In Hollywood, apocalypticism sells. Audiences delight in seeing our world destroyed, and recent films have sought to cash in on that oblique eschatological hope. Southland Tales and The Omen tripped over their own quotations of Revelation, but other stories drew more subtly from apocalyptic tradition. Children of Men and V for Vendetta were cryptically anarchistic depictions of Babylon’s destruction. By comparison, this year’s I Am Legend was an oddly patriotic tale of end-times survivalism, while Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem took a cynical glee in the symbolic destruction of middle America. All of these stories fit into previously established subgenres well-suited to apocalyptic themes, but Cloverfield is the first to venture into the most apocalyptic of them all: the giant monster genre.
Cloverfield owes much to Japanese giant monster films, or kaiju eiga. The monsters of these films are wrathful gods, either figuratively or literally. Godzilla, of course, began his life as a terrifying embodiment of nuclear holocaust, presiding over the 20th century’s Final Judgment. Ishiro Honda’s 1954 film launched a genre, and it wasn’t long before the monsters became gods in a much more literal sense. Mothra and Varan the Unbelievable are both worshiped by rural villagers, and when modern, urban society intrudes on their turf, they take revenge. Kaiju films take a certain pleasure in unleashing this destruction, and lurking at the dark heart of that pleasure is a sense that, somehow, we deserve it. The kaiju bring punishment; the human drama explains the sin. Godzilla wouldn’t attack Tokyo if humankind didn’t awaken him with nuclear weapons. Mothra wouldn’t attack California if greedy capitalists didn’t kidnap his miniature priestesses. The monsters symbolically destroy our human world, and we cheer because we think it’s all our fault. We deserve it, this says—a theology of sin and divine retribution.
The kaiju-as-divine-wrath theme is nowhere as clear as in Gamera 3: Awakening of Irys, possibly the genre’s best film since the original Godzilla. Early in this film Gamera, the giant fire-breathing turtle of the title, decides that humanity isn’t necessarily worth protecting. After all, his official title is “Guardian of the Universe,” and if humankind is going to harm the universe with wars and pollution, then why should he bother with us? We’re not quite the threat that other, evil giant monsters are, but if we get in the way of a stray fireball here or there, it’s no concern of Gamera’s. This cynical philosophy is embodied in the form of a 10-minute rampage through a city in which buildings fall, fireballs explode, and hundreds are killed—and the audience, of course, loves it.
The focus of Gamera 3 is on the human impact of this sort of tragedy, and Cloverfield, shot in shaky, first-person video, is all about human impact. But what is the sin that the monster is punishment for? In short, it’s self-absorption: the characters in this film search for cell phone chargers while the world falls down around them. In one key scene (that appears in the trailer), the monster hurls the head of the Statue of Liberty, which crashes down a few feet from the POV camera. Within seconds, people have lined up in front of it to take pictures with their cell phones. They’re distanced from what’s happening around them, oblivious to what it really means. Many reviewers have made the obvious connection to 9/11, and it’s certainly true that the monster’s initial rampage eerily evokes that day’s images. But there’s a deeper level to it. At one point, the characters are caught in the middle of a firefight between the monster and a National Guard regiment. Make no mistake: this is a movie about the invisibility of the Iraq war. We live oblivious to the reality of war, and in Cloverfield, that chicken comes home to roost. We deserve it, the film says, because it’s already happening and we pretend it isn’t. Late in the film one character exclaims, “I don’t know why this is happening”—that very obliviousness is the reflexive cause.
Of course, the movie isn’t all Pat Robertson polemic. The characters whose self-absorption the film decries are redeemed by the monster’s presence—that search for a cell phone charger becomes a selfless quest to save a trapped friend, with dozens of selfless acts along the way. In the midst of judgment, we see glimpses of a New Jerusalem. But the creature is a cleansing fire without which that redemption would be impossible. Ultimately, Cloverfield is a movie about how tragedy can bring us out of ourselves and into a greater community; its only hope is that this communion should occur without such tragedy.