Cloverfield Is the Best American Godzilla Movie

Over a decade later, Cloverfield is more than just the best found footage movie, it's the best American Godzilla movie.

The Monster in Cloverfield
Photo: Paramount Pictures

More than 10 years later, the legacy of Cloverfield is still potent for any number of reasons. As the first film where J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions fully (and enticingly) transferred their “mystery box” marketing strategy from television to cinema, the cryptic nature of the film’s lack of pre-release information, spoilers, or even casting announcements made its sudden release and apocalyptic trailer all the more jaw-dropping—like an alien monster wreaking havoc on the head of the Statue of Liberty.

But more than a perfectly executed hype machine, the excitement generated by Cloverfield has lived on, so much so that a spiritual sequel called 10 Cloverfield Lane followed in 2016 (and then there is the less remarkable Cloverfield Paradox… yeah). This is due to the fact that while the movie embraced the found footage horror gimmick of the late 2000s/early 2010s, the finished product actually used its premise shrewdly: Cloverfield is a sharp, funny, and ultimately exhilarating adventure about a wrathful god told from the vantage point of the ants beneath his feet.

Cloverfield was an excuse to show off real skill for director Matt Reeves and screenwriter Drew Goddard (whose talent was more than doubly confirmed in the subsequent years by films like Let Me In, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Cabin in the Woods, and The Martian amongst their combined resumes). And finally, it was a chance to do something no major U.S. studio has yet to successfully achieve: it made for a great Godzilla and Kaiju film.

Even if the big green guy never shows up in Cloverfield, and the monster that is present more closely resembles the abominable coupling of a tarantula and an Alaskan King Crab, the shadow of the king of Japanese movie monsters looms in every piece of fallen debris that Cloverfield’s protagonists run from—and in every beat of the rousing march “ROAR!” that Michael Giacchino sprinkles into the film’s closing credits. This is a Godzilla movie in all but name, and it is so better than either the 1998 or 2014 Hollywood movies that actually have it—not to mention Pacific Rim.

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An Actual Force of Nature

In the lead up to the release of Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla in 2014, the marketing made a key point in emphasizing that the original Tokyo rampager would be seen now as a “force of nature.” That was an interesting take on a beast that usually caused the type of damage reserved for natural disasters. However, in the final film he was not quite a force nor did he prove to be a disaster for the film’s central stomping ground, San Francisco.

Rather, the choice was made to spruce up the nuclear lizard’s image again by giving him other monsters to fight. And while this decision was certainly world-building (and nerd-inducing), the result is that by the third act, Godzilla’s presence was mostly relegated to a Battle Royale with two other monsters where the scale and scope of the menace was mostly lost in favor of CGI creations showing off dazzling body slams. Ultimately, the point to his presence in the life of the main character of the film (Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ford Brody) is to give him an almost pep talk-ready nod while the lead is rushing to disarm a literal ticking time bomb plot device. He may as well have asked the big guy, “How am I doing coach?” right before Godzilla encouragingly growled.

And this is the good American film.

In the 1998 variation of Godzilla, the destruction is relegated to being the visual eye candy and crowd-cheering fist-pump action porn that has marked (and marred) most of director Roland Emmerich’s movies. But even in its pre-9/11 glory days, the callousness with which they have a giant mutated iguana smash down the Chrysler Building and then make sweet love to the Empire State Building left much to be desired.

Cloverfield also most definitely features massive New York City destruction. The Statue of Liberty is memorably decapitated in the trailer, and soon enough the Brooklyn Bridge, Columbus Circle, and what’s left of Central Park also take a beating. However, the actual effect is genuinely terrifying.

By cleverly utilizing the cinema verté style that so many other found footage movies fumble at creating, Cloverfield has the narrow perspective of the people underneath the Kaiju’s feet and the effect is exhilarating… as well as most reminiscent of the earliest Toho monster movies before the Japanese studio softened Godzilla’s image in favor of a family friendly character. The suddenness with which the unnamed beast in Cloverfield attacks is stunningly disorienting, because the home-movie-within-a-movie actually feels like that: an awkwardly made video overseen by an emotionally tone-deaf friend prior to a going away party.

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When the chaos starts, the monster is felt in the sweeps of collapsing dust debris, in the cries of people off in the distance getting eaten, and in the horror of seeing U.S. military tanks going in one direction while you are running in the other. While Cloverfield’s budget is meager compared to the aforementioned Hollywood blockbusters, the impact of the barely-seen monster’s presence is monumental and epic, even if the destruction porn is kept to a minimum. Instead, it intentionally evokes an on-the-ground vantage of being in Manhattan after a natural disaster… or a terrorist attack.Thus the “force of nature” is an inescapable menace rather than an applause line for a distinguished actor like Ken Watanabe to stumble through.

The cast of Cloverfield

We Care About Who Gets Stomped

In the Godzilla of 1998, the most discernable features about protagonist Niko Tatopoulous are that he is played by Matthew Broderick and nobody can pronounce his last name. Admittedly, Jean Reno as a French Secret Service agent was a blast that could have been used in every scene of the movie, but the rest of the supporting characters, including Maria Pitillo as aspiring reporter Audrey and Hank Azaria as her local news cameraman, were taken straight out of the playbook for a 1990s romantic comedy.

In other words, they were killing time before the next set-piece. Meanwhile, Godzilla circa 2014 had a fantastically compelling hero in Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody—they then killed him off about a third through the movie and left the remainder of the picture to Taylor-Johnson, as Cranston’s estranged son Ford, and a wasted Elizabeth Olsen in the thankless role of being Ford’s in-distress-wife. Taylor-Johnson and Olsen are both strong talents who have each done a number of impressive projects in their early careers (and no, Avengers: Age of Ultron is not one of them). Yet, again they were protagonists who felt mostly resigned to fill in the scenes between monster mayhem.

While Cloverfield’s cast is also not tackling an ensemble that one day could have received awards consideration, the cast was still given a lot more material to work with than shrieks of terror or ‘90s one-liners. Indeed, the simple motivation for Michael Stahl-David’s Rob Hawkins to somehow travel from Tribeca through a war-torn Midtown to reach his unrequited love Beth (Odette Yustman) on the Upper West Side has a straight through-line in narrative clarity.

But it’s really a credit to director Reeves and screenwriter Goddard’s skill how all of the characters feel fully established with empathetic motivations, even when drawn in the broadest shorthand. Whether it’s TJ Miller’s Hudson “Hud” Platt who photographs the whole Cloverfield movie with the desire of creating a “historical document” or Lizzy Caplan’s Marlena, the “stranger” in this group of friends who suddenly finds herself in the most awkward night on the town in history. Marlena’s loneliness and alienation from the group, as well as her interaction with Hud, has tragic consequences in the film’s second act.

None of this is brilliant characterization, but it is told with the type of economical brevity that Goddard would later display in his Cabin and Martian screenplays, which immediately endears us to these characters, making their fates much more affecting than a running gag about a foreign last name.

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They also are allowed moments of humanity. When Mike Vogel’s Jason Hawkins dies on the Brooklyn Bridge, his brother Rob and fiancé Lily (Jessica Lucas) are given a moment to grieve while Hud, always the uncomfortable loner, can only watch on via camera. This tangible human element is enough to make the monstrous destruction outside feel grounded—and thus so much nastier.

Nightvision scene in Cloverfield

It’s Actually Scary

But the most compelling element in Cloverfield, and which has been found lacking in nearly every American attempt at a giant monster movie, is that the Beast from Unknown Fathoms in Cloverfield is like a waking nightmare. Rather than being a visual special effect, this critter has “become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.”

That turn of phrase is from 2500-year-old Hindu scripture, but it was made famous by J. Robert Oppenheimer after he first saw the devastating fire of the nuclear bomb. It is also more or less the kind of anxiety that birthed within the popular Japanese imagination the idea of Godzilla: a beast born from nuclear fallout that would come to wreak untold carnage upon unsuspecting Japanese urban shores.

While the creature of Cloverfield is not of a nuclear origin (at least one that we know about), his murderous touch upon the Big Apple taps into that same unmerciful fear of oblivion. And Godzilla, again, was best when he wasn’t intended to be either a family friendly Toho Studios mascot or a franchise launching pad at Sony/Warner Bros. half a century later. He is the threat of senseless annihilation, and the core characters of Cloverfield feel that immediately when their Lower Manhattan neighborhood is left totaled and Marlena is rambling about seeing it eat people.

Indeed, when Hudson is actually eaten later in the film, it means something since the entire picture was told from his point-of-view, and this is also after we saw Marlena suffer a grisly and unheroic fate for saving Hud’s life; she was poisoned by parasitic mini-beasties that the monster shook off its flesh like so many fleas.

In fact, the scene of the survivors stumbling down the 6-train tunnel line while being pursued by these monsters is quite reminiscent of the Velociraptor rip-offs that masqueraded as baby Godzillas in the ill-advised third act of Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla. But unlike that sequence, rather than adding a pace-killing special effects scene, we are treated to the nastiest and tensest sequence in the picture.

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Ultimately, Cloverfield has a nest of reasons for why it is so successful and endures as one of the best horror films and found footage movies of the 21st century. It brought the monster movie back to American cinema in a way that was visceral, immediate, and grotesque. And it did it all while operating with a fraction of any recent Godzilla’s mammoth budget. It’s probably why even at a slighter height, its roar still deafens all competitors decade later.