“Something attacked the city”: 9/11 and Cloverfield

cloverfield Explosion

Wes Craven famously said that horror films don’t create fear: they release it. Whilst this isn’t a view I wholly agree with, I do believe there is some truth to catharsis theory. To understand any culture, and what fears they are wrestling with, I reckon you look at their horror films and in particular their monsters. It’s no coincidence, for instance, that around a decade after the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan created Godzilla: a city destroying super lizard empowered by nuclear radiation.

In this vein I’ve been thinking recently about Cloverfield. This week 10 Cloverfield Lane opens nationwide, described by producer JJ Abrams as a “blood-relative” to the original, and it reminded me how much I loved the first one.

Now, I’ll confess to being a total fanboy and sucker for monster movies, but I especially love Cloverfield: not only is it one of the elite found-footage movies that actually, you know, is good, but it’s also one of the best American films yet about 9/11. That might sound a little lofty for a creature feature, but I reckon Cloverfield is America’s Godzilla: a film to help that nation process the real-life attacks it endured.

Cloverfield3

First off, Cloverfield’s plot could read as a description of 9/11: New York City is attacked by an enemy it wasn’t expecting, doesn’t understand, cannot reason with and seems unstoppable. The film doesn’t give a back story as to where the creature comes from (though for super-geeks there is an extended “alternate reality game” online which offers clues). The attacks just happen, and as the film is shot from the character’s eye view  we are just as bewildered, frightened and confused as they are.

Secondly, the attacks commence with a major NY landmark being destroyed: the Statue of Liberty, with her head sent hurtling onto Manhattan island, is a fairly clear parallel to the destruction of the World Trade Centre.

clover field statue

Thirdly, the US responds immediately with an aggressive – and unsuccessful – military campaign. Now I’m not trying to be political here, but it would be fair to say that by 2008 it was becoming apparent that the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were not yielding the results promised, and that fighting a nebulous force like Islamic Extremism was a lot more complicated than expected: a problem that continues to this day.

Fourthly, when a character is bitten by a parasite which has fallen off the monster, she is taken behind a tarpaulin at a medical facility just before her body explodes. Or, to frame it differently, the monster is so dangerous that those it infects will ultimately blow themselves up, becoming bio-hazardous suicide bombers among fleeing civilian refugees.

cloverfield body explode

Fifthly, after a hellish night the surviving protagonists finally make it to morning, only to realise that the Government is going to nuke the city (another nod to Godzilla). And if you sit through the credits, there is a backwards message warning that “It’s still alive” at the very end.  It is clear that this monster, and our efforts to vanquish it, are going to be around for some time yet and the battle will be ongoing.

cloverfield arts-graphics-2008_1183520a

9/11, and the wars which followed it, are obviously more horrible than anything in Cloverfield. In my day job I am a social worker for refugee children, so can testify that the evil that men do is more monstrous than any sci-fi creation. But the reality is that an event like 9/11 can scar an entire culture on an almost psychic level, so films like this can help us all process what happened, and is happening, and how we feel about it. I’m a firm believer in facing up to reality, but I also believe that sometimes the best way of doing this is through fiction, and using monsters are metaphors is a real part of this.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m looking forward to 10 Cloverfield Lane so much: a lot has changed in the world in the last 8 years, and I’m interested in seeing what fresh light a new cinematic monster has to throw on the real ones that live in our world.

 

 

Published by Tim Coleman

Film critic. Screenwriter. Academic.

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