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City in Dust: How ‘Cloverfield’ Brought Horror Back to the Giant Monster Movie

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Can Godzillas be scary? Before Cloverfield, I would have told you the answer was no — at least not since 1954, when the original Godzilla film gave Japan’s collective nuclear trauma physical form and set it loose on Tokyo. In the ensuing decades, giant city-scale monsters like Godzilla, aka kaiju, became the equivalent of superheroes and supervillains, albeit the size of a couple of football fields. The Godzilla movies I grew up on portrayed the creature as humanity’s guardian, not its scourge. Sure, you’d get a little wanton destruction and mayhem here and there, but those big creatures were basically harmless.

Or so I thought. Directed by Matt Reeves from a script by Drew Goddard, Cloverfield took a novel approach to the giant-monster movie: blending it with another horror subgenre, found footage, then very much in vogue after the surprised blockbuster success of Paranormal Activity the year before. Suddenly, monster rampages typically seen from a distance, as men in rubber suits slowly smashed painstakingly crafted miniature cities into rubble, could now be seen up close and personal, from the viewpoint of the tiny people racing to stay out of the beast’s path. With 9/11 trauma imagery flowing through its veins like the mushroom cloud did through the original, intended-to-frighten Godzilla, it picked up extra power through association. (Indeed, it pairs well with Hideaki Anno’s riveting reboot Shin Godzilla, which manages to make the original article scary all over again.)

The result of all this, I clearly recall, left me first cowering in my seat, then marveling at the extraordinarily bleak ending. That last part was a sign, if you needed any more of them, that Cloverfield’s monster, the nature of which remains a total mystery to anyone we meet in the film until the very end, was a horror movie monster like any other — Dracula or Leatherface or Cujo, just on a titanic scale.


But a large enough contingent of the audience felt differently that the film’s reputation suffered, even while it was still in theaters. Some backlash was inevitable, of course, in that there’s always a sizeable contingent of the audience that finds the bouncing and jostling of the image created by handheld cameras in found-footage films actively nauseating. The terrified flight of the main characters through collapsing buildings, falling rubble, active military attacks, and the colossal footfalls of the creature itself created an image shaky enough at times to make The Blair Witch Project look like a Jim Jarmusch film. 

The personnel involved rubbed some viewers the wrong way as well. At the time, Reeves and Goddard were best known for their association with Lost impresario J.J. Abrams, and in Goddard’s case Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Joss Whedon. In addition to cries of favoritism, these connections linked the film’s ongoing critical fortunes to those of its creators’ collaborators. Even putting aside Whedon’s complete fall from grace, the massive influence of Buffy and Lost made some people understandably sick of their many imitators, and Cloverfield caught strays.

Finally, and most importantly, there are the characters, instantly dismissed in some quarters as annoying yuppies, our lengthy introduction to whom left many viewers impatient for the monster part of the monster movie to begin. The quixotic quest of main character Rob (Michael Stahl-David) to find his injured love interest Beth (Odette Yustman) and escort her to safety in defiance of both a military evacuation order and, more importantly, the gigantic monster laying waste to landmark after landmark was seen less as noble and more as stupid. Google Cloverfield “rooting for the monster” and you’ll see that this is probably its lasting pop-cultural legacy. 

After watching the film recently, though, I’m convinced this is way off the mark. I don’t think craftspeople as accomplished as Reeves and Goddard somehow made Rob, Jason, Lily, Hud, Marlena, and Beth self-absorbed, overdramatic, irritating, and obnoxiously financially stable by accident, not realizing what they’d done till moviegoers started telling them. I think they created characters who, once we got to know them, would be instantly recognizable as completely out of their depth in the face of this terrifying catastrophe. 

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No badasses, no girlbosses — just a guy who’s upset because he fucked his best friend and then it got weird because he’s moving to Japan for a job, a woman who was ticking away the seconds until she could leave Rob’s going-away party before the creature crashed it, a dude who never stops cracking jokes until the very end because that’s how some people deal with this kind of thing, and so on. The most capable-seeming member of the crew, Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel), is in fact the first to go. With something as basic as its characters’ personalities, the movie is sending that Game of Thrones message: “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”

Jason’s death is crucial, too, to understanding Rob’s suicidal quest to rescue Beth (the aforementioned best friend who fucked him), and his friends’ decision to join him. Keep in mind he saw his brother die in front of him, crushed by a fucking tail or tentacle the size of a bridge, minutes earlier. So did Lily (Jessica Lucas), Jason’s fiancée. It’s entirely plausible that after Jason’s death — a traumatic enough event even absent the involvement of a creature from another world or 20,000 leagues under the sea or whatever — Rob would go all no-woman-left-behind for Beth, and that Lily would join him, as would his best friend and cameraman Hud (T.J. Miller) and Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), who’s basically just some random chick at the party who’d wind up alone if she didn’t stick with them. This isn’t bravery, in other words, and we’re not supposed to look at it as a failed evocation of such. It’s shock.


Which the film provides the audience, too, in abundance. From the moment the head of the Statue of Liberty crashes down in the street where our heroes are congregated, to repeated disbelieving cries of “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!”, Cloverfield hits us with one unexpected nightmare after another. Our first real glimpses of the creature in action. The sudden, fiery, deafening attack of the army. The emergence of its man-eating, disease-carrying parasites — skittering insects the size of basset hounds. Beth’s teetering building. Marlena’s explosive condition. The deaths of unexpected characters. The pitch-black ending. It’s like receiving a series of blows to the head, and it leaves you looking for new threats with every movement of Hud’s camera.

It’s smart writing, too. Showing us everything from the perspective the participants helps create that sense of you-are-there urgency, but it’s not enough. Anybody who lived in Manhattan that night would never forget it for the rest of their lives, but people who saw it from a distance and safely evacuated in an orderly fashion would make for a boring movie, even if one of them was carrying a camera. You need the whiplash left turns and escalations in stakes and momentum to adequately induce the panic-mode mindset you’re trying to create within the viewers. Each big shock is as disorienting as it is frightening, producing that “oh jesus what next” feeling that the characters themselves feel.

None of it would work if Reeves’s work were less visually accomplished. Utilizing digital camcorders, Reeves evokes the nighttime world of Manhattan beautifully, even under, er, less than ideal circumstances, alternating between the warm orange glow of streetlights and the blown-out white glare of store lighting and spotlights. The tumbling of the camera often creates accidental art — an image of Rob with his hand extended, stretched sideways across the screen as they rush down the stairs from his apartment to the street, or the weaving in and out of focus on the grass of Central Park when Hud drops the camera late in the film. Cloverfield looks like something, you know? It was made by people who were trying, and who succeeded. (If this sounds like damning it with faint praise, you should watch more popular horror movies from the ‘00s and get back to me.)

And the thing looks so expensive. The casual ease with which it depicts the most expensive place to film in America getting completely destroyed by a gigantic entity and the United States military is mindblowing, especially after 15 years of bland destructive spectacles in superhero movies shot either on streets in Vancouver or in warehouses in Atlanta. I watched it with my 14-year-old kid, who at times literally couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “How the hell did they film this?” he asked, completely baffled — and awed.

By the end of the film, we were all out of Mystery Science Theater 3000 wisecracks and mood-lightening jokes. The sense of tragedy and terror (a pointed word in this very post-9/11 film) is just too pervasive, too overwhelming. When the shit hits the fan, however that may happen, it’s all too easy to imagine yourself as, at best, a Rob — someone who swallows their fear, and fights to save the ones he loves, and simply fails. Cloverfield is like watching a slasher film where New York City itself is the victim, and there are no final girls. It’s a horror movie I never thought possible until I actually watched it. It can do the impossible for you too.

This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike, after the victory of the WGA in their own strike over similar issues. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn’t exist.

Sean T. Collins (@theseantcollins) writes about TV for Rolling StoneVultureThe New York Times, and anyplace that will have him, really. He and his family live on Long Island.