‘Cloverfield’ Revisited: Rewatching The World’s First Clickbait Monster Movie, Eight Years Later

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.