All this rampant speculation about the Cloverfield monster has been distraction from the real thrill of the movie: Getting to watch a reenactment of 9/11 without all the scary political implications and the guilt over one's fascination with mass death. Like the disturbing original Gojira from 1954, Cloverfield is a monster movie whose purpose is nakedly therapeutic. New York must recover from the historical trauma of 9/11, and what better way than by containing its reenactment in a completely generic story whose monster-comes-to-town-monster-leaves-town narrative structure is as familiar as the fairy tales we heard as kids? (spoilers ahead)
Early in Cloverfield, when the monster first attacks New York, we see nothing of the giant beast — only the destruction it's leaving behind. As bloodied people stumble from the wreckage of leaning skyscrapers, dazed and covered in a thick layer of dust, one cannot help but recall the first, terrifying images that leaked from New York after the World Trade Center was hit. Most of it came from shaky, amateur footage. Likewise, Cloverfield is shot to look like it comes from a handheld camera dragged around by a group of rich twenty-somethings fleeing the wreckage of a party. So Cloverfield isn't just reenacting the attacks. It's reenacting TV news images of the attacks too. There is something genuinely shocking and brilliant about those moments in the film when you know you're watching scenes so clearly inspired by 9/11. It feels risky and wrong, and therefore you are profoundly relieved to see the comical, rubbery monster come on the scene, stomping and roaring and shedding lice the size of great danes. That creature, who does all the appropriate monstery things like resist conventional weapons and open its mouth really wide to reveal layers of weird teeth, is profound reassurance that we are firmly in the realm of fantasy. New York has not been attacked. It's just a silly dream about a monster so goofy-looking that you can hardly look at it without giggling. (Don't believe me? See the Cloverfield monster do its funky chicken dance in our morning spoilers.)
Director Matt Reeves knows what he's doing with his monster, bringing it blundering into the story whenever we get too close to remembering the real disaster that inspired it. In fact, one of the most genuinely horrifying scenes in the film has no monster at all. Several characters decide to rescue their friend from a sixty-story building that has collapsed against another one. Exhausted and in shock from watching their other friends die, they climb those sixty flights up the non-collapsed building, and jump into the slowly-crumbling one next door to get to their friend. Nothing is more terrifying than these vacant, tottering buildings whose blasted walls howl with wind.
And then, just as you start to contemplate those other blasted buildings, those other terrified people trapped inside them, the monster arrives and suddenly everything is fun, B-movie goodness. It takes smart writing and directing to make a movie like this, that pushes raw historical tragedy right into our eyeballs and then deftly distracts us with old-fashioned entertainment.
Sure, you can go see Cloverfield for the stomping and roaring, and you won't be disappointed. But when the movie's images of a destroyed New York fallen into chaos haunt you for days afterward, you'll start to realize that Reeves and his twangy-ass monster have given the U.S. its first great movie about 9/11.