Movie recipes: Cloverfield

When was the last time you saw a completely original movie? Think about it. In the first of an occasional series, we trace back a new movie's influences...

It's nearly here: Cloverfield

Ever since the first time I saw Cloverfield (and I’m planning to see it multiple times while it’s still in cinemas) I’ve been unable to stop thinking about it. It’s like an addiction. Because I saw it at a preview screening, I’ve been constantly trying to bite my tongue; I want to talk about it, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else, and I don’t want to hype it so much that people will be disappointed by the actual movie. So I’ve just been thinking about it a lot instead, and trying to trace back all the many, many influences that lead to this one startlingly brilliant movie.

There are obviously some real world influences on Cloverfield. The September 11th terrorist attack immediately springs to mind, just because it’s hard to see New York under attack any more and not automatically bring up a mental picture of the iconic towers collapsing. That’s probably intentional, and it’s part of Cloverfield‘s resonance, but it’s also kind of irrelevant; it’s not a movie about terrorism, and it’s perfectly possible to just enjoy it as a monster movie, rather than taking it as a bit of social commentary.

But no movie exists in a vacuum; everything is influenced, consciously or not, by what came before it. The following ingredients can all be mixed up to create one Cloverfield

200g of The Blair Witch Project

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The “found footage” conceit of Cloverfield isn’t exactly original. The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first movie to use this technique, either (and for some reason, with Diary of the Dead and [REC] on the way, it’s come back into fashion) but it’s the most famous to date. As soon as Cloverfield‘s opening sequence starts, explaining that what follows is footage discovered inside a handheld camera pulled out of what used to be Central Park, most people are going to think of the Blair Witch Project. The abrupt ending, too, recalls the ending of the Blair Witch Project; in both cases, there are a lot of things you’re never going to find out, because instead of watching events unfold from outside like some omnipresent being, all you get is the viewpoint of one particular group of people. When their time’s up, so’s yours.

The methodology isn’t without flaws, and lots of films have tried to do the same thing and failed, mostly due to a lack of planning and critical thought; you really need to know what you’re doing to pull this off, and I’d argue that both Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project succeeded.

Cloverfield‘s elaborate viral marketing campaign also recalls The Blair Witch Project – remember the website that purported to tell the truth about what happened out in the woods, with all the background on the Burkettsville witch? Cloverfield‘s clues have been dropping for ages, and while an exhaustive understanding of the various Cloverfield tie-in websites isn’t necessary, they arguably enhance the experience. Sort of.

200g of Godzilla

Every lazy critic and budding movie blogger has instantly labelled Cloverfield “Blair Witch meets Godzilla”, and while overuse has made me completely hate that “x meets y” kind of stuff, they might sort of have a point here. JJ Abrams has said many times in interviews that the idea for Cloverfield came from realising what a massive phenomenon Godzilla is in Japan, and wanting the US to have its own national monster.

It’s kind of a daft thing to say when you consider all the millions of culture-specific monsters there are out there in the world. But – yeah, Cloverfield‘s monster stomps all over Manhattan just like Godzilla stomps all over Tokyo. Big monster, big city. We get it.

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2 x LonelyGirl15s

I’m loath to give a movie’s director or screenwriter the last word on anything, because many many brilliant movies have been made by people who don’t know how they managed to make something worthwhile, but it’s perhaps worth noting that Matt Reeves has gone on record as saying that he considered YouTube a bigger influence on Cloverfield than the Blair Witch Project.

The real world threatens to creep in again here, then, because nowadays most people have cameras built into their mobile phones, and those cameras are commonly capable of capturing video. Many, many major events have been captured by amateurs who whipped out their camera phones at the vital moment, recording things for posterity when a news crew couldn’t possibly have gotten there in time. It’s this that makes Cloverfield believable – critics might say that any normal person would simply drop the camera while running for their lives, but YouTube videos often prove otherwise.

LonelyGirl15 could easily be filed under the category of movies that tried and failed to use the handheld camera conceit effectively. Well, except that it wasn’t a movie. The original LonelyGirl15 videos purported to show a 16-year-old girl in her bedroom, recording video blogs to upload onto the Internet in an attempt to make friends. It rapidly got very, very convoluted indeed, introducing lots of new characters and lots of believability-stretching weirdness; in LonelyGirl15, there were a lot of times when you really couldn’t believe that anyone would keep filming, let alone find time to edit music into their videos and upload them onto the Internet. LonelyGirl15 also ended up with multiple characters filming their own versions of events, while Cloverfield is made up of footage taken from a single camera’s perspective, but there are definite similarities of style.

(There’s also something reminiscent of Lost about LonelyGirl15, in the way that the creators of each constantly find new and irritating ways not to answer any of your questions, choosing instead to introduce lots and lots more questions, which in turn will never ever be answered. Cloverfield, too, doesn’t really answer most of the questions it poses – but at least you get to finally see the monster!)

I couldn’t tell you for sure whether Matt Reeves has ever watched a single episode of LonelyGirl15 or not. But considering all the media hype it got, and that it’s consistently one of the most watched channels on YouTube, and that it employed a similar brand of Alternate Reality Gaming as Cloverfield‘s marketing did (right down to the reversed audio heard at the end of some LonelyGirl15 videos, and at the end of Cloverfield‘s credits)… well, it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility.

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200g of The Host

Cloverfield‘s monster doesn’t really look like anything you’ve ever seen before. A lot of the marketing revolved around never telling you exactly what the monster was, but as it turns out, it’d be pretty impossible to say, even after seeing the movie. It doesn’t look like any recognisable animal alive today; nor does it look like any kind of dinosaur that we’re familiar with. It’s a bit reminiscent of Grendel from the recent Beowulf adaptation, but Grendel wasn’t that big and wasn’t that scary. The one thing it did kind of remind me of was the monster in The Host.

The Host is, or at least was, Korea’s most successful film ever, and deservedly so. It’s a monster movie that isn’t about the monster; it’s more about the characters dealing with the fallout from the monster’s attack. In The Host, you see the monster in broad daylight very early on. In Cloverfield, er, you don’t. You do eventually see the monster properly, without anything obscuring it, and in daylight, but that’s not till near the very end of the movie. And it isn’t identical to the one in The Host, but nonetheless there’s something about them; something about the CGI involved, maybe, or the colour palette, or the movements, or just the fact that the monsters in The Host and in Cloverfield both defy description. What the hell are they? Well… no-one knows. Other things you don’t know involve where they came from; whether getting bitten by them is dangerous; and how you get rid of them. Something else they both have in common, though, is that the military really doesn’t know how to deal with them – the monster in each film becomes less of a threat by the end that the over-the-top measures taken by the army to kill them off.

Mix all ingredients, cook in a pre-heated oven for 85 minutes, then spread with Lost-cream and sprinkle with Buffy the Vampire Slayer to taste. Delia Smith, eat yer heart out.