J. J. Abrams’ monster series quietly takes the pulse of a country in transition.
The following article contains MAJOR SPOILERS for both Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane.
It’s Friday night. You’re young, single, in New York City. Like every other Friday night, you’re looking to blow off steam, work’s been kicking your ass and money’s running tight so you may have to haggle over your rent for the month. You need an escape from your mundane troubles. A friend of a friend tells you about some going away party for some guy you used to know back in High School or whatever, but which is mostly filled with his soon-to-be sister-in-law’s friends rather than anybody he really knows. It sounds like fun, so you go, drink, mingle, lose yourself in the party for a little while.
Then everything shakes with extreme force, without warning and far more violently than a minor earthquake. Somebody switches on the TV, “Unconfirmed reports of an explosion off the coast of Lower Manhattan.” A collective chill runs down everybody’s spine, including yours. “Not again,” you think, but in an absolutely terrified manner. 9/11 was barely 6 years ago, right here, yet so much has happened since then, and you weren’t here in New York City, that it almost feels like a distant memory. But now those memories are rushing back, that wound is still fresh, and you’re possibly right in the middle of it. Someone suggests heading up to the roof; you might be able to see the coastal explosion from there. Everybody races upstairs, briefly breathes a sigh of relief – it’s off the coast, it’s not here, maybe it was a freak accident, maybe Rob should have left town earlier.
But then another explosion happens. This one you can see. It’s in Manhattan. There’s a massive ball of flame, and it’s no longer deniable. New York City is under attack, you’re still here, and that flaming debris is coming straight for you.
This is Cloverfield. Sold as a mystery-box disaster movie in the then still-innovative found-footage conceit, then later as a monster movie in the vein of the original Gojira than the American Godzilla. Cloverfield receives a bad rap from many film lovers, who claim that it’s more of a phenomenally pulled-off marketing campaign than an actually interesting or even decent film in its own right, with paper-thin characters and too much needless mystery – many effectively casting it as The Blair Witch Project 2.0. But what is meant as an insult turns out to be a very apt comparison: Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project are both, effectively, arthouse horror movies that were marketed as mainstream crowd-pleasing rollercoasters of terror thanks to canny usage of the Internet and viral marketing. But Cloverfield is also more than just an arthouse horror movie. In quite the same way that Gojira was a state-of-the-nation address for Japan in the aftermath of Hiroshima, Cloverfield is a state-of-the-nation address for the United States of America in the aftermath of 9/11 and as George W. Bush prepared to close out his two terms as the head of those states.
The 9/11 allusions in Cloverfield are not subtle and nor did they go unnoticed by critics at the time, some positively like Roger Ebert, some critically like Stephanie Zacharek. One of the first casualties of the monster’s trek through NYC is the Chrysler Building, another monument to American exceptionalism brought down like it was nothing by some outside force, coating mid-town Manhattan once more in thick, billowing dust clouds. The remaining cast members later make it to Beth’s apartment complex, only to see it having been knocked into another tower by the monster, leaning precariously and consciously calling to mind comparisons to the former Twin Towers. Hell, several characters invoke comparisons to 9/11 themselves in-film at multiple points, particularly with the inquisitive prefix of “another.”
But 9/11 imagery and comparisons were not exactly new back in 2008 – Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remake was 3 years prior, for just one example – and a post-Cloverfield blockbuster world is all about repackaging that kind of trauma as either overblown escapist blockbuster spectacle, or said plus empowering the audience with images, sequences, or whole videogames dedicated to averting the worst of it, effectively trying to rewrite history. Cloverfield instead, in almost every facet of its design, is all about trapping the viewer in that kind of chaotic, hopeless, helpless experience. The found-footage conceit is explicitly about tying the viewer down, putting them down at ground-level as the attack happens with no chance of escape. Every possible exit gets cordoned off, nobody knows anything about what’s going on or why, the all-powerful military are fighting something that all of their might can’t stop, and, in between the immediate fears of the monster being right on top of you or its little parasites scuttling after you in the pitch-black darkness, the fact slowly dawns on you that you are fucked and there’s no getting out of this. That, for me at least, is why I find the middle stretch of Cloverfield (from the initial attack to after the mall) to be some of the most terrifying film I have ever experienced.
That’s because it plays on fears that are still prevalent today but are rooted specifically in an America coming to the end of George W. Bush’s time in presidential office. The found-footage conceit doubles as the film utilising its immediacy and lack of objectivity as a way of further immersing the viewer into the middle of their worst fears of domestic terrorism, but also on the rise of YouTube, the growing trend of amateur documentarians capturing the unbelievable for both posterity and even as a coping mechanism due to the distancing effect of cameras – as well as being another 9/11 allusion; a History Channel documentary, 102 Minutes That Changed America, debuted the September after Cloverfield’s release and presented the attacks primarily through ordinary members of the public filming the event on their own cameras. Hud rationalises his continued filming with, “People are gonna want to know… how it all went down.” In a way, it’s a precursor to today’s usages of social media services like Twitter and Periscope, which provide an immediacy that one simply could not get in 2008, one of the main fears that the film addresses: that not-knowing.
What is the thing attacking New York City? Why is it doing so? Can it be stopped? Where did it come from? Our cast does not know, the news media in the brief glimpses of their coverage that we can get don’t know, and the military definitely does not know. All that people can do is speculate wildly between one another in the brief moments where they aren’t running for their lives, but everybody needs an answer that they can’t get. They need to rationalise why this is happening and why the United States of America, once the most powerful nation on the planet, is suddenly upstaged and usurped by something else. In a way, the monster acts as a mirror for America’s own anxieties throughout the 2000s. 9/11 drove the point home early in the decade and now, as Bush prepared to cede control of the country over to his successor, Americans had to properly face up to the fact that the country was no longer all-powerful and maybe never was. The weight and consequences of their misplaced confidence on the International stage throughout the years were making a long-overdue return home, and that scared them, particularly since the answers as to why were long, complicated, and implicated America itself more than their moral dynamic was willing to admit.
Fear is what drives everyone in Cloverfield – our cast, the monster, the military – in much the same way that fear dominated the narrative of the 2000s, whether that were through the nebulously-defined War On Terror, the rise of a culture of fear in the news media, or even in works like (yes) 24 that treated terrorism as a succession of imminent ticking-time-tomb scenarios requiring constant vigilance in order to sufficiently combat. In fact, if you agree with director Matt Reeves’ assertion that the monster is merely a scared baby lost in a new world and not acting outwardly maliciously – and this is going to get very First Semester of Film Studies Student for a second here, apologies in advance – then you could even read the monster as a metaphor for the rise of the Islamic faith in America. This big, scary-seeming thing that’s totally alien to the traditionally god-fearing Christian American society, where the thing itself isn’t malicious excepting the parasites that are independent of it, but is blamed and attacked as a whole by a populace and military who know no other response to the thing they fear than misplaced hatred and aggression that only makes things worse.
Is that reading too much into things (and also potentially in the most reductive and cringe-inducing wannabe-academic way)? Perhaps, but even if that’s too much of a leap, it doesn’t change the fact that Cloverfield is to post-9/11 America what Gojira was to post-Hiroshima Japan. It’s America trying to work through that fear of no longer being the projected ideal self-image it had hawked to the rest of the world for almost a Century. It had been shown to be just like everybody else – fallible, lead-by-fear, reactionary, one nation on a world stage made up of many others, capable of failing spectacularly and of ignoble intentions. During Bush’s 8 years, the country suffered domestic disasters (Hurricane Katrina), international failures on a huge scale driven by fear and misplaced military aggression (the invasion of Iraq and the continued War on Terror), and terror attacks (9/11) that all put significant dents on America’s International image, and this terrified them. Cloverfield put these fears up on screen, both blatantly and subtextually, utilising its monster movie framework to quietly comment and document them and the state of America in early 2008 by forcing the viewer to experience them practically first-hand. After all, “People are gonna want to know… how it all went down.”
You wake up groggily. Your head is killing you, possibly concussed. You don’t remember much from before you blacked out, you were driving maybe, but you know that waking up shouldn’t hurt this badly. Your sight is coming back to you and this… does not look like your home. It looks nothing like your home. In fact, the damp walls, the exposed pipes, the bare concrete… this looks more like a bunker room of some kind. You try to move, but your leg is chained to the wall. You reach for your phone but you have no signal. You’re in a state of undress, but not an intentional one. You remember that you were driving, that you were in an accident of some kind.
Then the door suddenly screeches open, and in walks a large, older, imposing man. He sits down on a chair, starts telling you about how you need fluids, need to eat, how lucky you are to still be alive. He keeps repeating those kinds of phrases, “I saved you. You’re lucky… I rescued you…” Over and over and over, hammering down on this need for you to be grateful for him, how you would have died if he hadn’t come along. He mostly brushes off your questions as to what’s going on, until finally he caves slightly. He tells you, point blank, that there’s been an attack, the air in the outside world is toxic, and everybody, and he does mean everybody, is dead. He saved you, brought you down here, and now you are stuck with him for as long as it takes the air to become breathable again whether you like it or not.
Is he telling the truth? Why won’t he be straight with unless pushed, and how much pushing can he take? Why does he seem to resent the only other person down there with you, and why is he heavily fixated on you? And if he is telling the truth, is the devil you know better than risking the devil you don’t?
This is 10 Cloverfield Lane, sold as a pseudo-sequel to the original Cloverfield but which, most likely to the immense dissatisfaction of hyped opening day audiences, had basically nothing to do with the original Cloverfield outside of the brand name and the concept of monsters both figurative and (as seen in the final 20 minutes) literal. Instead, it’s primarily a claustrophobic pressure-cooker psychological thriller about abuse, particularly domestic abuse. This did not go unnoticed by certain more attentive critics, but that shift away from a monster movie into a different type of thriller is actually perfectly in keeping with the original Cloverfield, and I don’t mean in terms of using the brand as an umbrella for low-budget sci-fi-influenced thrillers for J. J. Abrams’ Bad Robot production team.
I’d argue that it’s no coincidence that 10 Cloverfield Lane was released as Barack Obama’s time in presidential office is coming to an end. In fact, in the same way that Cloverfield was a pulse-taking of the fears of an America coming off of Bush’s presidency, 10 Cloverfield Lane acts as a pulse-taking of the fears of an America coming off of Obama’s presidency. Where Cloverfield was about the fears of a post-9/11 world, of America no longer being the biggest and strongest country on the block, something that it had effectively built its whole image and identity on the back of being, 10 Cloverfield Lane instead turns inward to examine the real threat to America today. Yes, there is the threat of outside forces and a general insecurity over perceived weakness – represented in Cloverfield by the monster, and here by an alien invasion – but the real threat, the thing to truly fear today in America, is the constant desire to return to a perceived nostalgic vision of America that never actually existed.
What’s been the biggest rhetoric throughout this godforsaken presidential campaign? “Make America Great Again.” “Take our country back.” The perception that America has somehow fallen from its great pedestal over the previous 8 years and that it needs to be returned to that Great Time, albeit always in vague unspecified terms. Hell, even the various Democratic hopefuls (including the current president) have had to take turns refuting those claims with some variation of “America is still the greatest country in the world.” Except that that’s never really been true, has it? It’s not true today – being 17th in education (in 2014), 44th in health care (in 2014), and 1st in total number of prisoners (in 2015), as well as the continued systemic racism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia, etc. – and it wasn’t true in whatever nostalgia-tinged time that those who claim that the country has currently lost its way would like to point to, since the country has made significant strides for minority groups since those times (albeit with still a lot further to go).
But then that’s it, isn’t it? Those who claim to want to make the country great again are predominately White males, a mixture of the working and middle class, angry and bitter about a perceived loss of power. That empowering those who have been oppressed by a system gamed against the oppressed is somehow erasing the oppressors’ views from the conversation. They’re scared that the world is making actual progress, change, and they don’t like that. They want things to remain stationary, for everybody who is currently profiting from the system that once helped themselves to know their place and return to being subservient. They want to keep a hold of that power, they want America to dig its heels in and cling on to that kind of worldview that benefits those few who already benefit from it (and still will), and they’re willing to let the country burn and for those suffering to suffer worse in order to hang on to those outdated power structures. It’s “fuck you, got mine” on a national scale.
And that struggle is everywhere in 10 Cloverfield Lane. It’s in the design of Howard’s bunker, a setting that juxtaposes the cold isolating nature of a secreted bunker with the falsely-reassuring trappings of a post-war (and crucially pre-00s) suburban household. From the jukebox stocked with 60s classics, to the vast majority of Howard’s films being on VHS, to the stack of board games and jigsaws they have to pass the time, to the general decor, right down to the wooden dinner table that’s “a family heirloom” that Howard always sits at the head of. There’s a deliberate effort to design a pocket outside of the reaches of the modern world, trying to claw itself back in time to that nostalgic view of America that can’t quite fully be replicated because it never quite existed to begin with. It’s a bubble, protecting Howard from the progressing outside world he’s resentful of.
That struggle is represented in the White middle-class patriarchal family dynamics that Howard tries to impose upon Michelle and Emmett. A “father knows best” household where he gets to live with his loving, obedient, and steadfastly loyal daughter that he can protect from the dangers of the outside world, with an effective son-in-law who will respect that Howard’s word goes under this roof. But this power structure is both hopelessly antiquated and purposefully ignorant of seeing Michelle and Emmett as people, with their own desires, impulses, wants, and needs. It selfishly treats the White male father figure as the only person who matters, the only person who deserves to get their own way, and that’s actively repelling for those who aren’t that figure. Michelle is a woman, something that Howard can never acknowledge due to this, instead being incapable of seeing her or Megan or however many other women he’s kidnapped and abused as nothing more than his little “girl.”
But, of course, that struggle is most represented in Howard himself. A jaded, cynical, paranoid Navy veteran of the Baby Boomers (or perhaps even the self-described Greatest Generation) with a massive chip on his shoulders and a furious, pathological need for total order and control under him. There’s an active resentfulness against the younger generation desperate for progress and change, for safety and inclusiveness, that’s betrayed early on when he rants, “What is it with you people? You build helmets for your bicycles, but what happens when something goes wrong? You panic!” as if he is the only one with the forethought and the calm resolve to do what needs to be done and lead everyone through a crisis. He follows up an observation to Michelle about how his daughter, Megan, loved to cook with an offhanded, “You’ll learn to love cooking.” He reminisces fondly on his Navy days, and is looking from minute one for any excuse to off Emmett in order to preserve the picture-perfect patriarchal American lifestyle of a devoted protective father and his loving committed daughter that he cannot have, because his barely-restrained misogynistic behaviour deservedly drives off the women in his life.
So his response to a changing world? A world under threat or, since it is strongly inferred that he was doing this even before the attack, in the midst of progress? To seal himself off in his Americana bunker to live out his deluded fantasy of a “Great” America that never was and cannot be returned to. He chooses to remain still in the face of progress, and when everything outside goes to shit, he immediately and somewhat gleefully resigns himself to living in that bunker with Michelle for the rest of his days. Who cares if the rest of humanity is embroiled in a losing war with an alien force and desperately needs all the help it can get? “Fuck you, got mine.”
It’s a continuation of that fear and insecurity about America’s standing in the modern world that drove Cloverfield, only here it’s curdled into selfishness, bitterness, and outright hate, much like America in 2016. Where Cloverfield’s threat was International – subbing in for Globalism, 9/11, karma for lack of a better term – 10 Cloverfield Lane’s is Domestic – subbing in for nostalgia, false ideals, regression. It’s kind of telling that Cloverfield’s monster cannot be defeated no matter how much weaponry America throws at it, although the efforts of various military personnel and emergency response teams are able to minimise casualties and, even though they had to wipe Manhattan off the face of the earth to do it, the implication is given that America will rebuild, re-focus and soldier on regardless of the event. Meanwhile, 10 Cloverfield Lane’s aliens can be killed simply through the strategic lobbing of a makeshift Molotov cocktail. The International is no longer the worst threat facing America. The true threat is stagnancy, regression, a “fuck you, got mine” mind-set.
Cloverfield had no real answers to America’s fears because America in 2008, coming off of Bush’s devastating 2 terms in office, had no clear answers. It could only document that fear and uncertainty, which the film reflected. 10 Cloverfield Lane instead points that finger back at America itself and demands that it continue to walk the path of progress and change, the kind of progress and change that Obama has spent 2 terms trying to force through and which is now under threat from people who are hopelessly outdated in their worldviews and beliefs. That’s the threat facing America in 2016 and, much like how Cloverfield dramatized the threats from 2008, 10 Cloverfield Lane brilliantly does so today. However unintentionally, these two films act as state-of-the-nation addresses just in time for their respective changings of the guard. I wonder what those fears will look like in another 8 years’ time…