Analysis: Is Cloverfield a 911 Analogy?

CloverfieldAs usual the questions addressed in this series are completely subjective, and as such impossible to answer definitively. Especially if we were to employ Roland Barthe’s post-structuralist Death of the Author theory where in he proposes that interpretation of art is in the hands of the reader and the reader alone and that who the author is and what the author states about his or her own work should be removed from the equation altogether. They can have their opinion but it is no more or less valid than the next readers. So here we have a very personal question, and the answer is entirely up to you, but I think there are a number of signifiers in the film which allow for a 911 interpretation even if it’s not one I personally agree with.

For those unfamiliar with the production, the concept of Cloverfield is basically Godzilla meets The Blair Witch Project. A giant monster, maybe from space, maybe from the sea invades New York City and begins to destroy great portions of the city, the city is evacuated and the military struggle to keep the monster at bay. Its one of the so-called “home-made” horror films where features are produced from the point of view of a camera which exists in the story space. The Blair Witch Project being previously the most well known example of this type of cinema, more recently this years [Rec] a Spanish horror film employed the same technique. The likes of [Rec] and The Blair Witch Project are technically superior to Cloverfield and don’t falter in terms of mechanics in manner Cloverfield does, with tape run time being too long and image quality being vastly superior to that produced by a consumer grade video camera. But technique and application aside, the method still allows Cloverfield a distinctive first person, on the ground perspective. It is highly limiting in some respects, never allowing the film to stray from its central characters and see what is happening elsewhere, also not allowing music, slow motion, changes in shots, transitions and other techniques common to major motion pictures. Through these restrictions the film is encapsulated by a forced perspective which allows the film to concentrate on a solitary point of view and if the creative team is brave enough they can ignore the whys and the how’s of the films narrative and simply dedicate their energy to the journey of the protagonists. This is the films first connection to 911, without getting into the potential symbolism or the representations which can be drawn from the films scenario, the major connection is what is presented as amateur footage of the event. All of the footage which we connect with 911 was either news, CCTV or amateur footage and given the immediacy of the event most of the news footage was so unstable that it gave an amateur impression. So instantly the presentation is that of someone literally caught up in the disaster, there is no third person perspective camera angle floating gently through the rubble of collapsed buildings, or dolly shots from a safe distance watching the characters run through the danger zone. In Cloverfield the perspective is fixed and constant, and like the footage taken throughout September 11th 2001 it is restricted in its vantage point and invokes a feeling of amateur disaster photography. Of course this on its own is not enough to build a case for Cloverfield being a 911 analogy, but it is a solid foundation. This invocation is then concretised by the collapsed building early on in the film. Previous disaster movies had often neglected the tonnes of dust which literally flood the surrounding blocks after the collapse of a large building like the World Trade Centre, but post 911 this reality is hard to ignore as the images of people blindly and confusedly staggering through dust clouds on the streets of New York was one of the most vivid images of that day. Could the producers of Cloverfield simply continued the cinematic trend of ignoring the realities of such an event or was it an inevitable step rather than a deliberate attempt to mimic the after effects of 911? This one could be argued either way, but intent or not the image is startlingly familiar and its connotations are impossible to dismiss. Next we have the feeling of the unknown and panic which are heavily at play in Cloverfield’s narrative. The reasons for the monsters arrival are not revealed, where it has come from, why it wants to destroy, and most importantly how do we stop it? Not only is this unknown at the start, but by the climax nothing else has been revealed, this is to writer Drew Goddard’s credit, he resists the urge to fill Cloverfield with pointless, banal and most probably clumsy exposition, like The Blair Witch Project before it - the unknown is far more interesting. [Rec] by comparison attempted some clumsy exposition twice and neither time it worked particularly well, and in fact both scenes make up the least impressive part of a film which is otherwise relentlessly terrifying. But here luckily and unusually for a Hollywood production no explanation is given beyond the unsubstantiated speculation of the central characters which mirrors the similarly unsubstantiated speculation of the media during the events of 911, who is piloting the planes? Was it an accident? What do they want? Even the military is practically impotent, attacking the monster with everything they’ve got but never being able to stop it even for a moment as it immolates the city. Much as the U.S. military didn’t stand a chance on during September 11th with no way to foresee the threat and not enough time to thwart it once they were aware of the danger.

So does this make Cloverfield’s antagonistic monster represent the Al Quedea? It makes sense in terms of the feelings it invokes, terror, horror, fear – but in terms of quantity it doesn’t quite fit. Both planes flying into the World Trade Centre and the third hitting the Pentagon were over in a matter of moments. Through conflagration the pilots, passengers and the planes themselves were vaporised in an instant, in Cloverfield the monster continues its rampage for at least an entire night, and spawns baby monsters which create damage independently on the streets below. What do the parasites represent? It doesn’t quite fit in this sense but perhaps looking for literal representations and parallels isn’t the correct way to address this question. Although the monster does demolish American national landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty for example, it doesn’t limit its attack to three quick and iconic destructions, it continues unchecked to render most of Manhattan unliveable. Beside destroying the Statue of Liberty is now common place, and many films from Deep Impact to Ghostbusters 2 have all given the tallest French lady in the world a run for her money.

CloverfieldOf course if Cloverfield can be read as a 911 analogy and if this was the intention of the Matt Reeves the films director then an even bigger question needs to be asked – why? The events of September 11th and the immediate and long term consequences are far reaching and pervasive in this young centaury. It is arguably the most significant event in global politics since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and not only are the ramifications felt today, but they will doubtlessly continue to be felt for years to come. As such the war on terror, the erosion of western civil liberties, the bloody conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the continued radicalisation of moderate Muslims means that the art forms of the world have been deeply affected. In cinema the results can be seen in 2006 when what are widely considered to be the first 911 movies emerged, United 93 and World Trade Center. Since that time there has been no need to skirt around the issue, but before these films 911 had still infected the core of modern drama with everything from Syriana to Munich, Away From Her to The Constant Gardener referencing the current state of the world with varying degrees of pronouncement. Older war movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket have taken on deeper significance as their portrayal of the Vietnam War can very easily be transferred to the War in Iraq. Television programmes like Over There, and 24 tackle the issues involved in almost every episode, The Sopranos and The Wire make frequent reference to the events. But in television the show which castigates the current state of affairs the most works through metaphor – the new version of Battlestar Galactica which can be read as an extended metaphor for the current state of the world, beginning with a 911 parallel and in its third season continuing and contorting the metaphor to the war in Iraq with the humans representing the Iraq resistance cells and the villainous robotic enemies representing the Allies. No other television programme could present such a reversed scenario or sympathetic portrayal of terrorism with out metaphor, even as thinly veiled a metaphor as this. But Cloverfield is not critical of anybody or any action taken against the monster, it simply portrays the monsters horrific actions as senseless and random, there is no need to hide behind metaphor if this is the case, would this not be the same as World Trade Centre or United 93, unpolitical and human stories about tragedy and survival rather than the more cynical angle it is more than possible to adopt?

Is it not more likely that Cloverfield is basically a modern disaster movie, played straight and only influenced by our times and the condition of the world? The story is basically Godzilla which significantly pre-dates 911, the imagery of dust covered streets, and the ineffectiveness of the military is simply subconsciously informed by 911 rather than directly influenced by it. Disaster movies slowed down after 911, they became infrequent, only productions like Sum of All Fears were completed as their filming pre-dated the event. In 1998, during the summer block buster season New York was destroyed multiple times; a tidal wave in Deep Impact, a giant lizard in Godzilla, asteroids in Armageddon. The tidal wave effect would return for The Day After Tomorrow, but this was a rare post 911 exception. Basically since the U.S suffered the worst attack on its nation in over fifty years, destructive disasters can not be trivialised any more, and so in order to show such violent carnage in New York Reeves possibly had to include a 911 spin to make it more serious minded or at least appear that way.

911 is so far reaching that it effects even commercially driven blockbuster movies to such an extent. Nothing in recent US history has been so evasive towards the nation’s culture. The car bombing of the Federal building in Okalhoma City in 1995 was also significant, but only killing 168 people its body count by comparison is far below that of September 11th, it was also an act of domestic terrorism an as such is divisive rather than unifying. Thus the event only marginally influenced the cinema of the time with Arlington Road and The X-Files Movie being the more famous examples, both of which were a little late in production for any significant commentary on the event.

In summary, I’m personally more inclined to view Cloverfield as a monster movie of our times, influenced and informed by the world we live in rather than making a commentary about it. If there is any commentary to be inferred from Cloverfield it is in regards to how widespread an influence the events of September 11th 2001 had across all art forms and especially film and television.

M. Dawson