I’d love to meet and talk with a WWII-generation Japanese citizen who saw Gojira (aka Godzilla) for the first time in 1954.
It’s no secret that Japanese pop-culture – from Manga comics to big-robot/big-monster sci-fi – has acted as a pressure-release for the anger and anxiety built up from America’s bombing of Japan in World War II. (The great anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion explored another big theme – the conflict between eastern and western religions – but that’s another essay.)
In the wake of 9/11, the world of American pop-culture took a long, long time before it addressed the disaster with anything but trembling, sanctimonious, frightened kid gloves. Only the eminent Onion dared to ask us to laugh at the event in its legendary post-9/11 edition (“Holy Fucking Shit: America Under Attack”). Paul Greengrass helped us explore some of our feelings about 9/11 in United 93, but that movie could only move us to admire heroes.
But as good as Greengrass’ movie is, and as much as I admire the Onion’s brave humor, I’m relieved that we’re taking longer, harder and closer looks at 9/11, and I’m especially glad that the geekier wing of pop-culture is addressing post-9/11 dread. Last year’s stellar Bond reboot Casino Royale featured a terrorist attack on an airport, and Steven Spielberg went back to the king of alien-invasion myths for his 9/11 movie, War of the Worlds.
Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield joins this esteemed class of high-concept re-explorations of 9/11, and not surprisingly, its closest cinematic sibling is the original Gojira, which followed the destructive path of a monster created by American nuclear testing. None of the characters in Cloverfield mention the 9/11 attacks or make any reference to terrorists, but by the 30-minute mark, we’ve seen the Empire State Building topple in on itself and flood the streets with an unstoppable wall of dust and paper – all familiar, haunting images.
But Reeves, along with his creative guru J.J. Abrams and screenwriter Drew Goddard, soon leaves the rote 9/11 imagery behind and sprints headlong into a rollicking eek-fest that includes facehugging creepy-crawlies right out of Alien, skyscraping derring-do reminiscent of The Towering Inferno, and for good measure, one exploding body. It’s a worthy American successor to Gojira (unlike the depressing 1998 Godzilla), and as a viral-marketing phenomenon, it’s everything that Snakes on a Plane could and should have been.
Remarkably, this movie managed to get a PG-13 rating, probably because its overriding conceit – it’s all found footage taken on one handheld minicam, a la Blair Witch – saddled it with a look so shaky it drove three people out of the theater I was in with motion sickness. You can barely see anything. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great idea executed well, but I would have been willing to suspend my disbelief if the filmmakers had given me a few more minutes of less barf-inducing cinematography.
Side note about an excellent detail: The guy who records the events of the monster attack accidentally tapes over an older tape of the two lead characters on a happy outing to Coney Island. The taping-over device lets the filmmakers cut away to that frothy old footage (pillow talk, ferris wheels and ice-cream cones) for comic relief during intense scenes and for haunting effect at the end, when we watch the final lead characters die, only to cut to the old footage and see them happy and alive one last time. I can’t say I bonded with any of the characters in Cloverfield, but I felt the same urgent sympathy for them that I do for the legions of anonymous victims in any disaster.
But more than anything else, Cloverfield works best as a hugely entertaining way to purge your bad post-9/11 mojo. The 9/11 terrorists hit two of our national icons – The World Trade Center and the Pentagon – and in Cloverfield, the filmmakers take down two more seminal New York icons in the first reel: the aforementioned Empire State Building and (most memorably) the Statue of Liberty. In fact, let’s pause to praise that classic-making moment.
After 20 minutes of hipster banality at a party where we meet our doomed leads, the monster strikes. The disposable hipsters think it’s an earthquake, but then they run outside, and fire rains from the sky. One of the fireballs crashes into their block – and it’s the severed head of the Statue of Liberty. Awesome.
I wasn’t in Japan after America bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I wasn’t in New York after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I can’t offer the following thoughts from a position of moral authority – but I will offer them:
Art can give us absolution. In the case of movies like Gojira or Cloverfield, it doesn’t even have to be great art to give us absolution, though I think Cloverfield was made with some artistry. As post-9/11 hysteria finally fades away, we need the artistic world to give us absolution. There are lots of ways to do it, and Cloverfield (like Gojira) takes the most obvious route: It uses the horror of that day as a catalyst for an even more horrific – and fun – story that doesn’t help us forget but helps us remember and resolve our feelings about the terrible event in question.