Cloverfield is just as terrifying 12 years later
J.J. Abrams' monster movie might rely on a gimmick, but the end result is a genuinely terrifying movie that has aged remarkably well.
Cloverfield shouldn’t really hold up 12 years later. It’s a found-footage movie, during which one underdeveloped and annoying character carries a camera for the entire runtime as the audience’s own personal cameraman, that builds up to the moment when we finally get to see the monster it’s been teasing for a full hour in all of its glory. Above all else, with its handheld camera and shaky shooting style, it’s a gimmick. But more than 12 years later, Cloverfield is still the terrifying and dizzying monster movie that it was back in 2008.
Objectively, it’s been more than 12 years since Cloverfield went from a mysterious project helmed by the Lost guy, to an epic viral marketing campaign involving a teaser that didn’t even mention the film’s title, to an iconic movie poster featuring a decapitated Statue of Liberty, to a gimmick that left audiences queasy. But Cloverfield holds as much weight as it did upon arrival.
Produced by J.J. Abrams (the aforementioned Lost guy), written by Drew Goddard, and directed by Matt Reeves, Cloverfield tells the story of a group of friends trying to survive as a mysterious monster wages war on New York City. Like The Blair Witch Project before it, Cloverfield is told entirely through the lens of a handheld camera that one character — in this case, Hud (T.J. Miller, who has not aged well) — carries. As you probably remember, the entire movie is filmed with a shaky-cam. It’s so shaky that theaters warned moviegoers ahead of time that they “may experience side effects associated with motion sickness similar to riding a rollercoaster.” As such, Cloverfield was always going to be a polarizing movie. Still, Cloverfield found success at both the box office and with critics, drawing $172 million against a budget of $25 million and earning a 77 on Rotten Tomatoes. Twelve years later, it’s the rare example of a movie that is actually enhanced by the found-footage motif. It’s a gimmick, but in the case of Cloverfield, it’s a gimmick that works.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before the movie itself came the viral marketing campaign. For some — those who understandably can’t stomach 85 minutes of shaky footage narrated by the annoying guy from Silicon Valley — the untitled teaser, trailer, iconic poster, and accompanying material marked the high point of the film. For those who did enjoy the movie itself, the viral marketing campaign marked the beginning of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
It’s not often you can remember where you were when a movie teaser dropped. It’s even rarer when you can remember the exact moment you laid eyes on a teaser that you didn’t already know was coming. Nowadays, we’re mostly told beforehand when a trailer is dropping. There’s an announcement for the announcement. The process is often turned into a worldwide event. Stormtroopers line Soldier Field at halftime of Monday Night Football as ESPN prepares to drop the new Star Wars trailer. The trailer makes its grand debut on national television. It hits YouTube immediately after. Breakdowns with little red circles are uploaded within hours. Reddit threads dissecting the trailer are ongoing. There’s nothing secretive or subtle about it. We know when it’s coming. We know what movie the teaser is teasing. Cloverfield’s teaser was different. We didn’t know it was coming. We didn’t even know what it was teasing.
With clear eyes, I can still remember sitting down inside the AMC at Alderwood Mall for an opening night showing of Transformers and being stunned speechless by the nameless teaser that depicted an attack on New York City. You know that feeling when you see a trailer before a movie and you’re sad because you wish you could watch that movie right now instead of the one you purchased tickets for? That’s how I felt when I saw the Cloverfield teaser before Transformers. At first, I thought it might be a 9/11 movie. The only possible explanation provided on screen is that an earthquake has rattled New York City. In the backdrop, someone mentions an “animal.” I distinctly remember thinking it could be a Jurassic Park or Godzilla movie. Either way, even though I had no clue what the movie was actually about or even called — the teaser didn’t provide a name, only that it was produced by Abrams and scheduled for a 1/18/08 release — I was hooked as soon as I saw the Statue of Liberty’s head bouncing through the streets of Manhattan.
Nobody really knew what it was about. All we knew was that it was an Abrams movie — even though he didn’t even direct it — and that it looked cool as hell. Fan theories ran wild. Was it somehow linked to Lost? Just what in the hell was “Slusho!” or “Taguruato”? Could the film actually be an Alias (another Abrams show) offspring?
We had to wait a few more months for actionable intelligence. In November 2007, the trailer dropped. We had a name: Cloverfield. Just what in the hell was a Cloverfield? (It turns out, just the name of the freeway exit that Abrams took on his way to work). We still didn’t know what was attacking New York City, but we knew that “it’s alive,” as heard in the trailer — hilariously, some mistook that line as “it’s a lion.” Meanwhile, I was still thinking of dinosaurs and Godzilla (as a kid, I loved the 1998 Roland Emmerich movie). Still, two months before its release, nobody knew what the trailer was really about, including the actors, who auditioned with scripts from Abrams’ TV shows.
The funny thing is, between the trailer drop and the release, I forgot about the movie. My freshman year of high school — Drivers Ed, new friends and crushes, Honors English with Mr. Nickerson — was happening. I didn’t even see it in theaters. It wasn’t until months later, after the movie had been made available for acquisition at home, that I watched it at my friend Ian’s house.
I loved it then as a 15-year-old. This past week — I’m 27 now — I returned to Cloverfield (available on Netflix) for the first time in four years (I last watched it in preparation for 10 Cloverfield Lane). It holds up.
The shaky handheld camera that the movie deploys is undoubtedly a gimmick. More often than not when movies choose to use it, the gimmick serves as more of a distraction and a hindrance than a technique that actually enhances the experience. It’s usually a substitute for quality, a cheap excuse for filmmaking. Cloverfield — along with The Blair Witch Project — is an exception. The found footage motif strengthens the film. It works to its strengths. It protects it from would-be weaknesses.
The movie begins at a surprise going away party for the film’s protagonist, Rob, who is moving to Japan for a job. Lily, the fiancée of Rob’s brother Jason, tells Jason to go around with a camera to film goodbye messages from everyone at the party. Jason delegates the job to Hud, Rob’s best friend, which is how we end up with Hud as our narrator. As Hud, Miller provides a measure of comedic relief — “It’s time to leave the electronics store!” — while sometimes veering into annoying territory. Just ask Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), who deals with his awkward attempts at manufacturing a conversation with a woman who has no interest in talking to him. She’s rightfully annoyed. He just won’t stop talking.
Luckily, we don’t spend long at the party watching Hud fail to impress Marlena. Cloverfield is not a long movie. It doesn’t waste time. It takes 18 minutes for the monster to attack the city. In those opening 18 minutes, we’re given brief sketches of the main six characters, but nothing beyond that. Rob is the hero who is wrestling with his feelings toward Beth as he gets ready to move across the globe. Beth is the love interest. Hud is the class clown. And so on. The characters are not a strength of Cloverfield. But it doesn’t really matter. They’re not meant to be wholly original three-dimensional characters. The movie doesn’t try to develop them. They’re meant to be generic and plain and underdeveloped. There’s not enough time to truly develop them. They’re meant to be blank avatars for us.
Therein lies the strength of Cloverfield, an 85-minute atom bomb that never stops exploding after the 18-minute mark. It puts you, the viewer, into the thick of the action and never affords you a moment to breathe or escape. There’s 18 minutes of introductions. The remaining hour is pure spectacle and terror. And you’re caught in the middle.
The real star of the movie is the camera, which invites and nurtures the chaos that naturally comes attached to a giant monster attacking New York City in the dead of night. The footage cuts in and out with each explosion and fall Hud takes with the camera in hand.
Coupled with the lighting, the camera work makes it difficult for us to fully understand what’s going on, mirroring the characters’ perspectives. All they know is that an oil tanker capsized near the Statue of Liberty, they felt something akin to an earthquake, the city lost power, something exploded downtown, and the Statue of Liberty’s head is in the middle of the street outside their apartment.
The story never withdraws to give us the perspective of the politicians or generals reacting to the monster’s attack and planning a counteroffensive. The scientist doesn’t tell us where the monster came from. The general doesn’t discover the monster’s weakness. The president doesn’t give the order to obliterate New York City. We’re in the dark as much as the characters are.
At first, they only want to escape. But when Rob gets a call from Beth, it turns into a rescue mission. They have to make their way to Beth’s apartment as the military battles the monster and escape the city before the military bombs it into oblivion. It’s a simple movie.
In some ways, it feels like a first-person videogame. And what better open-world battlefield than an apocalyptic New York City, amongst the rubble of an iconic city? It affords the filmmakers with opportunities for haunting visuals like this.
Normally, movies present a 360-degree view of a disaster. We see things from God’s vantage point that the characters aren’t afforded. Cloverfield is different. We only see what they see.
It leads to incredible moments like the one below, when the group is walking down an empty street only for the monster and military to appear on opposite ends. They see the monster, stop, and then a rocket flies over their heads from behind. They’re trapped in a crossfire before they even realize it.
It’s pure and utter chaos. The first time we catch a glimpse of the monster happens for a split second from behind a building. It’s gone so soon that we can’t be sure we saw anything at all. The first time we confirm that there is, in fact, a monster, we see it on a TV screen inside an electronics store that Rob is looting for a phone charger. Hud steps outside and realizes what they’re watching on TV is only blocks away from them.
“There’s like some serious shit going on outside,” Hud tells Rob, somewhat underplaying the situation. “There’s some strange shit going on.”
The tarantula-like parasites — reminiscent of the Facehuggers in Alien — that fall off the monster’s body before wreaking havoc on humanity below also make their debut on TV. Our characters are learning about the incident they’re living through the same way we would be at home: on the news. For once, we know equally as much as they know — not more. We’re just as disoriented. We’re just as terrified to see the tarantulas spear a pedestrian like Jadeveon Clowney hit-sticking Vincent Smith in the backfield.
As they walk around and beneath the city, we never know what’s lurking in the dark beyond the reach of the camera. The monsters could be anywhere. It’s reminiscent of the final sequence in The Silence of the Lambs, except instead of Jodie Foster stumbling around in the dark as a serial killer stalks her for a few unsettling minutes, our characters are walking around a dark city with giant tarantulas and their Godzilla-like mother lurking in the shadows for a full hour.
It’s a feeling best encapsulated by the subway sequence. If you’ve seen Cloverfield, you know which part I’m talking about.
Making their way through an underground tunnel in pitch black to avoid the warzone above, Marlena notices a legion of rats running in the same direction as them. The implication is obvious: They must be running away from something. In the dark, they can’t know what that something is until the insect-like sound of a predator reverberates throughout the tunnel. In a haste, they figure out how to turn on the night-vision mode on the camera to reveal the something. The parasites are hanging onto the ceiling behind them like spiders, eyes glowing in the dark, stalking them. It’s genuinely frightening, one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever seen onscreen.
Again, if this was a normal monster movie, we’d see the parasites chasing the people and the people running away from the parasites all at once. We’d know the exact moment when the parasites are on the verge of overtaking the people. With the handheld camera, we can’t see much. We don’t know how close or how far away the parasites are. All we know is that the people are running and that somewhere behind them the monsters are chasing them. Once again, the handheld camera works to the advantage of the story. The entire sequence reminds me of that one scene in Signs, when the alien shows up at that birthday party, which we witness through the news on TV. Except instead of humanoid aliens on a TV screen, we’ve got these monstrous tarantulas chasing us through the tunnel.
Monster movies like Cloverfield won’t ever lose their relevancy. They aren’t tied to a particular time period. I have a hard time believing a movie like, say, Jurassic Park will ever feel dated. A fear of un-Earthly monsters is both universal and timeless. In that sense, most monster movies are ageless. Where monster movies can lose their potency is in the visual effects. If the monster doesn’t look scary, what’s there to be scared of? It’s one reason a movie like Jurassic Park has aged so well. It came out way back in 1993, but the dinosaurs still look real. It’s a marvel, really.
I won’t go so far to say Cloverfield is on the same spectrum as Jurassic Park in any meaningful area, but like Jurassic Park, the Cloverfield monster and its tarantula minions have aged remarkably well in the 12 years since their conception. Thanks in large part to the gimmick, the effects aging poorly won’t really be a problem for Cloverfield. By design, it’s supposed to look kinda shitty. Imagine if someone you knew survived a monster invasion and later showed you how the event played out on their iPhone. You wouldn’t complain about the film quality or the shaky camera. You’d be in awe. That’s Cloverfield.
At first, it feels like the film is purposely trying to hide the monster because it knows the actual visual of it won’t measure up to the image we’ve already conjured up in our heads based on the bits and pieces we caught a glimpse of in the first half of the film. Cloverfield exercises patience. It demonstrates restraint. Like all great monster movies — most notably, Jaws and Alien — it takes its time to show the monster in its totality. In Jaws, we only get glimpses of the dorsal fin in the first half of the film. In Cloverfield, we get glimpses of its limbs. The first time I watched it, I was skeptical we’d ever get a full view of the monster. It felt like one of those movies that is all tease and buildup without an actual release. Boy, was I wrong. In the final minutes, we get clear shots that demonstrate the scale of its monstrosity and the destruction it can cause with a single downward swipe. It’s as terrifying as the shark in Jaws and the xenomorph in Alien.
The film wasn’t hiding the monster because it was afraid the visuals would be a letdown. It was hiding the monster because it knew that the grand reveal would be that much more impressive after an hour of buildup.
For the monster’s design, artist Neville Page, who approached the job by having a measure of sympathy for the monster, deserves credit.
“The key to it is that the monster was a baby,” director Matt Reeves told Coming Soon. “The monster was suffering from separation anxiety and was absolutely disoriented and pissed — ‘where’s mommy?’ — and terrified. That was the most important aspect of the creature. Not only was he furious and in a rage but he was scared, because to me there’s nothing scarier than something huge that’s spooked. If you’re at the circus and the elephants are going nuts, you don’t want to be near them. We talked with Neville about the idea of how when a horse gets spooked you see the whites under the bottom of its eye. He fleshed out those sort of details. We talked about wanting the monster to be different in that it was white. All these different aspects, which were important to us. It developed in many different ways and it came down to what Neville was doing, which was amazing.”
If Reeves’ name sounds familiar, it’s because Cloverfield was the start of something great. After Cloverfield, Reeves went to direct two of the Planet of the Apes sequels. His next film is The Batman with Robert Pattinson.
Cloverfield hasn’t just aged well as a movie. It’s aged well as an origin story for multiple key figures who made the movie — like Matt Reeves and Drew Goddard, who wrote the film. Goddard’s writing credits since Cloverfield include Cabin in the Woods (which he also directed), World War Z (a supremely underrated zombie thriller), The Martian (one of the best astronaut movies ever made) and Bad Times at the El Royale (which he also directed). Cloverfield was the first movie he wrote.
And then there’s Abrams, who at that point was known for his TV work (Alias and Lost) and not known as the guy who fucked up The Rise of Skywalker, and was just beginning his movie-making career; he came up with the idea for Cloverfield while in Japan promoting his directorial debut, the very good Mission: Impossible III. The year after Cloverfield’s arrival, Abrams resurrected Star Trek. From there, Abrams would go onto make Super 8 (still super good) before ushering in a new era of Star Wars with The Force Awakens. For as many good movies as Abrams has put out as a director — which he has, despite what you may think about The Rise of Skywalker — he might be a better producer than filmmaker with a resume that includes Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane, all the Mission Impossibles that followed his third installment, and Overlord.
Harp on Abrams’ commitment to the mystery box all you want, but it paid off with Cloverfield. The movie’s eye for detail with things unfolding in the backdrop, seemingly unrelated to the main action and missable to the unassuming eye, made it the rewatchable movie it is today. It gave it extra life as message boards dissected every frame to find details hidden away in the background. There’s more depth to the movie than initially meets the eye. Even if you’re looking for the easter eggs, you can miss them. They’re subtle yet present, comatose yet audible.
It’s the perfect movie for the internet, so perfect that I can’t help but imagine how much more popular it’d be today in the age of Reddit, a message board that spent so much time obsessing over Game of Thrones that nothing the creators could’ve put onscreen in the final season would’ve been satisfactory. I can still remember spending hours researching the hidden easter eggs after watching the movie for the first time. My friends and I probably spent more time reading about the movie than actually watching it.
My favorite easter egg? In the background of the footage shot in the month prior to the monster invasion, when Rob and Beth are visiting Coney Island, you can see something fall from the sky into the water. The implication is that a satellite fell to the bottom of the ocean and woke up the monster, who eventually rose from the sea to attack New York City. If you’re still looking for it, keep your eyes on the right side of the screen.
In the aftermath of Cloverfield’s success, a sequel was oft rumored and desired. Some will claim that 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) is a sequel to Cloverfield, but it’s only a sequel in technicality. While a good movie in its own right, claiming 10 Cloverfield Lane is a sequel to Cloverfield is a lot like claiming The Postal Service is a sequel to Death Cab. Sure, there are through-lines that connect the two entities, but both exist best as separate entities that are great on their own.
It’s easy to understand why Abrams’ company purchased the 10 Cloverfield Lane script, reworked the ending to the movie, and branded it as a Cloverfield movie. A sequel has long been desired by a fanbase that has spent hours on the internet coming up with theories about the monster and finding the easter eggs to support their claims.
The thing is, Cloverfield set up a legitimate sequel, just not the conventional kind of sequel you might expect. A sequel wouldn’t necessarily need to take place after the events depicted onscreen in New York City. It would tell the story of the same event, just from a different perspective. During the sequence on the Brooklyn Bridge in the first half of the film, Hud’s camera briefly spots someone else holding a camera, filming the evacuation. For the briefest of moments, the two cameras lock eyes.
The sequel could tell the story stored within that camera.
“In my mind, that was two movies intersecting for a brief moment, and I thought there was something interesting in the idea that this incident happened and there are so many different points of view, and there are several different movies at least happening that evening and we just saw one piece of another. That idea sort of tickled me,” Reeves said. “We’ll have to see if anyone would want a sequel. If the movie does well and we find a compelling reason to do so then it would be fun to do a sequel.”
The movie did do well. So did 10 Cloverfield Lane, by the way — both critically and at the box office. We don’t need to talk about the disappointment of The Cloverfield Paradox (2018), a straight-to-Netflix release that tried to be another Cloverfield movie, but failed to connect with both critics and audiences. Still, the buzz The Cloverfield Paradox generated was palpable. There is an undeniable thirst for more Cloverfield.
Even though a genuine sequel has yet to arrive, there’s an argument to be made that Cloverfield changed the future of monster movies. Perhaps it’s grasping at straws to say Cloverfield inspired the monster movies that followed in the years to come — I certainly won’t claim to understand how Hollywood works — but after Cloverfield became a sensation, Hollywood tried to revive the monster genre. There was Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla with Bryan Cranston that worked on a visual level, but failed as a story. There was that Kong movie with Brie Larson that also worked visually, but also failed as a story. Most recently, there was that other Godzilla movie with Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, and Tywin Lannister saying shit like “Long live the king” that I didn’t bother to give a chance even though I have AMC’s version of MoviePass because it looked like it would run into the same problems that plagued Godzilla and Kong.
I’m all for more monster movies. But what made Cloverfield so special is that it created its own monster instead of reviving a monster that we’ve already seen. I wish more monster movies would aim to do that. Cloverfield proved that there’s still room to innovate in a crowded genre.
It didn’t invent the shaky-cam or the found-footage motif, but it’s the rare example of how movies should seek to deploy the method. It’s not meant to be used as a way to distract the audience from the shortcomings of the story. It’s meant to enhance the film. It’s a gimmick, but in the right and rare circumstances, it works.
Cloverfield was created in and catered toward a post-9/11 America. It perfectly weaponized the internet during a period when the internet was less known for its toxicity and more known for its potential to improve our lives. It came out just before the dawn of Marvel movies that turned every film into its own disaster story, before leveling a city was what movies were expected to do. It was the perfect movie for the moment. It relied on a gimmick.
But it’s also the kind of movie that could come out today and still be as impactful as it was in 2008. It’s difficult to imagine it ever dying of old age. It has the tools to live on forever. It’s a map for monster and shaky-cam movies of the future, and more generally speaking, a manual for marketing in the internet age. More than 12 years later, it resonates as strongly as it did upon its arrival. Cloverfield is still terrifying.