Cloverfield was the first media sensation of 2008 and an excellent case study in canny marketing. A teaser trailer appeared in theaters months ahead and featured a few, brief, tantalizing scenes of chaos in Manhattan with no mention of a title or who was in it. The only thing that was certain was that J.J. Abrams was somehow involved. Fans speculated about possible similarities to his TV show Lost or the likelihood that he had masterminded a new kind of monster movie. This teaser trailer sparked intense interest on the Internet which the studio brilliantly exploited with snippets of information staggered over succeeding weeks. The marketing paid off and the buzz resulted in a strong opening weekend and decent critical reaction.
The film’s framing device is that what we are about to see is “found” footage recovered from a digital camera in what used to be known as Central Park in New York City. Hud (T.J. Miller) has been entrusted to record testimonials for his friend Robert Hawkins’ (Michael Stahl-David) going away party. Rob recently got a promotion that will take him to Japan. During the party what feels like an earthquake forces everyone to the roof where they all witness a huge explosion in the distance. The partygoers make their way to the street and all kinds of debris comes flying down the street including, incredibly enough, the head of the Statue of Liberty.
In the distance, a skyscraper comes crashing down and the ensuing dust cloud and people running eerily echoes footage from 9/11. It looks exactly like a terrorist attack except for something massive glimpsed briefly moving between buildings. A huge tail that later takes out the Brooklyn Bridge confirms that some kind of creature is wreaking havoc in the city. After losing his brother, Rob decides to go rescue his friend and love of his life, Beth (Odette Yustman) with Hud and friends from the party, Lily (Jessica Lucas) and Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) tagging along. What follows is an intense, white-knuckle journey through Manhattan as Rob and his friends try to avoid the thing that is tearing the city apart.
Cloverfield’s take on the monster movie is brilliant: imagine Godzilla (1998) shot like The Blair Witch Project (1999) fused with the same story structure as Miracle Mile (1989). This gives the film an immediacy that is very effective, especially in a scene where our heroes decide to walk through a subway tunnel only to realize that some things are chasing them. Director Matt Reeves ratchets up the tension with a chilling shot of rats scurrying away en masse while our heroes are traveling through the tunnel. There are all kinds of shots like this throughout the film, most notably a haunting shot of a riderless horse-driven carriage going through a deserted intersection. In addition to the aforementioned films, Cloverfield is also influenced by the original Night of the Living Dead (1968) in the way we (and the characters) get bits and pieces of information about what might be causing all of the destruction via newscasts. Like George Romero’s film, there is a raw, almost documentary-like feel that enhances the horror of what we are watching.
The comparisons to 9/11 – especially visually – are unavoidable as is evident early on in the initial attacks on the city and when the military show up with images that are not only meant to evoke that day but also footage of American soldiers fighting in the streets of Baghdad. More than any other film before it, Cloverfield is a cathartic experience for those of us who experienced and lived through 9/11 much like the original Godzilla (1954) film was for the Japanese after the atomic bombings during World War II.
Like any good horror film, Cloverfield is a metaphor for the horrors of real life. For people who actually lived in New York City at the time of 9/11 this film is particularly harrowing and traumatic ... but in a good way if that makes any sense. What makes the film particularly gripping is that the filmmakers take the time to allow us to become emotionally invested in the characters so that we care about what happens to them. We are given just enough details about their lives and their relationships with each other to make what happens to them later that much more powerful. This is visceral filmmaking at its finest that finally eradicates the waste of celluloid that was the Roland Emmerich Godzilla remake and finally gives America a decent monster movie to call their own.
There is an audio commentary by director Matt Reeves. He starts off talking about the genesis of the project and how he got the gig. He speaks about the casting process and how it was shrouded in secrecy with the actors auditioning scenes from J.J. Abrams TV shows Felicity and Alias. Reeves says that he resisted the urge to have a lot of obvious edits in favour of long takes or invisible edits in order to mimic a film actually shot by an average person who was there. To that end, he points out that the style of the film was meant to suggest that anyone could have shot it. This is an engaging and informative track with very few lulls.
“Document 01.18.08: The Making of Cloverfield” takes a look at how the film came together amid a shroud of secrecy. The use of hand-held cameras is examined including how it gave the film an authenticity. The on-the-set footage shows how it was filmed, mostly on a soundstage which is amazing because it doesn’t look it in the film. We see several scenes being shot and it is fascinating to see how they pulled it off.
“Cloverfield Visual Effects” examines how they virtually destroyed Manhattan with CGI effects. The fore and middle ground of scenes were real with practical sets while the background was a mix of CGI and good ol’ Matte paintings. This featurette takes us through the major SFX set pieces and shows us how they did them.
“I saw it! It’s alive! It’s huge!” J.J. Abrams was inspired by Godzilla and its iconic status in Japan and he wanted to do that for America. This featurette takes a look at how the creature was designed and why it looks the way it does.
“Clover Fun” are outtakes and bloopers as the cast blow their lines and goof around.
Also included are four deleted scenes with optional commentary by Reeves. There is more footage from Rob’s farewell party and more of him and his friends in the subway tunnels including more from the aftermath of the attack there.
There are two alternate endings with optional commentary by Reeves. Both tweak some of the pre-recorded footage of Rob and Beth during happier days.