One of the thrills of seeing a daikaiju movie—you know, the kind that features giant monsters like Godzilla, Mothra, King Kong, the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and others—is watching the critters rampage through a crowded city, taking on the military and causing enormous collateral damage. I often thought that these movies, which really are a Japanese thing moreso than anybody else’s, were Japan’s way of processing the extraordinary damage it sustained during WWII, and a statement on the extinction-level power that had been unlocked by the development of nuclear weapons. As time went on, giant monsters seemed to be less a statement about such matters and more of a vicarious thrill, perhaps with a kind of comic book/professional wrestling aspect thrown in as you get amped up to see two particular monsters you enjoy meet in battle. Most of these movies follow a predictable pattern: Scientists detect some kind of anomaly, warning signs percolate and then the monster appears, wreaks havoc, and finally is done in by the scientists who saw the early warning signs. Along the way, entire swaths of cityscape get ruined. As a kid, it was fun to watch guys in rubber suits trash models of buildings and tanks and power stations. But as I grew older, I couldn’t help but think, all those buildings have people in them. All those tanks have people in them. All those streets being stomped by giant, reptilian feet have people in them. What about them?
In 2008, along came Cloverfield, a found-footage movie developed largely under the radar by J.J. Abrams and his colleague Matt Reeves that discusses that very question: what is it like to be one of the little people running around in a city where the army and some giant monster are duking it out? Turns out, however much fun as it is to watch cities get crushed by giant monsters, seeing it from the street level becomes pretty unsettling. Which is how it should be.
The story is an extended video selfie shot by Rob and his girlfriend Beth as they enjoy a day together at Coney Island. But soon the footage is intercut with new footage recorded on top of it by one of Jason’s friends, Hud, who is probably the worst cameraman ever to hit a REC button. The new footage comes some months after Coney Island, at a farewell party for Rob in a lower Manhattan apartment. Rob is leaving for a job opportunity in Japan, and Hud records all kinds of testimonials from folks in attendance as a kind of video greeting card for Rob. As the evening progresses, some kind of earthquake rattles the city, and everyone runs up to the roof to see what is going on. A huge explosion near Liberty island lights up the night sky, and the head of the Statue of Liberty herself sails through the air, skidding to a halt right outside of the apartment building. A monster has come to the Big Apple.
As people flee the island, Rob, his brother Jason, Jason’s girlfriend Lily, Hud and random partygoer Marlena all head to Midtown to rescue Beth, who is hurt and trapped in her building, an early casualty of whatever creature is rampaging through the city. You’d think that heading uptown and avoiding a skyscraper-sized monster would be easy, but as we soon see, it is most definitely not, and what follows is an extended first-person shakycam narrative of our young heroes as they navigate the daikaiju warzone, getting caught in the middle of things far more often than they would like to.
What makes Cloverfield fun is the way it drives home how much it sucks to be on the ground during a monster invasion. Rather than taking delight in the destruction, we fixate on getting a good, long look at the monster…until we discover that if you’re standing still long enough to see the monster, the monster can see you, too.
For me, the moment of truth is one specific scene early on when a collapsing building sends a dust cloud rolling through the streets in a shot that very much evokes memories of 9/11. As a guy from the NYC area, I don’t like seeing 9/11 imagery. But what I liked about this scene was that it didn’t feel like it was too soon (being some seven years after the attack) nor did it feel like a cheap stunt. It felt like another disaster in a city big enough and strong enough to handle whatever comes its way. This time, it happened to be a giant monster. Seeing the scene, registering it and moving on moments later was an experience I didn’t recognize until after the movie had ended. Cloverfield did for me, as an American audience member, what I had always imagined Godzilla was doing for Japanese audiences. It gave form to something awful that could not be easily understood, processed or ignored. It made that moment of recognition and then moved on, and I realized, it was okay to see bad things happen to New York in the movies again. I don’t think that’s what Cloverfield was specifically aiming at; you couldn’t have a monster attack in Manhattan and not draw a parallel to 9/11, so it just addressed it head-on to get it out of the way and tell the rest of the story. But I appreciated how well it was done. I still do. And I always will.