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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Cloverfield: The monster movie Godzilla should have been

by Ken Newquist / July 31, 2010

In 1998 director Roland Emmerich released a remake of Godzilla starring Matthew Broderick and featured a monster heavily inspired by the designer Patrick Tatopoulos' pet iguana attacking New York City. It failed on multiple fronts, starting with uninspiring Godzilla design, continuing with the half-assed Siskel and Ebert knockoffs as government antagonists, and ending with a surprise twist that no one wanted.

It was a bad movie. Cloverfield is what happens when J.J. Abrams looks at Godzilla and asks ... how can we make this not suck?

Crush, Crumble, Chomp

From the opening credits, we know the movie's going to be different because it has a disclaimer about how the film was released to the "Cloverfield" case and was recovered after some sort of disaster in New York City. From there, the movie goes into handicam mode as we join a group of twentysomething friends celebrating Robert Hawkins' impending departure for a job in Japan. It's a party made awkward by the fact that he slept with his good friend Beth McIntyre a month earlier.

We get our point of view from friend Hudson Platt, who gets stuck with the job of filming good-byes for Rob. He jumps from person to person, blissfully unaware of the party's underlying tension.

And then things go from melodrama to disaster. Rob is having a heart to heart with his friends on the fire escape when suddenly the building shakes, power goes out to the city, and Cloverfield begins in earnest. The party goers arrive on the roof top just in time to see fiery debris raining down on the city ... and their building.

They run downstairs to escape the building only to find more debris -- including the Statue of Liberty's head -- smashing into the building. Simultaneously the military begins its response, with tanks, armored transports and jets racing toward the disaster site. From here, the survivors' priority becomes twofold: escaping the city and not going insane when they catch glimpses of the immense monster that is rapidly destroying New York.

Unreliable Narrator

All of the action is captured by the handicam, and that's leads to the single most important thing people need to know about this movie: it can make you sick. The constant jostling and movement of the camera can play havoc with your inner ear, and if you're prone to motion sickness (as I am) you may find yourself shutting off the movie after 30 minutes or so.

I knew the film would make me sick, so I waited for it to come out on DVD. It took me three days of stop-and-start watching to make it through the film, but I'm glad I fought through the nausea. Cloverfield manages to take the rules of a creature feature, and apply them to the giant monster movie genre in a surprisingly effective way.

A Godzilla-sized monster is a hell of a thing to lose in a city, but director Matt Reeves pulls it off. We see the aftershocks of the monster everywhere, but he only ever lets us see glimpses of the creature during most of the movie. We catch glimpses of it down streets, we see parts of it slamming into buildings, we see massive tentacles taking out iconic city structures, but we don't see the full monster until the very end. At the same time, the portable camera helps reinforce the smallness of the human cast. The quick, jerky movements, the frantic scrambles for safety, the sudden glances upwards, they all play to what we would do if we were in the characters shoes.

The film makes unrepentant use of 9/11-style imagery, including the choking walls of dust and debris that surge out to cover the city. Some criticized Reeves for this, but honestly, how could he not do this? 9/11 showed us what a large scale urban disaster looks like. To depict it any other way would seem painfully fake. My only complaint about the movie is the ending. Without spoiling too much, it ends on a down note, and after 80+ minutes of struggling through New York with these characters I would have liked a more upbeat ending. That said, it certainly fits the frantic, desperate pace of the movie itself, and left me wondering what a sequel might look like.

Final Analysis

Cloverfield's the only move I've ever seen where I wanted to take Dramamine before watching it, but it was worth the discomfort. The movie reminded me of happy Saturday afternoons spent watching giant monster flicks, and it provided the giant monster fix that Godzilla failed to deliver in 1998.

Comments

I would like more development of the creature, but if another city gets smashed, OK by me.

Yeah, I'd like to see a sequel as well. It becomes more difficult, since we've already seen the monster, but the creators suggested this creature was simply a baby looking for its mother ... so what would the mother look like?

Another take that the creators suggested was filming a second movie with the events of the first, but from the perspective of another group of people in the city. I think a military-oriented flick could work well -- we have seen the monster, but we haven't viewed it from the perspective of frontline troops in tanks, aircraft, etc. There's also some subplots from the original movie -- like the purpose of the poison from the alien-like critters that dropped from the monster -- that could be further explored in a sequel.

According to IMDB, the sequel is scheduled for a 2011 release, but there's very little information available about it.

On the whole, I didn't really care for Cloverfield, especially as the American equivalent of a Godzilla movie. I think once you measure the size of your monster in stories the whole "don't show the monster" rule kind of goes out the window. After the reveal, I thought perhaps the reason they kept it hidden so long is that it looked...well, dumb.

I don't know, I think not showing the monster was very effective in this film -- it kept your eye on the screen because you kept hoping for glimpses of the beast. I think it added to the mystery of the attack, though I don't think it really impacted the horror angle.

The big reveal at the end was something of a disappointment -- it was a bit too humanoid. I'd have liked something a bit more cyclopean, but all in all, I thought it was a decent monster.

I thought that it resembled a giant mutant flea. At least it was not the Stay Puft Marshmallo man

Whoa ... you're not dissing the Stay Puft Marshmellow Man are you, ARE YOU?!

No way.
Cloverfield was entirerly serious and intense, the final reveal, although less than spectacular, did not diminish the rest of the film

Would now be a bad time to admit that I actually like Devlin and Emmerich's Godzilla? I mean, I thought the Siskel and Ebert caricatures were ridiculous, but I enjoyed much of the rest.

It was NOT Godzilla, but it was not total trash.

An attempt was made to generate some plot and story beyond 'a nuke spawned giant lizard eats Tokyo"

The attempt was made, but the primal 'Godzilla-esque' quality was lost.

I think they just tried to hard to make something new -- like the scene where Godzilla *looks* like has a breath weapon, but in reality, he's just breathing hard into some fuel vapors, which then happen to explode. If you've stretched believability to allow for a 40-story bipedal lizard attacking New York, go ahead and give it a breath weapon.

I also found the baby godzillas to be a twist I didn't really need -- yes, it goes to the justification of why the creature was in New York in the first place, but does Godzilla *really* need a justification for attacking? If so, some super-secret military base in the city could easily served as the target of its ire (or hell, even a new trans-Atlantic cable stirring up its nest).

I can't say it's awful -- there are worse movies -- but it wasn't the Godzilla flick I was looking for.

Well, I don't think the laying of eggs justified his attack. If anything it's another blow against the movie. Why would a cold-blooded creature come to the Northern Hemisphere to lay eggs? At least in the later Japanese films Godzilla kept coming back to feed off of nuclear power plants (hey, we got plenty of those here too, don't we?).

Still, I have fond memories of seeing the '98 flick in theaters. It was a lot of fun, and I still remember my first viewing of it from how much I enjoyed it. Cloverfield, I just remember my first viewing because it disappointed me.

So which is better, Godzilla (1998), or Cloverfield. Well, that depends. Do you like monster movies, or don't you?