I remember Cloverfield causing a mini-sensation when it came out, the secretive marketing campaign helping build the kind of anticipation you rarely see for a $25 million movie from a first-time director with no stars in it. Which is to say, people on the internet cared. Before clickbait became a word and the “curiosity gap” was a concept taken for granted in marketing team ideation coke binges, Cloverfield had the Upworthy headline of movie trailers. It didn’t even have a title! Just some pretty young people partying, a thing blowing up, and a flash of the release date, “1-18-08.”
This would probably be barely enough to warrant a shrug and a dismissive wank today, but this was late-2007 at the peak of Lost-mania. This 1-18-08 thing had the J.J. Abrams name and a veil of secrecy, and that was all it needed. The public was desperate to be mystified.
Here’s a blurb from SlashFilm typical of reports at the time:
We saw a screening of Transformers last night, but we weren’t lucky enough to see what people are now referring to as the trailer to JJ Abrams Top Secret Movie titled Cloverfield. Our friends at FirstShowing were lucky enough to be at a screening that showed the trailer. Everyone who has seen it so far are calling it one of the coolest trailers ever. And the best part, it’s for a movie no one really even knew existed. The trailer apparently ends without even a title, just “Produced by J.J. Abrams” and the release date “1.18.08”. You can read the trailer description over at FS, but everyone is saying not to. People are saying this is a trailer you really need to experience yourself.
Remember “slusho”? The mysterious beverage company with an ambiguous connection to the project? Tagruato, the Japanese deep-sea drilling company putting out mysterious press releases and seismographs? MySpace pages for all the movie characters? (I barely do, but IGN had a nice rundown.) Cloverfield had “Easter Eggs” and tie-ins before it was even a movie. Viral sites! Bootleg trailers! Trailers for trailers! So many now-standard parts of releasing a movie in the internet age started with or were inspired by Cloverfield. I say this not quite with genuine esteem, but with begrudging respect. It’s kind of gross, but undeniably an effective scam.
In the time since, Cloverfield, which earned $170 million worldwide (including $80 million domestic) — not Earth-shattering, but pretty solid given the budget — found footage became a genre all its own in a way it never did after Blair Witch, the monster movie experienced a genuine revival, and the title became synonymous for a successful viral campaign. Releasing an event movie? You better Cloverfield that sh*t.
Eight years and then some later, Paramount and J.J. Abrams are releasing a sort-of sequel, the thankfully-not-found-footage 10 Cloverfield Lane, which opens this Friday. Once again, I can already call it innovative and I haven’t even seen it. At the very least, it’s innovative in concept. The two movies don’t look alike in any way, yet Abrams tied them together using nothing but a shared word in the title. Is 10 Cloverfield Lane a sequel? A prequel? What do they have to do with each other? Curiosity gap! Come to think of it, I still don’t know what the hell “Cloverfield” even means. (Someone will tell me, I’m sure.)
As of this week, I’d still never seen the original. Normally, I try to reserve Revisited columns for older movies, but influential as Cloverfield was (for better or worse), this felt like an ideal time to try to see if I could relive a piece of history I missed the first time around. Does it hold up? Did it ever? How much of Cloverfield‘s mystique was based on the actual film?
Better In Theory
For some instantly recognizably clever ideas, actually executing them feels superfluous. Tedious, even. Like, I can pick up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and chortle at the title, maybe even flip through the pages and skim read a couple, but there’s zero chance I’m reading all 320, because I already got the joke. No harm no foul, game recognize game, Seth Grahame-Smith. Cloverfield feels like that. That’s probably why I never got around to watching it in the first place. But it’s eight years later now, and I feel like I should.
The film opens with footage of some friends throwing a surprise going away party for a guy named Rob (Michael Stahl-David). Rob’s moving to Japan, and he must be really rich because his Manhattan apartment is massive. This is intercut with footage of Rob (Michael Stahl-David) and an equally bland hot girl named Beth (Odette Yustman), basking in a post-coital glow before a trip to Coney Island.
Apparently, the going away party footage was filmed over the Coney Island footage, which is why we’re swapping between both. I don’t quite understand the logistics of why there would be gaps in the recently recorded footage where the older footage would peek through, but I’m willing to suspend disbelief. Or at least, I would be, if the Coney Island trip delivered any useful backstory at all. All it really tells us is “see those two boring people? Yup, they’re f*ckin’,” which any idiot would’ve already known as soon as they saw them at the party five minutes later.
Back at the party, Beth brings a different, but equally blandly handsome dude to Rob’s party. Rob goes off to pout, leading Hud (T.J. Miller), the guy who’s holding the camera, to follow them around yelling “ROB, WHY DOES IT SEEM WEIRD BETWEEN YOU TWO?” Rob explains it to Hud, and Hud runs around telling the party telling everyone else, apparently because he’s such a gossip. And so we get to hear him explain the thing we already knew at least seven times.
Thus we’re introduced to all of Cloverfield‘s main elements: high school relationship drama, people pouting, and the world’s dumbest narrator. It seems Miller (who history has proven to be a brilliant comedic actor) was supposed to offer comic relief here solely through constantly stating the obvious and generally being a f*cking idiot. Which isn’t hilarious so much as it is irritating. Cloverfield was rightly lauded for maintaining some suspense and not just opening with the monster money shot, and yet before the monster shows up, it’s basically a twentysomething’s Can’t Hardly Wait without style or jokes.
After the monster does show up, we get dialogue like “Rob? We need to get out of here, there’s like some strange sh*t going on. Rob? Rob!” And “that one that grabbed me. It was trying to drag me away. What was up with that?”
Also this exchange:
HUD: What time is the helicopter leaving?
ROB: Oh six hundred.
HUD: Oh six hundred, what time is that?
ROB: Six o’clock.
HUD: Oh yeah, I knew that.
Cloverfield showed impressive foresight in casting Miller, only to stick him behind the camera and have him shout lobotomized Scooby-Doo dialogue the whole time. It caught Lizzy Caplan similarly on a career upswing (post-Mean Girls, but pre-Masters of Sex), and wastes her even worse, casting her as Hud’s sullen model love interest. Hud likes her because she’s hot! She barely knows Hud exists, because he’s comic relief! That’s par for the course vis a vis Cloverfield‘s character depth. She can’t stand Hud at first, then sort of starts to like him after they fight off a monster baby together, and then she explodes from a monster bite. By the way, this has to be one of the most damaging movie tropes around, where all an obnoxious guy has to do to get his unrequited crush to like him is prove how much he cares about her. “Sure, she thinks I’m a loser now, but wait until she sees how slavishly devoted I am!” We should file a class action lawsuit.
Anyway, the whole movie has this good-in-theory, terrible-in-practice/two steps forward three steps back effect. Focusing on the regular people in a monster movie rather than the military and the scientists, and just using the monster as a massive MacGuffin, is kind of a cool idea. But it also means that the narrative relies a lot more on the characters. Who no one ever got around to writing. And so we get talking haircuts, who occasionally pout or frown, and instead of projecting “scared” just shout “I’m scared!”
A product of its time? To some extent. Lost‘s characters could be obnoxious talking haircuts who constantly shouted each other’s names too (God, remember Claire?), but it mattered a lot less because there was a mystery there. What is this island they’re on? What’s with that hatch? What about the black smoke monster? For all the mystery of Cloverfield‘s marketing, the movie had virtually none. There’s a monster attacking New York. Save the girl, run. When someone says “We’re right behind you!” and then repeats it three times, you know that person is going to die. And yet it’s constantly pausing for these same characters to pout or cry over the latest dead friend to drive home the non-existent emotional stakes. It’s like they wanted to do a monster movie that was more than just people running (great idea!), but couldn’t come up with a great alternative. So they run and get sad, run and get sad, run and get sad, until you just wish they would die. I wish I knew more about the monster; she was the only interesting character. I don’t know what it was like to watch this in the theater when it came out, but watching Cloverfield in 2016, on my laptop on a plane, involved a constant battle between forcing myself to keep watching and doing literally anything else, like crossword puzzles or trying to see if I could fit an entire thumb in my eye.
When A Great Outline Is A Bad Jumping Off Point
Finally watching Cloverfield after all these years feels like a great defense for judging a book by its cover. No one bombarded by as much media as we are would ever say that’s a bad idea. If you don’t learn to judge a book by its cover these days, you’re going to spend a lifetime reading really sh*tty books. Have fun reading Snooki’s novel and the autobiography of Sarah Palin. Let me know how those turn out.
Cloverfield had a great cover. But it feels like they came up with a hook so good they just stopped right there. It was a found-footage monster movie. Everything it is can be conveyed in a single sentence, there’s no need for yes-and. They had such a great idea they just went for it, before it had the chance to evolve into a film with many levels. The important thing was to get it done and sell the hell out of it. Cloverfield‘s marketing department did such an amazing job creating this expanded universe in the advertising that one of the wonders of watching it is that none of the world building made it into the actual movie.
Which makes me wonder: Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea. Maybe a great idea for a story isn’t one that makes you say “great idea!” Maybe it’s one that makes you say “go on…” Cloverfield is an animated elevator pitch that never snowballs into anything unexpected.
Timing Is Everything
It’s hard to square my reaction with Cloverfield‘s critical reaction at the time.
“For gasps and thrills and movie monster mayhem, the film is a success. It’s not flawless, but if you shove that aside, I guarantee you that you will have a gas at the theater.” –Jordan Hoffman, UGO
“[E]xciting, terrifying and breathlessly entertaining. … cleverly transcends its gimmick.” –Alonzo Duralde, MSNBC
“One thought above all kept coming back to me as I lay strapped in for the thrill ride that is director Jim [sic.] Reeves’ and producer J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield: Hitchcock would have loved this. … an instant classic of the genre.” -Richard Knight Jr., Windy City Times
“Stripped of the comfort of rhythmic editing and frenzied strings that tell us it’s time to be scared and instead served the sort of frantic footage we associate with unfathomable terror brings a new, more primal fear to the monster movie. It starts, bizarrely, to feel like something that could happen.” -Olly Richards, Empire
I’m not including any of these as a call out, these are all generally critics I enjoy. I think the largely positive reviews (still 77 percent on RottenTomatoes) are more a testament to the importance of timing. Sure, every artist hopes that something that they create will still feel fresh 40 years later, but that’s not necessarily something they can control. Blair Witch notwithstanding, a found-footage monster movie felt fresh in 2008. As critics, we want to reward good ideas, even if the execution is lacking, in the hopes we’ll see more of them. Cloverfield‘s team, J.J. Abrams, director Matt Reeves, writer Drew Goddard, probably couldn’t have envisioned found footage becoming a cliché. That was out of their (shaky) hands. It’s strange that Blair Witch didn’t create an entire subgenre the way Cloverfield did despite being even more successful. Maybe people didn’t have YouTube to explain why it worked, so it felt more like a fluke. Maybe Blair Witch was before its time and Cloverfield was right on time.
Either way, it’s probably no wonder that, stripped of its newness — the main element anyone liked about it in the first place — Cloverfield kind of sucks. It’s like trying to explain WAAAAZUUUP or “Where’s the beef?” And in making a sequel, that’s not really a sequel, one that appears to share no attributes with the original other than a name and a marketing approach, J.J. Abrams is pulling off another brilliant marketing stunt. He’s essentially selling the idea of newness itself. I just hope it comes with some content this time.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.