Cloverfield (2008)

Hollywood's a real monster…

by Adam Miller


I’m a fan of the term “post 9/11” cinema. It describes an era of filmmaking so similar that it becomes almost a genre unto itself. Examples of this cinema don’t just include films like UNITED 93 or WORLD TRADE CENTER, but also—and perhaps more importantly—fantasy and sci-fi blockbusters such as WAR OF THE WORLDS, I AM LEGEND, V FOR VENDETTA, CHILDREN OF MEN, and CLOVERFIELD, the subject of this review.

UNITED 93’s relationship to the 9/11 terrorist attacks speaks for itself. The latter films engage the drama of those events in more aesthetic ways. WAR OF THE WORLDS plays upon the pun of “aliens” secretly invading American soil, hiding for years in underground sleeper cells before emerging and vaporizing American cities. Spielberg makes evocative use of the image of human bodies being instantly turned to ash, recalling the chalking images of 9/11. I AM LEGEND, though set in New York, is less direct in its metaphor. It attempts to convey the psyche of a man after the apocalypse of his city. In other words, I AM LEGEND meditates on what life would be like if the terrorists actually succeeded. What if American civilization were wiped out and replaced with a new society and culture (in this case, a society of vampires)? The forecast in that film was so bleak that the producers felt a need to tag on a happier ending so as not to totally depress an audience hoping to catch some Will Smith eye candy. V FOR VENDETTA and CHILDREN OF MEN both critique the potential for overreaction by Western states to the terrorist threat. Both films tap into George Orwell’s 1984 police state and draw analogies between the debate between need for national security and individual rights.

The above films are not without their problems, but none of them rubbed me the wrong way quite as much as CLOVERFIELD (though V FOR VENDETTA comes close). CLOVERFIELD is set in New York City and follows a group of attractive twenty-somethings as their city is invaded by a giant monster à la Godzilla. The gimmick of CLOVERFIELD is its cinematography. The entire movie is supposedly recorded by a digital hand camera much like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. As with that film, the use of the hand camera is no doubt to convey a heightened sense of realism to the picture. For the most part it works, many events don’t feel staged. There are exceptions however, as in a subway tunnel scene where the switching-on of the camera’s night vision capability is a blatant set-up and reveal of encroaching monsters.

But it is the choice of the hand camera which, while at first appealing, ultimately—in my opinion—becomes somewhat vile. When the monster first attacks New York the camera catches smoke and explosions in the corners of its frames, it shakes with the vibrations of the pavement, it simulates more than traditional filming the feeling of what it would like to really be in New York City at the ground zero of a catastrophic attack.

It attempts to depict hyper-naturalistic terror. It attempts to chronicle what normal people would really do in such a situation. It attempts, I assume, to honestly depict what the attack on New York City was really like—except, of course, it didn’t really happen (except, of course, as metaphor to 9/11).

That lest sentence should read problematically, but there is a phrase to help describe it coined by post-modern theorist Jean Baudrillard: “precession of the simulacrum.” Baudrillard’s phrase can best be summed up as describing a scenario where the image serves as a copy of an original which does not exist. The images in CLOVERFIELD are as “real” as WAR OF THE WORLDS or CASABLANCA in that they exist on celluloid somewhere, but CLOVERFIELD and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT more than other films insist—through the apparent use of the handheld digital camera—that their images are copies or recordings of real events which exist outside the frames of the film.

But I have a problem with CLOVERFIELD more than THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and this is due to the subject of the simulacrum itself. The creators of CLOVERFIELD clearly felt that there was a market for an audience who wanted the titillation of knowing what it would actually be like to be in New York City on the day of its destruction. The problem is, even as CLOVERFIELD claims to deliver that experience (again due to its filming technique) it also creates a profoundly “Hollywood” film that precisely follows the how-to of horror/disaster movie plotting and pacing:

1. Gather a cast of sexy co-eds and briefly introduce their personalities but only in the context of the sexual tensions they feel for one another.
2. Have something terrible happen with lots of explosions and fire.
3. Create a contrivance where the sexy co-eds must be on the run while navigating the mayhem in a series of attack sequences.
4. Progessively kill off the co-eds one by one.
5. Run out of co-eds and end the movie.

You’ve seen this a hundred times before. FRIDAY THE 13TH has made millions off of this basic structure. What makes this film bad is the marriage of the “real” horror of 9/11 with the cheesiest of Hollywood plotting. On 9/11 people didn’t die one by one, each death singularly captured on camera. On 9/11 people did rush through the city heading towards the ruined towers to find their loved ones. But they did not die in each other’s arms while professing their love. Most of the people who died in 9/11 were not drop dead gorgeous, nor were they armed with a plethora of one-liners describing their situation.

The footage we do have of 9/11 is riveting, but it doesn’t show us everything—how could it? CLOVERFIELD proposes to fill in the gaps of that “missing” 9/11 footage, a dubious project in the first place, but what makes CLOVERFIELD truly bad is that, in its world, those gaps in footage were apparently filled with Hollywood schlock.

They were filled in with CLOVERFIELD.

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