How ‘Cloverfield’ became a surprise monster hit — Ultimate Movie Year
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Released Jan. 18, 2008
Directed by Matt Reeves
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The modern day marketing of films is focused on raising as much awareness of a new movie as possible, even if that means revealing most of the story beforehand, in order to engage its intended audience. But sometimes it’s thrilling to walk into the theater without having any idea of what to expect as another way to build anticipation. Enter “Cloverfield.”
And for better or worse, JJ Abrams is certainly good at the latter. He produced this film (directed by Reeves and written by Drew Goddard) with a memorable teaser to hook audiences. We’re introduced to this preview through a surprise party in a New York City apartment. In these short, hand-held clips, various good-looking twenty-somethings come in and out of the frame with cool one-liners. It’s exactly the kind of hip party you’d dream of being at, but the reality of it would become a nightmare because of your own relatively shabby existence compared to Hollywood star elite.
And then, the party is interrupted by a loud roar and an earthquake. The crowd heads up to the roof to see what’s going on, from their perspective (and ours), a distant explosion elsewhere in the city is sending debris flying toward them. They all evacuate the building, and by the time they get to the street, the head of the Statue of Liberty is thrown down their street, lands in front of them, and rolls past. The characters are confronted with an obstacle far larger than themselves, in multiple ways.
Abrams originally conceived of “Cloverfield” after a visit to Japan. He was in the country that originated the keiju genre of films, most notably Godzilla. Abrams longed to create an American version of the giant, destructive monster, while placing him in New York City — at the time, only a few years after the attacks of 9/11 left a devestating impact within the community.
The final key to “Cloverfield” was developing it as a found footage movie. The genre was popularized with 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project,” but had mostly stayed within the boundaries of horror films. “Cloverfield” helped bridge found footage into a different genre to give it a fresh context, while the visual language reminded audiences of various clips we saw from 9/11. Meanwhile, YouTube was gaining steam in popular culture, and the iPhone was just introduced six months earlier. The filmmakers found an intriguing mix of genre history and current trends to look at a classic tale through fresh eyes.
“The movie is meant to be entertainment, to give people the sort of thrill I had as a kid watching monster movies,” Abrams told Time in 2008. “I hadn’t seen anything that felt that way for many years. I felt like there has to be a way to do a monster movie that’s updated and fresh. The age of self-documentation felt like a wonderful prism through which to look at the monster movie. (It’s) done in a way that makes it feel very real and relevant, allowing it to be simultaneously spectacular and incredibly intimate.”
Abrams was always a good idea man, but that means little unless you can execute that vision properly. Fortunately, Reeves and Goddard are two artists who can do just that. “Cloverfield” has a short running time, but it’s just the right length to introduce its group of characters, begin the conflict, and raise the stakes throughout. Keeping the visual of the monster out of commercials and the early parts of the movie was not only a sharp marketing movie to draw in the curious, it also further connects us to the reality of the film characters. “Cloverfield” holds our attention and gets off the stage without overstaying its welcome.
“‘Cloverfield’ taps into the spirit of the age,” wrote Keith Phipps in his review for the AV Club. “Its horror is devastating and citywide. The monstrous source of the violence … (is) absolutely terrifying, and it’s all the more effective for the way it lets viewers spend time getting to know the terrified stars, and the emotions and regrets behind their seemingly futile efforts to survive.”
An intriguing marketing rollout and fresh filmmaking perspective made “Cloverfield” an immediate hit at the box office, opening with a $40 million weekend on the movie’s $25 million budget. It would go on to gross $172 million worldwide, and produce two spiritual sequels that tried to retain the mysterious elements of “Cloverfield,” but didn’t capture the zeitgeist quite like the original did.
While the follow-ups to “Cloverfield” didn’t leave a strong impression, many of the other elements did. While the 2014 “Godzilla” film was conventionally shot, much of the framing toward the title character mirrored “Cloverfield’s” person-on-the-street perspective. Reeves would continue on to be one of Hollywood’s best new genre directors, helming 2009’s “Let Me In,” two entries in the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy, and “The Batman,” set for release in 2022. Goddard had several projects as either a writer, producer, or director, including 2012’s “The Cabin in the Woods” and 2018’s “Bad Times at the El Royale.” Abrams soon returned to the director’s chair, helming two Star Trek and Star Wars movies in one decade.
Sometimes it pays off to keep a secret.
Next Week: “Ip Man 2”
Originally published at https://www.ultimatemovieyear.com on January 21, 2021.