There are two schools of Cloverfield reviewing. The New York School, spearheaded by print journalists across the political spectrum, and the Majority School, which pretty much covers reviewers everywhere else.
If this was a New York School review, I would be required to suggest that the film is "the horror of 9/11 to be repackaged and presented to us as an amusement-park ride" (from Salon, which boasts a NYC office). I might give the flick's makers the benefit of the doubt and claim that the film "inadvertently disses New York for what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, by re-enacting scenes of buildings exploding and massive clouds of debris for fun and profit" (this from NYC based FOX News). I could always take the high road, dismissing the film on the premise the filmmakers are simply boorish and tasteless rather than manipulative or slick: "Like Cloverfield itself, this new monster is nothing more than a blunt instrument designed to smash and grab without Freudian complexity or political critique, despite the tacky allusions to Sept. 11. The screams and the images of smoke billowing through the canyons of Lower Manhattan may make you think of the attack, and you may curse the filmmakers for their vulgarity, insensitivity or lack of imagination. (The director, Matt Reeves, lives in Los Angeles, as does the writer, Drew Goddard, and the movie’s star producer, J. J. Abrams.) But the film is too dumb to offend anything except your intelligence, and the monster does cut a satisfying swath through the cast, so your only complaint may be, What took it so long?" I should point out that the Times Manohla Dargis isn't the only one to underscore the Left Coast origins of the film, FOX drops that tidbit in too: "Cloverfield was truly made by California movie people. No one in New York would ever be this insensitive." In case you missed the point, I would bring up 9/11 again and again and again:
From the Times:
"Rob and his ragtag crew behave like people who have never watched a monster movie or the genre-savvy “Scream” flicks or even an episode of “Lost” (Hello, Mr. Abrams!), much less experienced the real horrors of Sept. 11."
The Daily News:
"Manhattan has always been a fat target for apocalypse filmmakers, but with its 9/11-inspired imagery, Matt Reeves' breathlessly fast-paced "Cloverfield" is going to resonate with New York audiences in a way no other horror film has . . . But it's fun in its morbidly campy way."
"If you were in the city on September 11, 2001, you'll feel something dark slither through your gut."
The last paper takes the carpetbagger imagery the furthest: "Like some tourist from the Midwest, once the creature stumbles into Manhattan and visits Central Park and the Empire State Building, there's nothing left for it to do but knock around aimlessly, getting in trouble and making a mess on the sidewalks."
Outside of Gotham, the press has been kinder and the blogosphere has been downright giddy. If this were a Majority School review I might dismiss the overt 9/11 imagery, as Illinois State Journal Register does: "Unlike 'The Blair Witch Project,' there’s not a hope for confusion with actual events, although the 9/11-esque dusting of New York is . . . a cheap tonal misstep . . . [but] minor aftershocks can’t crumble this mammoth, rock-’em-sock-’em movie, though. It’s unapologetically B, what with its magnificent monster, melodramatic smooches, overly scripted comic relief and unsympathetic pecking order. Yet it also is a thrilling, exhausting tale of an incomprehensibly horrible beast lovingly crafted in H.P. Lovecraft’s remorseless style." Or I might make a claim for the value of including such imagery, as the online reviewer for the UK film rag Empire does when they write, "Is this attack so terrifying because it has obvious shades of 9/11 or because the handheld camerawork leaves us disoriented, glimpsing the enormous creature only when Hud’s view quivers that way? It’s both. We live in a time when global violence is recorded not by professionals, but by shaky-handed bystanders with camera phones. We believe bad camerawork and suspect professional broadcast of hiding something from us. 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." I might even go so far as to claim that this isn't just a case of appropriation – the film is about 9/11. From the horror news site Bloody Disgusting: "Of course, all good monster movies aren't really about the monster at all. When Godzilla came out, it was Japan's allegory for Hiroshima. Cloverfield is obviously ours to 9/11 and, in all honesty, it does a better job of conveying those feelings and emotions we have about that infamous day than any of the straight forward films that tackle the subject."
I bring this up because I reckon you've got to put your cards on the table before giving your opinion on the film which will also inevitably drag you into the whole 9/11 imagery debate.
I'm a New Yorker. I was in Manhattan on that day. I walked across the Manhattan Bridge.
Now, here's my take: Cloverfield is a great giant monster flick, perhaps one of the best ever made. But it is neither the cheap and exploitative exercise in 9/11 button pushing it has been accused of being nor is it the great allegory for 9/11 some defenders have suggested.
Let's start by talking about what it is. If you have somehow managed to avoid all forms of media for the past year and a half, this recap is for you. A group of bobo hipster-yuppies in what appears to be the Lower East Side throw a going away part for one of their amigos. Unfortunately, they just couldn't not invite the 30-story tall sea monster that lives off the coast of Coney Island – I mean, what would the monster think? So the monster shows and turns the movie in one big damn chase scene. A chase scene so big, it takes our viewers through other movies: The Host, Aliens, The Blair Witch Project, 28 Days Later, and more. We watch the military battle the creature to seemingly little effect. Throughout the flick, we get flashbacks – provided by glitches in the camera (apparently not digital as there are a couple references to tape) – to happier pre-Big Freakin' Monster times.
At a slim 70-odd minutes if you don't count the time it takes the credits to roll, the movie is a ruthless plot machine. The characterizations are so minimal that they barely qualify as types, let alone archetypes. There's the lover, his girl, the irresponsible younger brother, the dumb one, the bossy girl, and the girl with black hair. The motivations of the lover, who will drag the rest of the crew all through the monster-besieged burg, will suffice for all of them.
The dialog is minimal as the plot requires no real exposition. The characters repeatedly ask about the monster and nobody seems to know anything and, in truth, it really doesn't matter. It’s a big angry monster – what else do you need to know? In a way, the refusal to disclose even the most minor details about the beast is a brilliant move. Giant monsters don't make a lick of sense. The more you think about them, the less it is possible to look past the glaring illogic of such an animal. Do you have any idea how much energy is would take to move an arm the size of a subway train? There's a reason that there's an upper limit to the size of land-bound animals and limit is regulated by the laws of physics rather than the rules of narrative. But, by never getting into the details of what is happening, the filmmakers never have to worry about getting trapped while trying to talk their way out of the impossibility of the story. The PG-13 dialogue, however, is a source of unintentional comedy. Certainly somebody should have said, "Did somebody just fucking throw the fucking head of the Statue of Liberty at us?" Instead we get a lot of screams and strangely censored oaths: "The head of Lady Liberty, well odd's my bodkin!"
The film's about the action and the action is relentless. A few of the set pieces will push even the most generously suspended disbelief, but the pace of the flick is such that you don't get a lot of time to reflect on the absurdity of what you're watching. The monster looks good, though the spider-like creatures it seems to exude (themselves essentially meaner, toothier versions of the face-huggers – in the effort to leave no film unplundered, we get hints of chest-bursting action) are fairly uninspired. As a thrill machine, Cloverfield's success is complete. I recommend seeing it on the large screen as the visual effects, which are brilliantly integrated into the picture, will be completely overwhelmed when the picture is shrunk down.
So, what about all this 9/11 stuff?
Well, I think NYC critics have, by and large, overacted. They are correct in pointing out that this film's actual engagement with the trauma of 9/11 is minimal. As an allegory for the age of terrorism, this flick fails utterly. Godzilla wasn't an allegory for nuclear war because the details of the a-bomb were worked into his origin story. It's an allegory for nuclear war because the human characters in Godzilla face a very atomic age dilemma: do you deal with the unintended consequences of a weapon by trotting out an even bigger stronger weapon and, if you do, how long will it be before that decision comes to haunt you? That's the thrust of the flick. The point is the human characters wrestling with making that call. What's the allegory in Cloverfield? By making the threat a monster with no backstory or reason to attack, you basically lock the human protagonists into a military response. They don't understand anything about the monster, but what is there to understand. Would we find something in its background that made us say, "Oh, well then, all this devastation is perfectly reasonable. We're sorry we dropped those bombs on you. It all just looked so bad from down here, you know?" The military response fails again and again, but what other option is there? This isn't a fitting metaphor for America's current military failures as the humans don't have any other options in the flick. Negotiate? Send more foreign aid to monsterized nations in the hopes of eliminating the conditions that encourage monsterized terror? Critics have sited Lovecraft as an influence and I think they're spot on there – but then they pull back from the obvious conclusion. In Lovecraft's works, people are simply screwed. There's bigger things than them out there and it didn't matter what they did or what they do to try to escape your fate; they're screwed. Much the same is true of the humans in Cloverfield. There's a sort of bracing nihilism at work here, but the whole thing's bust as a political allegory. (Besides, if it was really about 9/11, the characters would have run into a gaggle of nutcases who knew the "truth" about the monster: that it was sent by the US government to justify the on-going occupation of monsterized oil-rich nations.)
Cloverfield isn't so much about 9/11 as it proximate to the televised images of 9/11. That's about as deep as it goes. The issue becomes whether or not it is going to be eternally verboten for popular filmmakers to reference what is part of our shared visual culture. By virtue of being alive, we have all seen buildings collapse. We know what they look like. How could any filmmaker make a disaster pic, monster movie, or large scale war movie and not end up in some way accessing that shared visual imagery? I don't think it is reasonable to suggest they should. This movie comes out "too soon" for many New Yorkers. But when will it no longer be "too soon"? What's the magic number of years that must pass? There's no logic to the stance. Artists, both good and bad, need access to our shared visual culture. That said, there's nothing wrong with somebody pointing out that wrapping you movie in visual allusions to infamous events doesn't automatically give you film depth and gravity, but that's not the same as suggesting that there was some cynical manipulation going on or that the filmmakers were ignorant (but allegations seem to exist in the NYC critics' reviews).