In the absolutely bonkers science-fiction film Pacific Rim (del Toro, 2013), the monstrous Kaiju first attacked humanity on 10th August 2013. The attack ended a few days later on August 15th but, in that time, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Oakland were completely devastated and the Kaiju War officially began. Accordingly, August 10th became known as “K-DAY” and is, for me, a fantastic excuse to talk about some giant monster movies!
Released: 18 January 2008
Director: Matt Reeves
Budget: $25 million
Stars: Michael Stahl-David, T.J. Miller, Lizzy Caplan, Odette Yustman, Jessica Lucas, and Mike Vogel
To celebrate Robert “Rob” Hawkins’ (Stahl-David) new job in Japan, his friends are throwing him a farewell party that is being recorded by his best friend, Hudson “Hud” Platt (Miller). However, Rob’s party, and his issues with friend and potential love interest Beth McIntyre (Yustman), are interrupted when a gigantic creature suddenly emerges from the sea and rampages throughout New York City!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cloverfield owes a great deal of its existence to Godzilla; producer J. J. Abrams first thought up the idea of creating an American counterpart to the famous kaiju when visiting Japan and partnered with writer Drew Goddard and director Matt Reeves to bring the concept to life. The film’s creature, a mysterious beast whose exact origins were left intentionally vague, was designed by legendary special effects artist Phil Tippett and his studio to be biologically functional but also more like a force of nature than a malevolent aggressor. Cloverfield went through a number of different titles, built an incredible amount of hype through the heavy use of viral marketing, and was shot entirely using a found footage approach that left some audience members feeling sick. The film went on to gross over $172 million worldwide and was widely praised for its atmosphere and effects, though the camera techniques and allusions to real-world terrorist attacks like 9/11 were criticised. Although Reeves had an idea for a sequel, the film was followed by a couple of loosely-connected films before a direct follow-up was finally announced in January 2021.
Cloverfield was such a strange and intriguing movie at the time; we’d seen found footage films before, of course, but they were still quite new and their marketing tended to be very surreal and metatextual. This was probably one of the first times I remember my friends really getting into a film’s viral marketing; they trawled through the website reading titbits about Slusho! and Bold Futura, and message boards were alive with people desperately analysing the vague trailers for any kinds of clues as to the monster’s identity, with many claiming that it would be Cthulu. Personally, I stayed away from all that; it was fun to see but I was hooked on the trailer alone and didn’t really see the need in wild speculation. It turned out, of course, that a lot of the viral marketing and expanded lore seen online was ultimately inconsequential to the film but it was still a fun, immersive, and unique way to promote the film.
The film primarily revolves around six characters caught up in the chaos of its events but the main character is Rob, a pretty average guy who is about to leave New York City for a new job in Japan. Rob’s just a normal, everyday sort of guy but he’s clearly a likeable and popular bloke as he has a lot of friends and acquaintances at his big leaving party, but he starts the film in a bit of a bind as not only is he leaving behind his friends and family for a foreign country but there’s also tension between him and his long-term friend Beth. Prior to the film, as seen in frequent cutaways to previous footage recorded by the camera, Rob and Beth hooked up and spent a fun-filled day at Coney Island but clearly his plans to leave caused a rift in their relationship and, despite the fact that he’s leaving, he’s clearly in love with her and wants to be with her, and so is kind of miffed when she brings a date to his party. His personal drama is put on hold, however, when a violent earthquake and power outage suddenly hits and the city is attacked by a gigantic creature. Rob’s first and primary overwhelming concern throughout the chaos that follows is getting to Beth and ensuring her safety; he fully plans to go through with this alone but his friends, scared out of their minds at the monster’s presence, don’t want to separate so they willingly follow along, which ultimately leads to many of them dying all so that Rob can get to Beth in a desperate attempt to get everyone out of there alive.
Tensions are frayed between Rob and Beth at the start of the film; after they slept together, he didn’t call or talk to her since he felt it was better to not get too attached as he was leaving for his new job. This left Beth heartbroken, however, and as hurt as Rob was by the whole thing, but neither of them were properly able to convey their feelings towards the other before the monster’s arrival. Their relationship is easily one of the most relatable in the film; having been friends for years, they had a spur of the moment romance but each felt like they couldn’t properly commit to their feelings because Rob had been offered a lucrative position as vice president of his company and she would never ask him to give that up just like he felt he had to go through with it despite his feelings for her. Beth is absent for a large portion of the film but Rob’s entire motivation is centered around finding her so that they can all leave together, no matter how great the danger is. When they find her, she’s seriously injured and trapped in her apartment but they manage to get to her in time and she’s incredibly grateful that he came back for her; with her safe, the group is finally able to make efforts to escape but, unfortunately, rescuing Beth cost them precious time and they’re left stranded in Central Park. With the military preparing a massive bombing run to try and destroy the creature, Beth and Rob seek shelter and admit their love for each other before presumably being killed in the ensuing attack.
Rob is primarily aided in his quest to save Beth by his brother, Jason Hawkins (Vogel), and his fiancé, Lily Ford (Lucas); at the start of the film, Jason is annoyed that Lily has tasked him with carrying the camera and recording farewell messages at Rob’s party, so he quickly passes the job on to Hud so that he can enjoy himself. Jason and Rob have a very relatable and realistic relationship; Jason loves his brother but recognises that he’s kind of a douchebag and not good enough for Beth. Still, he adamantly encourages his brother to seize the opportunity with Beth and is the first one to suggest getting out of the city after the creature attacks. His decision to head to the Brooklyn Bridge costs him his life, however, when the creature inadvertently destroys the bridge and kills him in the process, which devastates both Rob and Lily. Lily is the pragmatist of the group; of them all, she’s the most responsible and serious and initially just wants Rob to have a great leaving party so that he knows how much they all love him. Constantly annoyed at Jason’s childish antics, she’s forever having to keep him and Hud on track so that things go off smoothly, but her sensible demeanour gives way to abject terror when the creature appears; though she and the others try to talk Rob out of risking crossing the city to rescue Beth, she’s the first to willingly agree to go with him and actually ends up being the only one of the group to unequivocally be seen surviving the events of the film.
The group, and the chaotic events that surrounded them, are constantly recorded by Hud, a well-meaning but somewhat socially inept friend of Rob’s who has an excitable personality but also a reputation for being a bit of a screw up and a bullshitter. He’s perfectly happy avoiding any responsibility that’s more complicated than putting up a goodbye banner but finds the job of recording the guests quite enjoyable, despite the fact that he keeps cutting people off and getting distracted by Marlena Diamond (Caplan). Even when the group are stumbling through the darkness and surrounded by rats, with sounds of destruction rumbling on the streets above, Hud continues to respond to the stress with awkward humour, nonsensical rambling, and terrified sarcasm, which may annoy his companions but is a completely understandable way to react considering the circumstances. Since she’s a friend of Lily’s and merely an acquaintance of Rob’s, Marlena is a bit of an outsider at the party and with the group and is initially annoyed by Hud’s badgering and awkward advances but is left shell-shocked by the creature’s attack and having seen it eating people. With little other choice than to accompany the others in order to survive, she briefly bonds with Hud after saving him from one of the parasites that accompany the creature, though she falls ill and eventually explodes in a shower of gore from the creature’s bite.
The military also plays a minor role in the film; completely outmatched and underprepared for the creature’s attack, they throw everything they have at it and fail in every attempt to do anything more than further enrage it. In the end, they’re forced to level the entire city in a last-ditch effort to destroy it and even this is left ambiguous by the film’s abrupt ending. The creature itself, often referred to as “Clover”, is largely obscured and hidden for the majority of the film; indeed, when it first strikes, the characters believe the disruptions are because of a terrorist attack and Clover’s initial destruction of the Statue of Liberty and arrival in the city is certainly framed and presented in a way to mirror such tragic events as 9/11 (buildings are half-destroyed and burning, the streets are littered with rubble and wreckage, and people are covered in ash, dirt, and debris). Clover’s movements appear to be a sporadic and mindless rampage as it flounders around seemingly at random, crashing into buildings and leaving confusion and destruction in its wake; this is reflected perfectly in Hud’s frenzied filming style as he desperately tries to get a good look at the creature while being overwhelmed by fear and panic. To make matters worse, Clover is covered by these smaller crab-like parasites that scuttle around and attack everyone in sight, including our main characters, and make for a tense and dangerous secondary antagonist as their bite proves to be devastatingly lethal.
I mentioned at the start that Cloverfield’s marketing was immersive and a fun way to engage to audience and that’s fitting because in ties directly in to the found footage approach and first-person perspective of the film. Obviously, this genre isn’t for everyone; it’s wild and chaotic and unpredictable, the focus shifts and the camera is constantly moving about so we hardly ever get a clear shot of what’s happening, or the creature. One of the issues with found footage films is obviously the question of why the hell anyone would keep filming and carrying around a camera during something like this but Hud explicitly states that he’s recording it so that people can see “how it all went down”, which is a pretty good way of justifying his continued filming, and Hud’s sheer terror is perfectly conveyed through his erratic camera movements and tendency to get easily distracted, which is admittedly disorienting but extremely effective at conveying the panic and confusion caused by the creature’s attack.
It’s pretty obvious what the filmmakers were going for with Cloverfield; not only are they crafting a wholly American monster film, they’re clearly paralleling the creature’s rampage to a terrorist attack. The film released some seven years after 9/11 but obviously the event was, and still is, very raw in the minds of people and audiences everywhere; everyone remembers where they were when they first heard about that day and scenes of the destruction, devastation, and confusion caused by the attacks continue to be powerful and horrifying. Evoking such imagery works massively in Cloverfield’s favour; in conjunction with the wild found footage approach, the entire event is seen as disorientating and appalling, and it’s perfectly understandable for the characters to initially suspect another terrorist attack. However, they are perhaps even more terrified when they review Hud’s footage and discover that “it’s alive!”; stunned and panic-stricken, they have even less idea of how to survive and react to such an attack so focusing on getting to Beth and escaping seems like the best idea simply because they’re desperate for a tangible and attainable goal to focus on in all the madness.
The monster fan in me remains fascinated by the creature; thanks to the film’s erratic filming style, we hardly ever get to see it and, for the majority of the film, its exact dimensions and biology are left to our imagination, which only adds to its intrigue and horror. Some of the best and most memorable screen monsters earned their reputation by being seeped in shadow or hidden for much of the film, and Clover is no different; generally, we just see a leg here, a flash of its body, and hear its braying roar echoing across the city. When we do see it, it’s this tangled mess of gangly limbs and a massive mouth full of fangs and we learn next to nothing about it, which only adds to its awe and mystery; Hud wildly speculates that it came from the ocean or possibly from space, both of which are subtly hinted at throughout the film, but ultimately its origins are meaningless and its horror only augmented by its mystery. Clearly, it’s a durable and dangerous creature; it causes an incredible amount of destruction in its mindless rampage and easily shrugs off the military’s weapons, even high-powered missiles and bombs, and is able to leap high enough to swipe a helicopter out of the air. Although it is said to eat people, it doesn’t seem to swallow and digest them as it spits Hud out after gobbling him up at the film’s conclusion. So great is Clover’s threat that the military decides to sacrifice the entire city of New York to destroy it, which leaves our final two survivors trapped, terrified, and presumably killed in the process, though the film leaves it ambiguous as to whether this actually destroyed the creature and a final, post-credits message when played backwards seems to suggest that it’s still alive…
Cloverfield is quite the intense and terrifying experience; found footage movies are difficult to get right as it’s so easy for them to come across as cheap and disorientating as anyone can grab a camera and just fling it about while shouting and screaming but Cloverfield uses this filmmaking technique extremely well to convey the mystery and sheer awesome terror of its rampaging monster. The characters really help sell this film, which is great because it’s much more focused on them than the gigantic creature; they react to both their interpersonal dramas and the appearance of a raging monster in a believable and realistic way and I enjoyed their banter and rapport, which was the right balance of familiarity, fear, and amiability. The star of the film is obviously the monster and Clover is one of the most intriguing, mystifying, and terrifying kaiju ever put to film; its biology makes it seem horrifyingly probably and its abilities are rooted in some kind of realism. Add to that the parallels to terrorist attacks and the sheer awesomeness of its rage and you have a creature that made an immediate impact that I just wanted to see more of and learn more about, only to be continually let down with follow-ups that largely ignored the best part of the film.
Were you a fan of Cloverfield? Did you get caught up in the viral marketing and what did you think the creature was before the film released? What did you think to the found footage approach to the film and are you a fan of that genre? Were you a fan of Clover? What do you think its true origins were and what did you think to the parallels to terrorist attacks? What’s your favourite kaiju movie, and how are you celebrating K-Day today? Whatever your thoughts on Cloverfield, kaiju, or monster movies in general, please do sign up to leave a comment below or respond to my social media and be sure to check back in for more giant monster content in the near future!