What Hiroshima was to Godzilla, 9/11 is to Cloverfield. They’re both about catharsis. I grant you, it’s catharsis of the hinky sort. Each takes the greatest horror its people have ever experienced and makes a monster movie out of it – but y’know, we’re not in ancient Greece anymore. No one’s going to write an Odyssey about our troubles. Today, when bad things happen, we call Jerry Bruckheimer for catharsis, not Euripides. Movies like United 93 and World Trade Centre might want to be America’s response to 9/11, but the real response is Cloverfield. Some real events are so fantastical you need the fantastical to talk about them. And to claim them back.
You may have heard about Cloverfield’s selling point. If not, think: Blair Witch. Like The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield is shot in shaky-vision. It looks like a caffeinated war report. Its camera is never still. At the start of the movie the camera is being used to film a goodbye party. Some schmuck named Josh or Brad or somesuch is leaving for Japan (nudge, nudge, Godzilla-in-joke). His buddy Chuck (or whatever his name is) films the male and female leads as they introduce themselves (not a one worth saving). Then the monster attacks New York.
My big problem with this movie (and I grant you, it won’t be everyone’s problem) is that I didn’t give a damn about the people. None of them is an axe murderer, exactly, but – did they have to seem like rejects from Friends? The main guy: stubble, suit, girlfriend. Is there anything about him I’ve missed? His friend behind the camera: looks like Jake Busey. Next! Ok, so that’s obnoxious. But even in a monster movie, it wouldn’t have hurt to have a decent script. The early scenes of Cloverfield are so stultifying, I was panting for the monster after twenty minutes.
The attack is sudden, violent, thrilling and guilt-inducing – in equal measure. Director Matt Reeves doesn’t even bother to cloak his references to 9/11; he just slings them at you: the collapsing buildings, the avalanche of smoke, “Oh my God!” like a mantra and then paper falling from the sky, the way it did. To watch these scenes is to marvel that in seven years we’ve gone from honestly talking about the end of violent movies (remember that?), to – Cloverfield. If Matt Reeves had even mooted this idea seven years ago he’d have been lynched. Now, it’s a $40,000,000 opening weekend.
We watch the survivors pick their way through the city. There’s a meshuggeneh plotline about Josh/Brad/whoever’s girlfriend being trapped in her apartment. He wants to rescue her. His friends agree (for the same hazy reasons Chuck keeps the camera rolling). Along the way they encounter all the staples of the monster movie: the military, a dark tunnel, some big explosions, sudden death. Cloverfield keeps quiet to the whys and wherefores of the monster. He could have come free with a cereal box for all these guys know. What’s important is that he’s unstoppable. And no matter where they are, he’ll be there: howling, spitting and mashing army guys real good.
What’s the Greek for “too soon”? Did ancient Greeks ever say it? Either Cloverfield is a grossly tactless exercise in pimping our grief, or it’s an act of defiance – a fist-pump – a movie that says “this is our tragedy, we own it now, we can sell it”. I think you need to be American to answer that. If you’re a New Yorker, your answer is definitive. For me, I think Cloverfield is inevitable; no-one honestly believed we’d stop making violent movies after 9/11 – so what else is there to do? Hiroshima killed 70,000 and the Japanese dealt with it via a man in a rubber suit. Why not a CGI heffalump to exorcise the Twin Towers? Grief is tactless. It’s post-embarrassment. Cloverfield is the joke you tell at a funeral because there are no right words to say.