Original release: January 18th 2008
Running time: 85 minutes
Director: Matt Reeves
Writer: Drew Goddard
Cast: Michael Stahl-David, Lizzy Caplan, T.J. Miller
Liberty Beheaded 00.18.50 to 00.24.07
On September 11th 2001, the eyes of the world were glued to their television screens as the news media replayed the incomprehensible images of an unprecedented terrorist attack on the city of New York. As a student, I had the day off from college and I sat like so many others, staring at the screen, gob-smacked, occasionally in tears and feeling very lucky that I wasn’t one of the poor people trapped in those flaming towers.
My television fed me repeated images of the approaching second plane, the huge explosion, the smoke, the dust, the people leaping to their deaths, the buildings crumbling, the people running and screaming. It was like a live television recreation of one of Hollywood’s most far-fetched special effects laden disaster blockbusters. The scale so epic, the loss of life so tragic that only Hollywood could’ve come up with this horror. But unfortunately this was all too real.
I remember wondering what it would be like to be in New York and to be a part of this unfolding story. How would the people of this great city ever get over what they experienced that day? Watching from the comfort of my living room over 3000 miles away, I wondered if I would ever forget what it was like to witness such an incredible and devastating event as it happened live on TV. Over ten years later, watching the images of 9/11 on YouTube still brings me close to tears and brings back the fear, the shock and the sadness of that terrible day.
Six years after 9/11, a mysterious teaser trailer appeared in cinemas before screenings of Michael Bay’s explosive but empty Transformers (2007) film. With no title, just a release date and the name of producer J.J. Abrams, the teaser showed a party full of young professionals being disrupted by huge roars and a distant explosion. The trailer culminated with the head of the Statue of Liberty flying through the air and bouncing down a street full of terrified people. Backed up by a viral marketing campaign that leaked limited information about the monster featured in the film, Cloverfield built up a strong following before it was released in January 2008.
People were immediately shocked by the imagery in the teaser trailer. The idea of New York under attack, the exploding buildings, the destruction of iconic landmarks and the handheld camera all added to a sense of deja-vu created by the trailer. When the film was released, critics were quick to draw parallels between the film and the footage of amateur camcorders that captured the events of 9/11. Annalee Newitz (2008) called the thrill of the movie ‘getting to watch a re-enactment of 9/11 without all the scary political implications and the guilt over one’s fascination with mass death’.
Horror filmmakers have always used current events to create narratives about monsters with contemporary relevance. Wood suggested ‘the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses’ (1984, p.171). Cloverfield tackles the tragedy of 9/11, attempting to make audiences recognise and confront what they may have tried to repress. Waller asserts ‘the horror film has engaged in a sort of extended dramatization of and response to the major public events and newsworthy topics in American history since 1968’ (1987, p.12) and this film demonstrates the continuing struggle of horror filmmakers to reflect the times in which their film is produced.
The references to 9/11 are continuous and apparent in many elements of the style and narrative of Cloverfield. It’s set in New York with iconic locations such as Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge being used (and destroyed). It deals with post 9/11 fears of mass destruction of major cities and uses the increase in consumer-owned digital technology to capture this scenario in a modern, realistic style.
The camerawork in the film is continually shaky, anchoring the fact it’s all handheld. The entire film is shot as though from the perspective of a character in the story operating a video camera. Therefore the camera often misses important occurrences as it’s so shaky and the character holding it (Hud) is clearly not concentrating on what is being filmed. This often happens as the characters are running for their lives. Shots of feet, the sound of heavy breathing, people fleeing past and bumping the camera all help to demonstrate the chaotic nature of the filming circumstances and remind the audience of amateur 9/11 footage.
The dialogue in Cloverfield is used to explain why the camera remains on. As the characters are in increasing danger, Hud (T.J. Miller) is asked if he’s still filming, to which he replies ‘yeah people are going to want to know how it all went down… people need to see this… this is going to be important, people are going to watch this’ a sentiment that echoes the thoughts and off-screen voices of all the people who grabbed their cameras to film the events of 9/11.
When the monster first attacks, there is confusion. Distant roars and explosions are followed by shots of people crowding around the television. The news declares there’s been an earthquake. This is a reference to the news media’s confusion and lack of information when the first plane hit the two towers. The news broadcast conflicting reports of what had happened to the tower as it was not widely known at first what had caused the explosion. Also amateur footage of 9/11 showed people standing in Times Square staring at screens that were playing news footage of the events as they unfolded. The audience recognises these reactions and relives the sense of confusion and panic that stirred within us all as we watched the events of September 11th 2001 unfold.
The characters run to the roof. Conversations between relative strangers can be overheard as people discuss the ‘shaking’, the ‘tremors’ and whether it is ‘a terrorist attack’. This is reminiscent of the amateur videos recorded on 9/11 where people discussed the events in the streets, panic in their eyes, searching the sky for answers. The exploding buildings, people running in corridors and down stairs and the sounds of screaming and crying are all familiar from YouTube videos of 9/11.
The Statue of Liberty’s head is another use of the iconography of New York as it falls damaged into the street. Arguably more iconic than the World Trade Center, it has multiple functions in Cloverfield. It reminds the audience that the monster comes from the water and that it is capable of great destruction but it’s also a symbol of freedom. Just as the World Trade Center was a symbol of economic power and free-market economics, the Statue of Liberty’s beheading reminds the audience that this monster is attacking American values. Hud captures footage of this moment and people with phones and cameras immediately surround the statue’s severed head, giving the scene further contemporary relevance.
This is followed by the collapsing of a huge building and the image of an ensuing dust cloud. The characters take cover in a shop. Perhaps this is the most enduring image of 9/11 besides the fireballs erupting as the planes hit. There were endless photos and videos captured on 9/11 of people running from the dust cloud as the towers collapsed and the camera operators seeking shelter in shops and buildings or even just between cars. The producer J.J. Abrams is quoted as saying ‘I was thinking about the effect of YouTube. Today, if you look online for two minutes, you can find video… of people hiding in a store or hiding under a car, watching other people’s reactions. We wanted that true sense of realism.’ (Emerson, 2008).
After this, Hud films the aftermath with dazed people walking around the dust-covered streets. The sound of people coughing can be heard and people are sharing bottles of water. People gather in the street to discuss what happened and what people have seen. There’s a shot of bits of paper floating in the air. All this references the amateur and semi-professional footage of 9/11.
The dust covered street and people are an eerie reminder of the impact of the collapsed buildings and the fact that more than just the people in the towers that day were affected by the destruction. The characters decide to ‘get the hell out of Manhattan’ and attempt to use the Brooklyn Bridge. Footage and photos from 9/11 show the people of New York doing exactly this.
For those immediately affected by the terrorist attacks, I’ve no doubt this film feels like tasteless exploitation. For those of us more distant from the events but touched in our own ways by what happened that day, Cloverfield is a frighteningly visceral recreation of the panic, the confusion and the terror of 9/11. But all wrapped up in a safe monster movie that makes this kind of thing feel as removed from reality as it really should be.
Peter is a film and media lecturer and currently writing his PhD thesis on found footage horror movies. This means he must endure all sorts of cinema’s worst drivel in the name of academia. If that wasn’t punishing enough, Peter enjoys watching films with brutal violence, depressing themes and a healthy splash of tragedy.
If Peter isn’t watching films, he is writing about them, talking about them or daydreaming about them. He regularly contributes to Media Magazine and a range of film websites. You can find his film blog at www.ilovethatfilm.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @ilovethatfilm.