How strange it is to remember all the talk in the weeks following September 11 about whether scenes of urban chaos and destruction would ever be permissible in popular culture again. Now just over six years after 9/11 comes the much buzzed-about, J.J. Abrams-produced monster movie Cloverfield, which is a creature feature for the “War on Terror” years. Here’s my wacky pitch: Cloverfield is like Godzilla meets United 93.
If you’ve been thinking of seeing Cloverfield
but haven’t yet, read no further. It works best if you know as little as possible going in. The plot, in general terms: in New York City during a going-away party held in honour of dashing young Rob (Michael Stahl-David), a giant monster attacks the city without warning or reason. In the midst of the chaos, Rob and a few friends try to make it to midtown Manhattan to save Rob’s girlfriend.One of Rob’s friends is Hud, a drunken loser who happens to record the party with a MiniDV camera. Hud takes it upon himself to document the evening so that future generations can “see how it all went down.” The gimmick of Cloverfield is that it is told entirely from the perspective of Hud’s MiniDV camera.
With a few more introductory scenes and a third-person, 35mm perspective, this could easily have been an unspectacular entry in the Godzilla cannon. The choice of filming Cloverfield from the perspective of a MiniDV camera gives it the blunt immediacy of…well, the amateur footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Center. Cloverfield is uncanny in the way that it captures the confused feelings in the air on September 11: frustration at not knowing the reason for the catastrophe, and anger at the disaster itself.
Apart from that, Cloverfield
is a damn fine monster movie. It’s intense, suspenseful, and has a few legitimately scary moments. The minor story flaws (how can a character who has been impaled still work up the energy to run?) are redeemed by the ending, which is refreshingly uncompromising. This is also a richer and more complex film than the average monster mash: message boards are already swamped with theories about the movie’s near-subliminal background details (look carefully at the film’s final shot) and its legendary, complicated viral marketing campaign. But perhaps most astonishing of all is that Cloverfield has a genuinely compelling human story, no easy feat considering that the plot construction leaves little time for background details.
In a telephone interview with Michael Stahl-David, Jessica Lucas, and Odette Yustman, the film’s stars were eager to distance Cloverfield from 9/11.
“Our intentions weren’t to recreate 9/11 at all,” said Yustman. “This is a complete fantasy movie and it’s about a big huge monster that attacks New York City. We understand that there are similarities, but those were not our intention at all.”Added Stahl-David, “I think you can have this really emotional expeReence of watching characters deal with this really catastrophic situation while at the same time being entertained by the fact that it’s a monster, there are these creatures jumping out, the guy behind the camera’s making wisecracks.” Despite the denials, Lucas mentioned later on that the cast watched footage from different disasters “just to get an idea of how people react to that situation, which actually helped me a lot.”
Jessica Lucas: “We didn’t know what we were auditioning for at all, except that it was a J.J. Abrams project. I read for it a couple of times, and then I booked it, and we didn’t get a finalized script until really close to shooting, and then we finally knew it was a monster movie.”Odette Yustman
: “We had to sign different confidentiality agreements saying that we wouldn’t say anything. When we finally got a script, the script was all red pages, with our names typed on every page, so if we lost it we were completely screwed.”
Michael Stahl-David: “It was interesting because sometimes you had to be super relaxed, and sometimes you had to be very ‘non-acting,’ and then sometimes subtlety really just wouldn’t read, because the camera wouldn’t be close enough, or you had to believe that Hud was holding the camera in that situation, so he couldn’t be too conveniently focused on your eyes.”Odette Yustman
: “It was such a different process, because we were able to address the camera, which we’re taught not to do. Also, there was the whole improvisation part of the movie. We were able to bring our own thoughts and our own creative process to these characters, so it was very interesting.”
Michael Stahl-David: “I think it’s cool and interesting how much the fans become part of the advertising. The message board becomes such a huge part of promoting the movie, and these are just the people who are excited about it. So these fans are really becoming huge players in the industry, collectively.”