With Drew Goddard’s hotly anticipated directorial debut – Cabin in the Woods – only a few days away (as of this writing), now seems like a good time to peek back at his last cinematic work, Cloverfield. Though not the film’s director, Goddard was Cloverfield’s writer, a position that has pretty much been his wheelhouse (he wrote multiple episodes of Buffy, Angel, Alias, and Lost.) Obviously he’s in good standing with Joss Whedon (who co-wrote Cabin with him) and J.J. Abrams – names that whet fanboy appetites like few others. But do these associations necessarily mean that Goddard is a talent, or that Cloverfield was a worthwhile flick? I’d argue that, yeah, the man’s a winner so far, we’ve got reason to be excited for Cabin, and Cloverfield helps prove that; but dammit if you don’t have to fight the haters to make that point.
To most people, Cloverfield started off as a mysterious trailer before the original Transformers film. Pretty twenty-somethings mingle at a party, explosions rock the scene, and a few shaky edits later, the Statue of Liberty’s severed head comes skidding down the road. Fans were left only with a cryptic date – 1-18-08 – and the involvement of producer J.J. Abrams. And in the weeks following Transformers’ release, that trailer seemed to be the only single thing people gave a fuck about regarding that film-going experience. “What the hell was that trailer? Why haven’t I heard anything about it? Is it Godzilla? And if not…WHAT THE FUCK IS IT???” These questions became staples amongst obsessive fan communities.
Of course, feeding into all this was the epic new media marketing campaign for the film. Sure, there was traditional information to be found, but as the film’s title morphed from 1-18-08 to Overnight to Cloverfield, the excitement was found elsewhere. Websites, Myspace pages, and short videos started popping up everywhere, hinting at the massive fictional world around Cloverfield. It was one of the most epic online film campaigns to date, and as far as relevance to the film, it was matched only by the Blair Witch promotions that came almost ten years earlier. Of course, it was exactly those similarities to the Blair Witch that would eventually result in such a heated blowback to the film.
Four paragraphs in, and we’ve barely touched the movie (or Goddard). Such is apt, though, as that’s roughly how audiences experienced Cloverfield: trailer, hype, marketing, marketing, paratext, Myspace, Myspace, Myspace…movie. And when Cloverfield was revealed for what it was – a Blair Witch-style mockumentary/found-footage film in which some New York friends’ going-away party is interrupted by a skyscraper-sized monster – people were pissed. Critics and fans alike skewered the film for its unrelatable, yuppie characters, its seizure-inducing camerawork, and the bizarre CGI-monster that closed the film. Sure, the film has racked up 7.3 over on IMDB, and it does have its fans; but bring it up in casual company and see what happens. Cloverfield is largely remembered as a letdown, a victim of its massive expectations.
That’s sad, because Cloverfield is a damn fine little monster film, and along the lines of Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity, its characters come across as surprisingly genuine, realistic personalities (even if they are a bit douchey.) The destruction is huge, the monsters are freakish, and the splatter effects are kind of a shock for a PG-13 film. Give Goddard credit for this – writing a found-footage film is hard for a number of reasons, from authentic dialogue to coming up with reasons the camera is still rolling to dreaming up scenes that can fit into the handheld format. Cloverfield’s trajectory – from the surprise party to fleeing the massive destruction of the city to diving back into the carnage to save an ailing friend – feels weirdly natural. There are gripes to be made (the usual one being, “They go BACK into the city to save the guy’s EX-girlfriend?!?”), but for a genre film, it’s not exactly guilty of straining credibility.
The biggest successes of the film are 1.) creating characters that feel real in this chaos, and 2.) really putting us in the midst of the carnage as it unfolds. A number of critics bitched about the vapid Manhattan socialites at the core of the film, but I would argue nothing about their characterization is particularly egregious. They are characters who are drifting through life, focused on their romantic relationships above all else – pretty standard (and often accurate) stuff for representing young people. In the midst of it all, those relationships – Hud’s emo-boy crush on Lizzy Kaplan’s character, Marlena, and Rob’s friendly-hook-up-turned-disaster with Beth – basically encompass 80% of twenty-something relationships. Maybe these characters aren’t honed to perfection, but they are all perfectly believable.
Better is how Cloverfield takes the camera’s eye view into a place we don’t often get to spend a whole lot of time in most monster movies – the carnage of a falling city. Whether it’s being swept up in the waves of local New Yorkers rushing through the chaos or ducking underneath the legs of the monster while it dukes it off with a heavily-armed military or being corralled in a disturbing military complex as infected people die left and right, Cloverfield actually gives a startling representation of what it would be like to be stuck in a city in massive crisis. The film was made when post-9/11 anxieties were still running high; don’t think the filmmakers aren’t aware that they’re trading in those fears. Maybe that visual chaos results in shaky visuals that make some people nauseous or risks giving them epileptic fits – sucks for them. To me, it’s the best way to represent a world that very quickly and very terrifyingly start to fall apart – literally.
Maybe the slithery, multi-limbed monster and its camel-snake-face could use some work (though it’s hellacious spawn look perfect.) Maybe there could be a few more delightful personalities to follow through this apocalyptic journey. Maybe the massive marketing blitz set up unrealistic expectations. But overall, Cloverfield does exactly what it aims to do; it puts you at a ground-zero in the middle of ginormous monster invasion and tells you to hold on for the ride. Goddard nails all these points along the way. It’s a film that understands how to use the found-footage aesthetic, and more importantly, it understands the joys of monster movies. It’s an experience worth having, and it’s reason enough to be excited for Drew Goddard’s next this weekend.
Josh has studied film at the Universities of Missouri and Florida, and he is currently studying horror film and popular culture in the Communication and Culture program at Indiana University. He has previously worked with the True/False Documentary Film Festival and the Ragtag Theatre in Columbia, Missouri, and he served as short-term production assistant on This Film Is Not Yet Rated. He is currently working on a dissertation on independent horror, horror film festivals, and horror fandom; feel free to contact him to discuss any of the above! He is also studying Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).