Eight years after its release, the mere mention of Bad Robot’s found footage film Cloverfield is still a lightning rod. Whether people love it or hate it, everyone has a strong opinion about it. We saw that play out recently when a seemingly unrelated film was revealed to be titled 10 Cloverfield Lane, and everyone went nuts. Spoilers ahead!
All of that made me curious about revisiting the original film without all the hype that surrounded it eight years ago. No viral marketing, no potential sequels — just me and 84 minutes of work by producer J.J. Abrams (The Force Awakens), writer Drew Goddard (The Martian), and director Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). What I discovered was a movie that’s still polarising for a lot of reasons, but also much more human than I’d remembered.
If, for some reason, you don’t remember Cloverfield: It largely takes place over a single night in New York City when a massive monster attacks the city. Think Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla. And while the monster and the destruction are what most people remember, they probably forget that this takes a while to happen.
Goddard and Reeves spend a huge chunk at the beginning of the film setting up their characters. The film starts with Rob (Michael Stahl-David) and Beth (Odette Annable), a new couple who seem to be very happy together, and then jumps ahead several months to Rob’s going-away party, all being shot on the same tape. There, Rob sees Beth with a new boyfriend, and you’re immediately curious why they’re not together anymore. The party is also populated by Rob’s friends (played by a crew of then-unknowns, such as TJ Miller and Lizzy Caplan), who each have their own stories and personalities. All of this works together, so that you actually care about the people and story on their own, before a giant monster becomes the focus.
When the monster does hit, though, things escalate quickly. Some characters die immediately, others get separated from the group, and all those dramatic threads work to give this monster story an emotional base. And that monster, by the way, is never fully explained or named in the entire runtime of the film. Because Cloverfield is structured as an almost real time, videotaped account of one group’s experience, we never learn any more than they do. Which is not much. And that, to me, is the biggest reason Cloverfield is still so polarising.
It comes down to this: Either you love the fact that the whole movie is left so open-ended, or you hate it. Either you want answers, or you’re cool with nothing but questions. You may also love or hate the film’s shaky-cam aesthetic — which, admittedly, can be jarring, even when watching at home. For me, the camera work is forgivable because it adds to the realistic feel. Plus I love that we only get hints of where the monster came from. We don’t even know whether or not it’s defeated at the end. All we do is experience the story of these characters for a few hours of their lives. Cloverfield, as a concept, stretches far beyond the frame of the film. It unapologetically sparks your imagination, with no definitive payoff.
Some other potentially negative things stand out about it too. There’s no doubt the film is made scarier by using subtle 9/11 imagery of on-the-ground New York destruction. Product placement throughout the film is also blatant, in a frustrating way. Thankfully, both of those things never push the film too far off its focus.
That focus, without a doubt, is action, and Cloverfield delivers quite well. Rewatching the movie, it’s hard not to be impressed with the seamless blend of visual effects and location shooting. It makes the whole film feel as expansive as a movie with probably 10 times its budget (Box Office Mojo says the film cost $US25 ($35) million.) Some sequences — like an action scene in a helicopter — are captured so beautifully, it’s still mind-blowing that they were able to pull it off. And every once in a while, we’re reminded that we’re watching found footage, as the previous contents of the tape that’s being recorded over (of Rob and Beth on their first real date) pops back up. No matter how crazy it gets, with little nods like that, Cloverfield never loses its humanity.
And really, it’s hard to understate the crazy pacing of the film. It’s 84 minutes long. Twenty or so of those minutes are dedicated to character and world-building. The credits are probably about 6-7 minutes too, which is slightly longer than usual. So basically you’re really looking at an hour-long monster movie, with about five solid set pieces, and tons of Easter Eggs about who and what could have caused the monster.
Oh, and those credits? They’re maybe the best part of the movie. Over them is a piece of music called “Roar,” written by Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino. Before the credits, all the music in the film only happens within the world of the movie. Nothing is added for dramatic effect. We’re just watching a video. That changes over the credits with “Roar,” an original piece of music that captures the film’s excitement masterfully. It’s certainly one of Giacchino’s best. Listen for yourself.
Minor problems aside, I fell back in love with Cloverfield watching it again. I was a fan back in 2008, and I’m a fan once again. Whether or not 10 Cloverfield Lane has anything to do with it, I don’t particularly care. I just hope this new film can spark our imaginations as much as its namesake.