Six years after 9/11, the spectacular destruction of Manhattan is once again the premise of a Hollywood fantasy, though ‘Cloverfield’ is not your father’s disaster movie. Unaccountable trauma takes the place of scientific rationalisation; partial experience replaces the view from the war room; and the signifiers of the World Trade Center – fireballs, collapsing towers, dust clouds and drifting paper – are everywhere. Whether you find it all cathartic or exploitative is probably a matter of taste.
Following Steven Spielberg’s ‘War of the Worlds’ in presenting an ignorant, panicked, individuated response to armageddon, ‘Cloverfield’ takes that film’s single shot of fantastic carnage captured on a home video camera as its whole aesthetic.
The film is an ersatz relic à la ‘Blair Witch’, the purported contents of a camcorder discovered in the aftermath of a mysterious behemoth’s catastrophic rampage through New York. The camera belongs to Rob (Michael Stahl-David), a twentysomething about to move to Japan; his leaving party takes place on the night of the attack, and we follow his and a few friends’ experiences from dusk to dawn. Footage of an earlier, happier day out punctuatesthe main action.
The film is produced by JJ Abrams and, like ‘Lost’, it leaves the big picture vague while furnishing enough local information to keep the ride compelling. Though not without humour – our cameraman Hud (TJ Miller) provides goofy comic relief – this is at the gruelling end of the disaster movie spectrum, unabashedly mining its 9/11 resonances and neo-vérité grammar to considerable effect. The humans are ultimately pretty disposable, but the monster and the camera are worth attention.