Ian Schuelke sees the horror in Cloverfield, and it’s not the giant monster pummeling New York City.
Cloverfield is the monster movie we deserve, not the monster movie we want
On September 11, 2001, two commercial jets crashed into the World Trade Center, forever changing the landscape of New York City. Footage of the disaster rolled in an endless loop on almost every channel. This was years before all mobile phones had cameras, so most footage consisted of hobbyists and two brothers following a New York firehouse for a documentary. As new video was discovered or volunteered, it was folded in. After a few days, you knew it all by heart.
This is when the second plane hits.
This is when you see him jump.
This is when the tower collapses.
Over and over.
The common refrain of witnesses was, “It was like a movie.” It was too big, too powerful, too devastating to be believed. It was hard to accept in person, but through a lens? On your TV? You couldn’t quantify the enormity of it. Still, the thirst for more was there. Maybe another angle would make sense of it all. Maybe a video from a rooftop in Brooklyn would put it all in perspective. Why weren’t there more cameras filming?
Now you can’t yell at a barista without being filmed and upvoted on r/publicfreakout. Everyone is shooting, all the time. We slake that thirst for more, to the point where it doesn’t matter if it’s real. This past week, YouTube celebrity Logan Paul found and filmed the body of a suicide victim in Japan’s Aokigahara-AKA ‘suicide’-forest. It racked up six million views before being taken down.
We should have seen it coming.
Cloverfield was a 2008 found-footage monster movie seemingly about a giant bat-like creature terrorizing New York and a small group of insufferable 20-somethings. While framed as a government document of the attack (complete with silly timestamping at the beginning), the fact that they would leave in a love story says more about humans as media consumers than it does about the senseless plot device.
It opens intrusively, with Rob filming Beth in bed. We ascertain that their relationship has changed from friends to lovers. An impromptu trip to Coney Island is suddenly interrupted by footage of Rob’s going-away party. Hud is tasked with documenting it, and despite his reservations and lack of experience he is deft at framing.
Hud in effect becomes the audience, shoehorning himself into awkward situations like Beth and Rob fighting on the fire escape. It’s not a good time, but we don’t care. Even when the head of the Statue of Liberty is launched across Manhattan, the camera rolls. Panic and fear lasts just long enough for the crowd to get their cameras out. If Instagram had been around, our feeds would have been filled with young fresh hopefuls duckfacing in front of the remains of Lady Liberty, followed by a pithy comment and a few dozen #hashtags.
From here on out, we bear witness to violent death after violent death. Our gaze, however shaky, rarely strays from the carnage. We crave it, revel in it. When Marlena is whisked behind a curtain to die, backlighting helpfully silhouettes her as her head explodes. It’s a rare moment of modesty.
Nobody survives in the end, but why would they? It’s not what we came here for. It’s not why we pressed record, why we kept that arm aloft for 75 minutes. We want to see all of it. It’s just a movie. Isn’t it?
The saddest part isn’t the end, where Rob and Beth appear to die in a bombing raid. It comes about halfway through the film, as our merry band of pretty young things have retreated to the subway to escape bedlam. Rob’s phone rings: It’s his mother. We move in closer, just in time to frame his face as he tells her that her other son is dead. And we realize the biggest monster isn’t outside, tearing Manhattan to the ground.
It’s right here.
And it needs one more take. Just to be safe.