reeves (best known for co-creating the television series Felicity with J.J. Abrams) and written by Drew Goddard (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias), the opening sequences are pure and simple. The characters (affluent 20-somethings able to afford to live in swank downtown lofts and midtown high-rises) are merely superficial pawns for the plot. Within the first 15 minutes, we achieve the extent of character development: Rob is leaving for Tokyo for a great job and he has distanced himself from Beth ever since the April 27th video – oh, and no one knows that Rob and Beth did the nasty.
Anyone that has seen the Cloverfield trailer knows what happens next. There’s an explosion – which we eventually learn has something to do with an oil tanker capsizing near the Statue of Liberty (a reference to the boat destroyed at the beginning of the 1954 Godzilla film because it was too close to the American Hydrogen Bomb test that awakened and unleashed Godzilla upon Japan – itself a reference to a real event on July 1, 1954 when the Lucky Dragon No. 5 fishing boat was exposed to high levels of radiation from an American Hydrogen Bomb test off the coast of Japan). Everyone (including Hud – therefore us) runs to the roof to see what happened, only to be scared down to the street level because flaming debris is falling from the sky. Once on the street, they encounter the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty (a direct reference to the Escape from New York poster) – prompting Rob, Jason, Lily, Hud (with his camera still on) and another partygoer, Marlena’s (Lizzy Caplan) attempt at an escape from New York. That is until Rob receives a voicemail from Beth (who left the party prior to the explosion) which prompts him and his entourage to alter their course. Oh, and there is a terrible, terrible monster at the root of all the havoc.
As far as the script and acting goes, Cloverfield never evolves beyond B-movie (or bad 20-something television) terrain. Thanks to Hud, our blockhead of a narrator, we seem to learn nothing from the footage. Any depth in the narrative is provided by visual references (to footage from 9/11 and moster movies of the past), as well as other more subtle cues and clues (numbers play a major role in the narrative puzzle – any follower of Abrams television serial Lost knows of his fetish for numerology). Nothing is ever explained, let alone answered (if you watch Lost, you should be immuned to this). For instance: What is the monster (it appears to be a mixture of a sea creature and gorilla – perhaps an homage to the animals from which the word gojira was derived)? Where did the monster come from? Why is the monster in New York City and what is its purpose? What is it doing (news reports state that it eats people, but we never actually see that happen)? What caused the initial explosion? What does the monster represent (al Qaeda, George W. Bush, the United States)? And, most importantly, what is the monster’s name (every good monster needs a name)?
There are obvious hints to a sequel, most importantly: the monster is not destroyed (neither are its babies); the countless unanswered questions; the brief crackly audio clip at the end of the credits (“help us!”). If anything, Cloverfield plays like a 90-minute trailer for something much more complex and significant – I think Abrams has something huge up his sleeves.
The sheer bravado of denying the audience the spoon-feeding of information that Hollywood had raised them to expect warrants Cloverfield kudos galore. Additionally, the special-effects, audio mix and soundtrack are all astounding – especially considering the meager $25 million budget.
If I were to decide to be nitpicky, there are countless continuity problems concerning the handheld camera, which is presumably turned on and in Hud’s relentless grasp for a majority of the film – despite the innumerable odds. Some of the camera positions and the quick passing of time (despite the absence of editing) are highly unlikely; but, then again, if you’re searching for realism you probably should not be watching about a giant monster rendering Manhattan to dust and ashes.
I recommend wearing a neck brace (Hud’s tendency is to turn the camera away from what you want to watch – I had the tendency to turn my head, attempting to alter the perspective of the camera) and don’t forget your Dramamine (Hud runs a lot)!