Cloverfield: The monster movie Godzilla should have been

A headless Statue of Liberty stands in New York Harbor; the city burns in the background.
Movie poster art for Cloverfield. Credit: Paramount Pictures.

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?

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.

Product Details

  • Cloverfield
  • Starring: Mike Vogel, Michael Stahl-David, Odette Yustman, Jessica Lucas
  • Directed by: Matt Reeves
  • Release date: 2008
  • Running time: 85 minutes
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