Warning: spoilers ahead.
Normally this blog focuses on books, but Cloverfield is the rare film with sufficient depth and impact to make it worth a full post, with the second viewing more profound than the first. Cloverfield speaks to modern anxieties about fear, terrorism, and response more effectively than most movies, full stop, let alone horror movies.
The monster itself in Cloverfield is unexplained, much as 9/11 took the vast majority of Americans by surprise—even those who were nominally supposed to guard against such events. The only hint regarding the title comes at the beginning, with a brief video indicating that we’re about to watch a Department of Defense video related to “Cloverfield,” but with no other sign of the name’s meaning, if any. The shot functions like a false “translator’s preface” or statement of authenticity at the beginning of many older novels that claims historical authenticity. Still, it reassures us that civilization—or at least the Department of Defense—has survived the attack long enough to create the video.
The first twenty minutes are a party like too many I’ve been to, except, this being Hollywood, with more attractive participants. Filmed chiefly by Hud, a character notable chiefly for his passivity and lack of character, the movie really begins with reports of the monster and then the lights being extinguished. On the Manhattan streets, a wall of dust rolls toward people—like in videos of the World Trade Center’s collapse. The head of the Statue of Liberty rolls through the street, indicating that perhaps liberty itself has died, or at least has within the monster’s zone. A character says, “I saw it. It’s alive,” leaving the “it” floating in space, imagination filling in the details.
The monster’s purpose, aside from terror, if any, is mysterious, and the response to the unnamed monster becomes steadily more draconian as the movie continues. Over time, the responses to 9/11, especially regarding air traffic and civil rights have become more draconian, culminating to the point that airports, flying, and foreign travel are now burdens that grow more onerous over time (see here, here, and especially the discussion of the apt phrase “security theater” in Bruce Schneier’s philosophical book concerning the modern age, Beyond Fear, which is available free here). Books like The Lucifer Effect demonstrate the effects of systems designed to dehumanize people—and such books are, for the moment, mostly ignored, like distant shooting in a war zone. As Cloverfield continues the constant drone of war in the background becomes like modern cable news. I recently started teaching college freshmen, and the other day I was talking to a guy who made an offhand comment that in turn made me realize that, to him, we’ve virtually always been fighting wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.
In this atmosphere, movies are beginning to reflect the larger world, as art always does. Ross Douthat wrote wrote an excellent piece on contemporary movies called The Return of the Paranoid Style, which analyzes movies as a rerun of the 70s:
Conservatives such as Noonan hoped that 9/11 would bring back the best of the 1940s and ’50s, playing Pearl Harbor to a new era of patriotism and solidarity. Many on the left feared that it would restore the worst of the same era, returning us to the shackles of censorship and conformism, jingoism and Joe McCarthy. But as far as Hollywood is concerned, another decade entirely seems to have slouched round again: the paranoid, cynical, end-of-empire 1970s.
We expected John Wayne; we got Jason Bourne instead.
The essay is not easily excerpted, and is worth reading in full. Cloverfield doesn’t fit well in its thesis: the movie contains little in the way of overt politics, but whether intentionally or not, its manifestations of current fears about monsters that don’t die when we attack with airstrikes or even ground forces. Although Cloverfield is symbolic of fears regarding attack, one of its strengths is its refusal to be partisan. The military is depicted heroically, and there is little in Cloverfield that indicate self-flagellation. It is all immediate reaction and fear, and, like terrorism, tends to leave us with more questions than answers.
An essay in Terry Teachout’s Reader called “Beasts and Superbeasts” observes “nothing thrills us more than stories implying that there are dark forces in the world too powerful to be tamed by human hands.” This was in 1999; he also wrote that “Of late […] cinematic horror has entered a decadent phase in which vampires have mostly given way to serial killers whose murderous frenzies are coolly explained away by psychiatrist-sleuths, while semi-satirical movies like Scream openly spoof the all-too-familiar conventions of the genre […]” Maybe 9/11 has allowed us to return to the mystery of devils walking among us, the unexplained or poorly explained, and the terrifying unknown. It’s not the monster that scares us in Alien, but the fact that we don’t know where the monster is, don’t know why it operates as it does, and can’t reason with it. In Cloverfield, the monster scares us for our inability to understand it or attack it with bullets and bombs.
The impetus for “Beasts and Superbeasts” was The Blair Witch Project, a movie that, “[…] though hugely entertaining, is not especially scary, no doubt because it was all too clearly made by people who do not believe in the demons whose presence they have so cunningly implied.” Although Teachout overstates the case against The Blair Witch Project, as it is scary in more than a “gotcha!” way to me, recalling as it does those times in the woods, his general principle is true. If The Blair Witch Project reflects the decadent 90s in that respect, Cloverfield aesthetically and artistically benefits from the opposite in the 2000s, as the idea of an attack against New York isn’t a fantasy or goblin any longer. That’s bad for the United States but can lend heft to movies. Cloverfield takes its subject seriously, as Teachout argues The Sixth Sense. That’s not to say it has no jokes, usually relating to Hud’s obliviousness, but it has more emotional power thanks to its resonance with events.
Too many recent novels and movies take the first twenty minutes of Cloverfield and extend them onwards and upwards. The bored lassitude of 20-something partiers captured so well by Claire Messud in The Emperor’s Children is evident in the first fifth of Cloverfield, and its cameraman never escapes from the semi-hipster attitude of overgrown children. The characters are smaller-than-life, and their own motivations are barely more articulated than the monster’s—their inchoateness is itself a commentary on the kinds of unexamined lives that seem not uncommon. The difference between Cloverfield and its competitors, and one reason it passes Teachout’s “Beast and Superbeasts” tests, is that it is about something beyond itself, unlike, say, Garden State or London, the latter a smaller movie like Cloverfield but without the monster.
This essay has a central weakness built into its reading of horror and politics in that those who flew planes into buildings were human, as are those who order bombs dropped on cities from 20,000 feet. The motivation for either may appear foreign to those on the receiving end, but it is not wholly un-understandable; Al-Queda regularly posts video haranguing the West, however illogically or unfairly, and the toxic conditions of Afghanistan were a product of a long line of cultural and historical developments. As Charlie Wilson’s War observes, we did to aid in the construction of our Frankenstein’s monster, though we didn’t notice until after the fact. We blundered in Baghdad, as James Fallows argues, though Iraq might eventually become stable. We feel as if 9/11 came from nowhere, like the unnamed monster does in Cloverfield, whose very lack of identifier is appropriate: 9/11 has stuck to the event and day, but it’s an odd moniker, almost by default, especially compared to other infamous events that come with location signifiers (Pearl Harbor, Gulf of Tonkin). Still, it’s worth remembering the danger of creating an unknowable other who is easier to demonize in a Lord of the Flies style. The markers tying Cloverfield and terrorism are still there, however, and its warning of the dangers worth remembering.
It’s presidential campaign season, and candidates in both parties are eagerly trying to avoid being associated with the foreign policy snafus of the last five years that are the equivalent of shooting missiles that aren’t effective, as America veers dangerously between wanting to pull out altogether from our “adventure” in Iraq and the temptation to continue striding about the world without paying enough attention to whether we’re about to step on an unexpected landmine. Countries we should be paying more attention to, like many former Soviet Republics, get short shrift, as Douthat says in a blog post, while Iraq and Afghanistan pull more than their weight thanks to the relative size of our commitments there. The worrying thing is that the total focus on Al-Queda and Iraq might let another Cloverfield event occur, seemingly out of nowhere, in which a purely military response will be ineffective when we’re left confused and reacting instead of lifting our eyes from the collective party long enough to see the punch before we land, disoriented, on the floor.
In Cloverfield, to save us, we have to destroy Manhattan, and the ambiguous moral calculus remains just that: ambiguous. The most startling part of Cloverfield is its lack of conclusion or certainty. Characters constantly ask each other, “What was that?” and find no answers. The Brooklyn Bridge is destroyed by the monster, with an American flag falling with it. A TV monitor shows “Manhattan under attack,” followed by an image of military trucks responding to the carnage. But will the military be effective in this situation? At least using conventional, World War II-style tactics, the answer appears to be no. But the thing must be fought anyway, as it’s in Manhattan. Maybe if we can ask the right questions, we’ll eventually learn how to fight it—otherwise, we might have to destroy villages in order to save them.
While on the topic of movies, I was going to also pan The X-Files: I Want to Believe, but Slate provides such a solid hit that I’m left with nothing worth discussing:
The nefarious plot behind the agent’s abduction is so far-fetched I’m itching to spoil it. But I’ll limit myself to observing that, if ever I’m dying of a rare brain disease, I hope my surgeon won’t go home and frantically Google treatment options, as Scully does at one key moment. (Couldn’t she at least log on to Medscape?) The problem with the movie’s semisupernatural crime plot, though, isn’t that the resolution is completely outlandish; it’s that the outlandishness is insufficiently grounded in pseudoscience. If you’re going to posit stuff this crazy, you’d better have some solid-sounding bullshit to back it up.
I’m not quite of a mind with Slate’s Troy Patterson in finding the new movie “vomitously stupid”; rather, it’s a gorgeous, lulling, thoroughly unnecessary exercise in high-minded Anglophilia.
Renting Cloverfield and watching it even for the third, fourth, or fifth time is infinitely preferable than the second X-Files movie.