Monster Takes Manhattan
It’s “just” a monster movie, right? Worse, it’s the monster movie that has been drowning in Internet hype — a fan-driven mania prompted by pseudo-secretive viral marketing produced by the filmmakers — for months, so much so that I was tired of hearing about how little we knew about the movie ages ago. There’s no way Cloverfield could possibly be worth the to-do. Could it?
Before I saw the movie, I thought: Impossible. Impossible to imagine that there’s anything new to be done with the monster movie. Impossible to imagine the monster could be scary-cooler than the creature from last year’s Korean new-millennium horror-comedy The Host. And now? Now that I’ve seen Cloverfield? It’s hard to imagine how anyone will top this. It’s magnificent in its harsh reality. It is the monster movie remade for the 21st-century, post-9/11 world.
Of course, one might question whether we need a new kind of monster movie for the post-9/11 world: indeed, there are moments here that induced a kind of 9/11 flashback in me, sights that once we would have considered ridiculous that we now know are all too real. Collapsing buildings blowing out huge gusts of dust. Dazed and dirty people dressed in their best, interrupted at work or play, now wandering in the streets helplessly. Some people said the things we saw, we all saw on TV or in person, on 9/11 looked like a movie. Well, now here’s a movie that looks like 9/11. I don’t exaggerate when I saw that some folks — you know who you are — may want to avoid it because of that.
But there’s something therapeutic in it, too, which sounds weird but works just fine. Maybe because for all the ridiculousness of the sitution — a giant thing is rampaging through Manhattan in a frenzy of killing and wanton destruction — how we see it is kept small and intimate and believable. It’s a way to manage the horror of it, a way to take it in without being overwhelmed by it.
A gang of 20something friends is sending their pal Rob (Michael Stahl-David) off to a job in Japan with a big party; their pal Hud (T.J. Miller) is documenting the party with a camcorder, gathering well-wishes for Rob from the partygoers. And then there’s a bang, and the lights go out… It’s funny, actually: the first 20 minutes or so of the film are given over to the party, and by 10 minutes in, I was grumbling to myself that they should just get to the monster already. By 20 minutes in, I was so caught up in the soap opera of romantic entanglements and whispered gossip keeping the party alive that when disaster finally struck, it was genuinely startling. And the rest of the film hardly seems like a film at all: it feels like a found document, which the meta-story pretends it is. This videotape, “military” placards tell us as the movie opens, was found in the area “formerly known as Central Park,” and is now top-secret. We’re not supposed to be seeing this.
Director Matt Reeves and screenwriter Drew Goddard — members of producer JJ Abrams TV teams from shows like Lost and Alias — have crafted a perfectly executed hoax. Everything — the monster, the destruction of the city, and other horrible, horrible things — are seen through Hud’s camcorder. We never leave the sides of Rob and Hud and a few others of their friends. We like them, these people who are under stress and running for their lives. We recognize them. They’re us. (Who they most emphatically are not is movie stars. This would not have worked with famous faces, no matter how talented. The unknown cast give brutally authentic performances, but it is their everyperson anonymity that makes us believe them.) And we recognize their situation because we’ve seen it on the news and on YouTube and Flickr: the smoke-filled tunnels, the collapsing stairwells. This is, we now know, where disasters happen: in tiny enclosed spaces jammed with frightened people.
We see the monster. We do. But we get mostly only glimpses of it as fear takes over Hud and he turns to run or drops the camera or whatever. He wants to document what he’s seeing — he’s a child of the new millennium, too, who knows people will want to see this. But the damn thing is so big…
And what we see of the creature is so frustrating — in a good, keep-you-in-suspense way — and so tantalyzing that the whole film becomes endlessly engaging, if not always in a pleasant way. Cloverfield is horrific, unleavened by snarky asides from an action hero who will save the day, uninterrupted by any distractions whatsoever outside the sheer terror of the moment. By the time it was over, I was sure I had sat there for three hours (the film actually runs, without credits, only 80 minutes), and equally sure that no time at all had passed. It rocked me, left me hungry for more, and not certain if I’d ever be able to sit through it again.
Though I probably will.