Cult Film Club – Cloverfield

Welcome to Cult Film Club. Let’s face it, we all know what the first rule is. I’m Alasdair and I’m here to talk about twelve of my favourite movies. Some of these are big releases, some are small and weird but all of them are the sort of film that made some audience members go ‘what now?’ even as others were riding the squee wave all the way in to Awesome Beach. Some of these films you’ll have seen and liked. Some you’ll have seen and hated. A couple you may think I’ve made up. All of these movies are worthy of a little more love than they’ve had. Huge, face melting spoilers will of course, abound, so please buckle your seat belt and keep all appendages inside the article at all times.

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So, let’s start with Cloverfield. Released in 2008, it’s regarded by some as the patient zero of found footage movies, by others as an extremely poor man’s Godzilla and by many as a waste of time. That’s a shame, firstly because it’s only about 80 minutes long and secondly because it’s actually more fun, and smarter, than it was initially given credit for. Here’s why:

Cloverfield is a Friends episode where almost everybody dies. And I can prove it, with columns

[table]Character Type,Friends,Cloverfield
Increasingly irritating ‘hero’, Ross, Rob
Smartarse but decent, Chandler, Jason
Likable idiot, Joey, Hud
Stuck up and rich, Rachel, Beth
Pragmatic and smart, Lily, Monica
Eccentric/socially awkward goof, Phoebe, Marlena[/table]

The central character relationships even, mostly, fit. Hud’s unrequited love for Marlena is a little stronger than the occasional times Friends played with that dynamic, but the other two couples fit scarily well. Rob and Beth are Ross and Rachel to a tee, right down to Rob’s mild physical incompetence and the fact the pair of them are frequently pretty unbearable. Jason and Lily are the perfect fit though, mapping exactly onto late season Chandler and Monica. Their good natured bickering feels very natural and one of my favourite moments is when Jason’s camera catches a store clerk smiling at them sparring. It’s a little flash of something genuine and real and, like the moment where Hud and another cameraman briefly film one another, grounds the found footage format.

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Let’s talk about that for a moment. Found footage is now right up there with The JJ Abrams Lens Flare Joke and the names Zach Snyder and Michael Bay as a lazy target. Like all of them, there’s some validity to the criticism but, like all of them, it’s never more than some. Found footage has certainly been abused as a format but Cloverfield, and Apollo 18, are examples of it at its best. The latter movie is a pitch-perfect parody of a youtube conspiracy movie, complete with freeze frames and post analysis. It’s a witty use for the format, as is Cloverfield, where Andrew Reeves uses it to constantly ground the action and keep us focused on the human cost of it. Look at moments like the monster attack that drives them into the subway, the constant flashes of Rob and Beth’s brief relationship or the final helicopter taking off. There’s real visual wit and flair at work here, and burying it under a dozen blarted out found footage movies does nothing to dull its impact.

Weirdly, what does, is the monster. Cloverfield is really two movies. The first 22 minutes is a coming of age drama in New York (All together now ‘I’ll be thereee for youuu-WHAT THE HELL’S THAT?!’) and the second hour is what happens when a giant monster Yosemite Sams off the side of its own film and wanders into Pretty New Yorkers Have Angst: The Movie. Because make no mistake, Cloverfield is a monster movie with very little monster in it. When we do get to see it it’s a glorious abstraction of scales, claws and breath sacs, always obscured under explosions and always angry, terrified or both. Jason’s death gives you an idea of the scale, a single appendage cutting the Brooklyn Bridge in half. It may not even notice it’s done it.

The constant tension between the characters and the monster is an echo of the movie’s yo-yoing genre. Screenwriter Drew Goddard has talked at length about how this is designed to be a monster movie set just to the left of a normal monster movie and there are times where that’s almost literally true. The monster’s path parallels Rob, Hud and Lily’s frantic run through the city and where the pair intersect, so do the genres. A lot of the time it works very well but there are a couple of moments where the monster gets too close and the entire movie suffers. Marlena’s death, and the helicopter destroying leap that leads to the finale, both feel forced but its Hud’s death, if anything, that breaks the movie. This is the one point where it steps across into full on gratuitous. You have to applaud their ambition, an extended shot of the monster in daylight and close up, but in the end it feels more like housecleaning than a meaningful character beat. But, at least he didn’t get a (slightly) unfairly maligned spin off set in the next city the monster hits. So there’s that.

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All of that is swept away though by the final scene where true love wins and…apparently, dies as the Armed Forces flatten Manhattan in a frantic attempt to kill the monster. The final scene closes the circle, Rob and Beth together, and adds the thematic ghost of Hud as they give testimonials to camera. The two genres crash together as true love conquers everything, apart from high explosives, and the movie finishes. It’s a remarkably grim, downbeat ending that closes the movie with absolute confidence. It even takes a good three minutes of credits before Michael Giacchino’s suite of music kicks in.

There’s more, of course, there always is with these movies. The ARG used to market it was by turns brilliant, exasperating and contradictory and there’s some evidence that the true nature of the monster was being played with right up the final drafts. I do know a cameo from the ‘traditional’ monster movie leads was cut from the Macy’s scene at the final draft because it was too overtly parodic.

All of that’s interesting but, in the end, none of it matters. What does matter is that Cloverfield was a trailblazer, for found footage, a new school of creature design and for Reeves, Goddard and Abrams to begin their ascent up the genre cinema food chain. Plus, if you ever wanted to see a movie that, if it were a Friends episode, would be titled ‘The One Where New York Is Destroyed By A Giant Monster And Almost The Entire Cast Die’? This is for you.

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I’ll be back next month with a look at Shane Carruth’s profoundly weird and frequently brilliant first movie. Primer. See you then.

Reporter: Alasdair Stewart

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