The story goes that producer J.J. Abrams was on promotional duties in Japan for Mission: Impossible III (2006) when he went shopping with his young son and visited a toy shop where he was impressed by a display of Godzilla models. “I realised that America hasn’t had a monster movie to call its own,” he later noted, “not since King Kong all those years ago anyway, and thought it was time to change that. I set about thinking how to tell an invading monster story in a very different way. I wanted to make it insane, intense and modern.” The result, two years later, was Cloverfield, produced by Abrams and directed by Matt Reeves which crossed the found footage aesthetic of The Blair Witch Project (1999) with the ever popular “giant-monster-attacks-a-city” genre.

On 22 May 2009, Jason Hawkins (Mike Vogel), his girlfriend Lily Ford (Jessica Lucas) and their friend Hud Platt (T.J. Miller) are preparing a farewell party for Jason’s brother Rob (Michael Stahl-David) who is about to leave New York for a new job in Japan. Hud records testimonials from the guests, which include Marlene Diamond (Lizzy Caplan) and Rob’s ex, Beth McIntyre (Odette Yustman) who angrily leaves the party when a jealous Rob confronts her about her new boyfriend. The party is interrupted by what appears to be an earthquake that rocks the building, knocking out power across the city. Heading to the roof to get a better view of an oil tanker that has apparently capsized near Liberty Island, the guests narrowly escape with their lives when a hug explosion rains debris down on them and, after seeing the head of the Statue of Liberty hurled down the street outside, the group realise that a giant monster has arrived in the city. Rob tries to find Beth, who has been injured in the incident, as the monster rampages around the city and the military prepare for a massive and potentially massively destructive counter-attack. Intercut with this footage is an older recording of Rob and Beth visiting Coney Island on 27 April and the sharp-eyed viewer (and you need to be very sharp-eyed…) will see an object falling from the sky and crashing into the sea, an unexplained event that one assumes has something to do with the arrival of the monster.

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Cloverfield turned up with virtually no fanfare with a marketing campaign that took lessons learned from The Blair Witch Project to whole new heights. Filmed in secret (given the mayhem that Reeves unleashes on New York and the huge number of effects needed to bring all this to the screen, that’s pretty extraordinary), the first indication that the film existed was a teaser trailer showing the head of the Statue of Liberty being thrown through the air that was shown at screenings of Transformers (2007). Coupled with a complex series of fake websites, MySpace accounts for the characters, staged news footage that appears to who an oil rig being destroyed off the coast of New York and various other online clues and hints that at first seemed to have nothing to do with the film, Cloverfield arrived on screens with virtually nothing known about the actual story itself.

It was a risky marketing strategy but it worked. The opening titles suggest that what we’re watching is footage retrieved by the military from “US-447” an “area formerly known as “Central Park”” 1 showing “multiple sightings of case designate “Cloverfield””. As such, the opening party footage makes little sense in the context of it having been kept by the military (why would they be interested in archiving anything before the initial “earthquake”?) but it works well in establishing the various relationships between the main characters. The film often seems less concerned with the monster itself (we barely see it for most of the film) but with the traumatised reactions of the small group of friends as they try to process the horrors unfolding around them. As such, it’s inevitably been seen as a reaction to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 (before the threat is identified, background players can be heard discussing if the initial chaos has been caused by a terrorist attack) with its chilling shots of collapsing buildings and the dust clouds that envelop the characters in the aftermath.

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The shot of the severed head of the Statue of Liberty hurtling through the air and coming to rest in the street outside Rob’s apartment building has become iconic, a startling image inspired, according to Abrams, by the poster for John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981). Tellingly, when the head comes to a stop, a crowd of young people gather around it, phones in hand, taking photos and videos of the aftermath. The entire film is as much about our increasing reliance on media to record, process and explain our everyday experiences as it is about a destructive monster rampage. No-one believes that the cause of the destruction is a monster until Hud rewinds his tape and shows them the brief glimpse of a huge shape moving between skyscrapers that he’s recorded and our – and the characters’ – first decent glimpse of the creatures, and the accompanying, highly aggressive parasites that fall from its body to attack bystanders, comes via television screens in an audio-visual shop that is being looted by opportunistic thieves.

Those parasites are a particularly nice touch. Like huge spiders, they rain down from the monster to attack anything that moves, their bites proving horrifically fatal. In a startling scene set in an underground railway tunnel, Marlene is bitten while trying to defend Hud. When they stumble upon a military field hospital shortly afterwards, the doctors are heard to react with panic when they realise that she’s been bitten and as the rest of the group are hustled out of the room, Hud captures what appears to be Marlene exploding as a result of whatever toxin has been transmitted from the parasite.

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The effects that bring these little horrors, and the larger monster (identified by crew members but never on screen as an infant, its rampage caused by its terror at finding itself separated from its parents), are still hugely impressive. They would have been so in an “ordinary” monster film, but the fact that the team at Tippett Studios had to insert the various monster sightings into wild, ill-disciplined footage shot on a camera being wielded by a fleeing, panic-stricken Hud (“People need to see this”, he tells Rob by way of rationalising his continuing to record) makes it all the more impressive. Keeping the monster largely unseen – we get tantalising glimpses of it only as and when Hud’s camera accidentally alights on it – makes it all the more mysterious and terrifying. The sudden appearance of a huge, gaping mouth looming above the group as they seek refuge in a subway station during a deafening, disorientating scene where they are caught between the creature and an advancing military unit, is particularly scary.

But there are quieter moments that are affecting too. The swarm of rats fleeing the still unseen parasites in the tunnel for example, or the driverless horse and carriage calmly wandering the streets of an increasingly ruined New York. A shell-shocked Marlene’s barely audible “it was eating people” after the first attack is particularly chilling. Indeed the use of sound throughout is notable, from the ear-splitting cacophany of that military attack to the eerie sound of the monster’s distant, echoing cries at it moves away from the group.

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There are moments of humour too, mainly thanks to the barely seen but likeable and genuinely funny Hud. Not the sharpest tool in the box, Hud struggles to make sense of what’s going on while the others are more focused on simply staying alive. When they retrieve the wounded Beth from her apartment building, now precariously leaning against a neighbouring tower after it’s been knocked over by the monster, Beth gets her first glimpse of the monster and demands to know what it is. “It’s a terrible thing,” deadpans Hud only to follow it up a few minutes later, when Beth asks about a parasite, with “Something else, also terrible.”

The found footage format divides audience down the middle – some enjoy the sense of immediacy it can bring to a film, others are put off by the motion-sickness that was frequently reported by audiences after seeing Cloverfield or the apparent illogicality of characters continuing to record events when they should be fleeing 2. But here it works remarkably well. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen in many other monster films, but it takes the street-level view of the chaos pioneered by the rebooted Gamera series (all too often in earlier monster films we see the action through the eyes of the scientists or military personnel trying to combat the monster) and takes it to a whole new level. The characters in Cloverfield never have any idea what’s going on – they have no weapons to fight the menace that confronts them, no specialist knowledge to help the process the horrors. They’re just ordinary people caught up in the most extraordinary of events, again echoing the horrifying events of 11 September 2001.

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Cloverfield was followed by a pair of “sort-of” sequels (with a proper, direct sequel still being promised as of spring 2019) forming a strange shared universe. The impressive 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) so far seems to have little to do with the first film beyond the title and a briefly glimpsed letter from Tagruato, the Japanese company that Rob was due to start working for, while the disappointing The Cloverfield Paradox (2018) features a brief cameo from what looks like the parent Cloverfield monster and whose tale of scientists accidentally ripping a hole in the fabric of space time may explain how the monster came to New York. One dedicated fan noticed – and one can’t help wonder why they did this in the first place – that if you start watching Cloverfield and The Cloverfield Paradox at the same time, the monster’s first attack on New York coincides with the triggering of a the particle accelerator that causes the problems in Paradox. Make of that what you will…

  1. The opening caption suggest that the footage was retrieved from an “SD card” but throughout the film, Rob and Hud discuss the tape that Hud is recording everything on. 
  2. In fairness, we are shown that Hud is wearing the camera around his neck on a strap (characters talking to him are frequently seen looking at him just off camera) and he appears to be switching the camera on and off, possibly accidentally at times, throughout the film. It’s not like he’s looking through a viewfinder the entire time.