When is a monster movie not a monster movie? When it’s Cloverfield. Yes, there’s a monster in it but it’s a more a catalyst for the plot than an actual antagonist. The film isn’t about the creature, it’s about the several lives being destroyed by it’s arrival. This is in stark contrast to something like A Quiet Place, where the protagonists are actively fending off their monsters but that’s only part of why Cloverfield works so well. It has become an icon of the horror genre, with producer J.J. Abrams being asked about the posibility of a sequel for almost a decade after it’s release. Eventually that sequel would come (sort of) and there would even be a threequel (sort of, we’ll get to that). Even now, the Cloverfield brand lives on, with a fourth installment reportedly in early development.
Even after a decade and the technological advancements that came with it, the simple story of Cloverfield remains tense to sit through. It follows a group of friends through the rapidly crumbling city of Manhattan as they attempt to reach a love interest trapped in her apartment that they can’t even garuntee is still alive. Tension builds through how unpredictable the stability of their surroundings areas are as well as how little is shown on screen. It makes excellent use of the found-footage style of filmmaking, proving the age-old adage that less is more. There are scenes where the monster is seen in it’s entirity but it spends the majority of the plot hidden behind buildings or smoke from debris. The biggest threat is the dog-sized parasites that fall from it’s body and lurk around possibly every corner that our protagonists may walk around. The creature designs are a little more basic than something from H.R. Gieger but they’re still memorable enough. The closest look that is given makes it clear that these creatures are more than a little bit gross, in a shot that stands out as one of the most memorable in the entire franchise.
The characters all feel realistic. None of them are the “hero” of the story, even though primary heartthrob Rob is presented that way. Even before the creature attacks, it’s clear that they lead messy lives. Jason and Lily argue like many couples but, although they may seem frustrated with each other, there is still obviously love there. Hud the cameraman and Marlene who wasn’t even meant to be at the party slowly form a bond over the course of the plot despite him being annoying and her being out of his league. Rob the “hero” is the one determined to save his love interest Beth but, having recently slept with her and not called her back, it feels like it’s primarily motivated out of guilt. Real life, much like this iteration of Manhattan, is messy and Cloverfield never shies away from that.
The cherry on top is the lack of score. There’s a Cloverfield Overture that plays through the credits and continues to keep the audience unsettled even after the plot is over, but the entire film has purely diagetic sound. Aside from making sense, given that this is supposed to be a tape found in Central Park, it allows the sound of silence to echo from the screen. There’s no jumpscare sound effects or quivering violins, the film has to scare with atmosphere alone. Even as the story races towards its conclusion and the action amps up, it never feels like a work of pure fiction. If a creature were to land in the middle of one of the most populated areas in the United States, this is likely how it would go down.
Providing visuals for a hypothetical attack is perhaps the most unnerving part of all.