With this week’s arrival of the first official trailer for Godzilla vs Kong, and the subsequent explosion of discussion, hype, and sheer meme-ry that has emerged in its wake, it’s safe to say that audiences have giant monsters on the brain right now. Sure, this could partially be due to the fact that we really haven’t seen marketing for a major blockbuster film in over a year (thank you, COVID), but I’d like to think that it has more to do with the fact that, at the end of the day, giant monsters beating the hell out of each other is just a concept that we can all get behind.
And that’s not just my personal biases bleeding through (just ignore the fact that I’ve probably seen Pacific Rim over a dozen times); With over 30 Godzilla and around 10 King Kong films being released since their respective original debuts, there’s clearly a market for their specific brand of city-smashing action. Since we all live in a world where there have been more Transformers movies in our lifetimes than there have been legally-elected US Presidents, we’re all keenly aware of the simple fact that, put simply, spectacle sells. And what’s more spectacular than a multi-story monster smashing through buildings and tossing cars like were made of LEGO? I’m obviously being intentionally obtuse here, but that certainly does play a part in their enduring success. But, as with most science-fiction and other distinctly-genre films, of which monster movies most inarguably are, what really contributes to their staying power is their potential for deep and unassumingly-complex allegory. Godzilla, while certainly cool enough from the most basic of premises, is a metaphor for Japan’s post-WWII collective terror over nuclear technology. Likewise, Kong is a representative for Western Imperialism and the white man’s historical ruination of everything that it deems to be “primitive.” These films have stayed within our collective consciousnesses not just because they’re entertaining, but because they have meaningful contributions to our development of intellectual culture onscreen. And because, again, deep down we all love seeing things explode.
As with most popular genre-defining archetypes, Godzilla and Kong also both inspired an army of knock-offs and imitations, trying to capitalize the movie-going (mostly Japanese) audience’s love for giant monster mayhem. Suddenly any studio with access to a 1/50th-scale cityscape and a cheap, latex dinosaur costume was tin a mad dash to churn out their own low-budget copy of the more well-known box office performers, with relatively low success rates. But while there are a few gems sprinkled in the mix (Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 The Host being a particularly excellent homage), the vast majority have been forgettable borderline-garbage. Seriously, throw a dart at a board full of Mystery Science Theater episodes and odds are you’ll hit some hilariously-schlocky Godzilla rip-off.
Of the handful of Godzilla imitators that are actually serviceable, there are fewer still that are actually good. The ones that tend to be received the best are those that take the concept and add their own unique flavor to them. The aforementioned Pacific Rim used heavy anime and manga inspirations to tell a gargantuan-monster smackdown story that was far more human-centric that came before it. Nacho Vigalondo’s 2016 Colossal used the trope as a metaphor for emotional trauma and alcoholism in a quirky, comedy/drama setting. But to me, the most effective and entertaining film to ever ride on the coattails of the original classics is, funnily enough, one that sticks more or less the closest to the already-established, tried-and-true concept: JJ Abrams and Matt Reeves’ 2008 foray into the giant-monster genre, Cloverfield.
Cloverfield, on the surface, shares a lot of the same DNA with its classic-kaiju inspirations: A giant, angry monster from the depths of the ocean makes landfall in New York City, leaving absolute devastation in its wake. Sound familiar? It should, because it’s the exact same plot as every Godzilla movie ever made. Nothing new under the sun, right? But what separates Cloverfield from its predecessors is its wholly unique, remarkably engaging perspective. While most monster movies, in an effort to maximize spectacle, give the audience an omniscient, third-person of the monster-de-jour’s trail of destruction, this film opts to instead cleverly keep us rooted firmly on the ground. The entire film is shot from a handheld, “found-footage” POV, letting us experience the terror from the eyes of our protagonists. It’s the Blair Witch of giant monster movies except, you know, stuff actually happens.
Assuming the shaky-cam style doesn’t make you motion sick, which was one of the main complaints of the film, Cloverfield’s cinéma vérité, day-in-the-life style of narrative storytelling makes in likely the most personal, micro-scale movie ever made about a gargantuan nightmare creature demolishing buildings. We see the minutiae of our characters’ everyday lives, we get invested in their relationships, and we care about them when the walls start crashing down around them. One of the biggest complaints with Godzilla films, up to and including more recent installations like 2019’s King of the Monsters, is that the human drama just isn’t compelling, especially when compared to the far more interesting and cinematic monster action happening several stories above their heads. Cloverfield circumvents this entirely by injecting the audience directly into the lives of the film’s protagonists. We are essentially one of the group, fleeing with them as the film’s particular brand of behemoth gains ground on them, and huddling in fear with them in the subway as buildings shudder and collapse in the streets above them. It’s hands-down the most convincing and downright scary depiction of what realistically would happen in this fantastical situation, by virtue of it not giving the audience a choice whether or not to invest in the characters: You’re there with them, and therefore are completely along for the ride.
This particular style of storytelling and filmmaking also has the added benefit of creating more mystique and intrigue, and transitively, awe, around the film’s star monster than any other film before it. With Godzilla and Kong, there’s no secrets. Because we, the viewer, always have an all-encompassing, bird’s eye view of the narrative and the action, we know everything about what the monsters are doing, what they want, and where they come from, even if the characters within the film don’t. Cloverfield affords no such luxuries, leaving the audience with only just as much knowledge of the situation as the film’s characters have at any given moment, which is to say, virtually none at all. We don’t know what this creature is, why it’s here, and what it wants. Even the lead-up to the film gave us nothing to go on, with the trailer not only neglecting to show us what exactly was trashing New York, it didn’t even give us a title. All we know is that it’s large, angry, and damn-near indestructible. We never even get a full-on view of the creature, giving it the same sort of suspenseful air of mystery as the titular monsters from Jaws and Alien. What little we do see of it is so wholly unique and unconventional when compared to typical monster-movie fare that two people can see the film and likely emerge with very different ideas of what exactly it looked like. Less is more, especially when the imagination makes for much more terrifying possibilities than anything that could be put to screen.
In fact, if you actually want to get answers to the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘when’, and ‘how’ of the film, you have to play along with the films incredibly complex and dense marketing game. In the lead-up to the film, all sorts of little tidbits about the world of the film were spread around the internet like bread crumbs. Fake social media pages for characters, commercials for fake products, and news stories for in-universe events all helped to construct the the backstory for the film and why exactly things happen like they do. It’s not necessary at all to enjoy the film as-is, but it’s an incredibly interesting and fantastically fun addition to the experience that makes it all the more engaging and immersive. Needless to say, I spent pretty much all of 2008 and 2009 obsessing over the material like a conspiracy theorist trying to solve the JFK assassination, and it certainly contributed to my love of the film. And really, if you want to know any of this information, it’s all conveniently collected on any number of fan Wiki pages now for your convenience. Kids these days, never having to work for anything.
But that little tangent aside, what really makes the film so effective, in my eyes, is the way that, much like the films that it is trying so eagerly to recall, it preys on contemporary fears and plays them into the terror of the monster’s assault on the city. Godzilla was released in an era when nuclear devastation was the single scariest thing on anyone’s mind, especially if you lived in Japan and had been around to see the devastating end of the second World War. The morbidly-iconic shape of a mushroom cloud looming over a city skyline had been etched into the collective consciousnesses of anyone who was around to witness such an apocalyptic event. By linking the titular creature directly to that highly-specific act of unprecedented violence, it gave the film much more gravitas and impact than its bare-bones concept, essentially a man in a rubber lizard suit crushing cardboard buildings, would otherwise suggest. Likewise, people living in the mid-to-late 2000s had been permanently traumatized by the unforgettable image of a passenger plane colliding with the World Trade Center, and the subsequent carnage that the building’s collapse would inevitably cause. Much of our reference to the event in popular culture is through photos and videos taken on the ground level from civilian bystanders, giving the tragedy a surreal voyeuristic quality, as we experienced it through the eyes of so many people who were just going about there daily lives. What Cloverfield does is evoke those exact same feelings, those emotions that anyone who was around in 2008 and old enough to see a PG-13 movie would so distinctly remember, and harness them to make the somewhat dated and corny concept of a giant monster tearing its way through New York City seem all the more real, and as a result, horrifying.
Honestly, I love this movie with everything in me. The slow-burn narrative, the mystery around the monster, the sheer adrenaline and claustrophobia of the action, all of it amounts to one of my favorite movies to be released in the past couple of decades. It’s certainly my choice for the best contender to the Godzilla/King Kong monster-movie throne, is it most sincerely captures their poignancy and thematic spirit while at the same time evolving the concept and updating it for modern audiences. I’ve been absolutely gripped by this movie ever since its release, and couldn’t tell you accurately how many times I’ve seen it in the meantime. And through one of the weirdest coincidences I’ve ever encountered while writing for this site, a direct sequel was announced right as I was in the middle of this particular piece, some 13 years later after the original. Why now? Who knows? Maybe they’ve exhausted all possible spin-off ideas between the surprisingly great, if completely unrelated 10 Cloverfield Lane and the abysmally terrible Cloverfield Paradox. Regardless of the reasoning behind it, you can count me in as solidly excited and eagerly awaiting the follow-up. If it’s anything as innovative, enthralling, and panic-inducing as the first film, I can’t wait to see it.