As promised last week, this monster-lover’s thoughts on Cloverfield. In a word: joy. In the pantheon of giant monster rampages, this one should find a place of honour. There have been a few good such films in the last while (most notably The Host, though one could argue that its creature is too small to make it a proper Giant Monster Movie), but this is the first really fine example to emerge from Hollywood in decades. Among other accomplishments, it washes away, once and for all, the sour taste left by the Emmerich/Devlin Godzilla (partly by taking some similar moments and showing how they should be done).
I won’t say too much about the plot, out of deference to those who might not have seen the film yet. The less you know, the more fun you’ll have. Suffice to say that a giant creature attacks New York, and the whole thing is presented as being shot on camcorder by a terrified witness and his friends. But then, you already knew that.
Why is this thing so pleasing? Let’s start with the opening seconds, where the booming crashes on the soundtrack are an explicit echo of the opening booms of the original Godzilla (1954). There are more ties to that film, which is clearly the dominant influence. The orchestral score over the closing credits, for instance, is a variation on Akira Ifukube’s original themes. More crucially, these ties signal the film’s serious intent. There is very little humour here. We have our first entirely serious monster film since… since… 1954? Even some of the recent grimmer Godzilla and Gamera films aren’t as dark as this. When the 1998 Godzilla hit the theatres, one critic opined that if that film had kept the tone of the original but used modern FX, it would have drop-kicked its audience into the mouth of Hell. Cloverfield comes very close to proving the truth of that statement. There is a real emphasis, again for the first time since ‘54 (barring a few moments here and there in the Gamera trilogy), on the actual cost of a monster rampaging through a city. This is driven home by the fact that our perspective of the destruction is entirely limited, for the first time ever, to the POV of the people who are usually part of the nameless horde being trampled by the creature. These are not the folks who are going to solve the problem. These are the poor suckers just tying to stay alive through the next few seconds.
The historical juncture of Cloverfield’s release is another tie to the original Godzilla. Japanese audiences in 1954 would have still had very vivid memories of the atomic devastation from only nine years earlier. Ishiro Honda’s film pushes those uncomfortable buttons forcefully, as the destruction of Tokyo and its aftermath at times alarmingly resemble newsreel footage of what happened at Hiroshima. Godzilla’s symbolic nature was never more pointed and unmistakable than in his first feature. Similarly, Cloverfield lays waste to New York City barely more than six years after 9/11, and there is at least one moment here, where crowds flee from the billowing dust cloud of a collapsing skyscraper, that makes this film an equivalent metaphorical return to a city’s great trauma.
Such is Cloverfield’s power. There will be naysayers out there, I know, picking away at every little inconsistency or flaw. Well, go ahead. Citizen Kane has its warts too, and they matter not one whit. We have witnessed the arrival of a new giant monster classic. And that is no small thing.