Wednesday, January 16, 2008


So are you all excited about the latest monster movie to hit the screen?

This thing's been being marketed to hell and back for what seems like the past six months, but still it seems like a lot of my friends and co-workers know nothing about it. That probably has something to do with the poster and print ad campaign being barely visible in real-life New York City:

I think I've seen a total of one of these, which is honestly not that surprising. I was actually more surprised that I saw any at all.

Why, you ask? Well, it's more than a little reminiscent of some of the images we saw first-hand on 9/11:

Pretty obvious that they're exploiting 9/11 for marketing purposes. I don't even see how you can argue otherwise. It's not like nobody has ever seen these images; they can't claim ignorance.

I think that Paramount is probably treating this film with kid gloves around New York, as well they should. I personally have mixed feelings about it. I actually am looking forward to seeing the film, in the same way I looked forward to seeing something like Escape from New York. I think everybody has dark fantasies about seeing what their own town or city would look like in a post-apocalyptic (or just apocalyptic) setting, with the key word being fantasy. It can't be too realistic, especially when there are real-life things like 9/11 going on. But fear is an emotion with a purpose, and we all have a need to see those fears expressed. It's a kind of catharsis.

Cloverfield seems to be trying really hard to tiptoe right on the edge of that line. It seems pretty likely to me that, consciously or not, the entire film is one big allegory for 9/11. (It is at least a film about fear - and what are we fearful of these days? Giant monsters?) It's evident especially in the way that it's shot in first-person mode from the point of view of a small group of people trying to escape - a familiar memory of 9/11 for many of us - and you therefore (supposedly) never really get a sense of exactly what's going on. That's a feeling I think all New Yorkers can now directly relate to, and it's one that neither of the two actual 9/11 films have managed to capture in the slightest.

This isn't the first time a science fiction film has invoked post-9/11 fear of terrorism - I think it's pretty easy to argue that Steven Spielberg's remake of War of the Worlds was also just one long terrorist attack, and it too began in New York (well, really right across the river in New Jersey, but that's sort of beside the point), before spreading out all over the country.

I don't necessarily see this as a bad thing. You could say too that Escape from New York was a vehicle to express our fears of rising crime (as it was at the time) and the future it would bring, purposely set in a city that was morally and financially bankrupt and was fast becoming the murder capital of the country. The same is true of many films in that genre. Fantasy and sci-fi are often a much better way of expressing our real-world fears than non-fiction, because the filmmakers can ironically be more honest in their emotions if they allow themselves the freedom of imagination. They're better able to use their tools of cinema to invoke that emotion, rather than trying to force emotion from a set of historical events over which they have no control.

Fantasy and sci-fi are also pretty much the only ways we have of expressing our fears of something as big and nebulous as terrorism; abstract concepts and ideas that, if unchecked, could consume us all. You really can't do that in a romantic comedy, a buddy film or a road movie. You need the kind of movie where anything goes, and where the sky is literally the limit. (Oh, lots of films have tried to do terrorism fears on a small and realistic scale, but not many have been very successful, with Babel maybe one of the few exceptions. War of the Worlds expresses our fears better than Munich, for just one example.)

What I'm sort of uneasy about, though, is the obvious attempt at cashing in on a specific trauma, and the deaths of thousands of real people. War of the Worlds may have been an allegory for terrorism, but it was never marketed using 9/11 imagery - it was left abstract, at least on the surface, as this kind of thing should be. It's one thing for a filmmaker to express his or her fears to an audience that shares them; another for the distributor to try to make a buck off the lives and deaths of innocent people. (My wife was actually completely turned off by these posters.) I'd feel a little more comfortable if the posters weren't such an obvious reference to a specific, terrible event that many people, including myself, lived through... while others weren't so lucky.

But I'm still going to see the movie.

UPDATE #1: Lest you think I'm some sort of right-wingnut or conspiracy theorist, the left-leaning New York Daily News posted a review of Cloverfield that also brings up the "9/11-inspired imagery". And the similarly liberal New York Times refers to the film's "tacky allusions to September 11". It's just obvious to any New Yorker; it has no basis in politics or any other ideology. And I'm not making a judgment on anything other than the marketing. (Oooooh, don't even get me started on the "viral" alternate reality game!)

One other thing. I've gotten a few comments from people that don't see the 9/11 or terrorism connection at all. Well, this is what JJ Abrams himself has to say about that in the press notes for the film:

"We live in a time of great fear. Having a movie that is about something as outlandish as a massive creature attacking your city allows people to process and experience that fear in a way that is incredibly entertaining and incredibly safe."

Which is pretty much exactly what I said above.

UPDATE #2: Saw the movie. Pretty much exactly what I expected. It was fun, though mostly in a "wow, they really nailed 9/11" kind of way. The actual monster stuff wasn't particularly interesting, especially the little Alien-like parasites that exist in the film solely to make the subway tunnels a non-viable route of escape. And there were a surprising number of scenes that were actually pretty slow.

The camera work was also annoying in that it was trying so hard to be realistically shaky that it was actually unrealistically shaky. It went too far. Nobody is that bad of a cameraman. It was distracting, and it didn't really look like a home movie. Every shot is also zoomed in to what seemed like the maximum, so all you ever see are unidentifiable parts of people's faces or bodies, unidentifiable streets, unidentifiable monster limbs. I'm sure that's by design, but it again was both unrealistic and annoying.

Not my favorite film, but sort of interesting, at least. I don't think this has really created "our own Godzilla", though - this doesn't feel like the start of a franchise. But who knows.


  1. Hmm.. I really didn't see it that way. Then again, I'm dense. Especially when it comes to tragedy. I find it difficult to feel emotion unless it is something I personally experienced, and while everyone experienced 9/11 to some degree, it didn't necessarily hit me hard. Even so, it was still a horrible and milestone moment in my life though.

    I suppose that is why I didn't and still don't see the same way you do regarding the imagery presented in this film. However, since you actually lived through that day, I feel as if you have a better understanding -- even if I can't comprehend it.


  2. Well, my degrees and training are also in film, so I'm coming at it from that angle too.

    There is this idea that a lot of people have that things happen in filmmaking by chance. They don't. There are no coincidences. Filmmaking is expensive and it's hard. Everything happens for a reason and everything is vetted by multiple people before it gets put on screen (or in the marketing campaign).

    They didn't have to set the movie in New York, they didn't have to put that imagery on the posters, they didn't have to make the entire plot about trying to escape from Manhattan during a major attack. Everything about the movie is a 9/11 parallel, and the only argument you could make is that this is strictly due to chance (as I've seen others do).

    But I think that's a ridiculous argument to make; it's like having a film about a war in the United States in the 1800's where one side's wearing blue and the other side's wearing grey and then saying it's just "chance" that it bears resemblance to the Civil War. You can't "forget" these things once they're part of the national consciousness. The actual stated intent of the director really doesn't matter; we're all products of the same culture, and we can't escape it. And 9/11 only happened 7 years ago - it's a little early to be claiming a group of major filmmakers has apparently never heard of it.

    Again, I'm not saying it's a bad thing for filmmakers to make films like this. It's really just the marketing that bothers me. I think films like this themselves actually serve a cultural purpose and are important for that reason. Every era has films that are particularly indicative of the national mood during that era.

  3. My 55 year old mother wants me to go with her to see "Cloverfield". I will probably go, cause it can't possibly in a million years be as bad as "Alien Vs. Predator 2: Requiem". She made me take her to see that last weekend. To her credit, at least she thought AVP2 was horrible.

  4. Anonymous10:39 AM

    It is not chance that Cloverfield was set in NY, but to conclude that the ideas of NY being attacked parallel only 9/11 is a little off in my opinion. When Godzilla showed up in 1998 and people fleed from the city was that foreshadowing? Or should we assume that it was Japan's nuclear holocaust turned for profit in the US? Giant monsters have been attacking NY city for 50 years in Marvel comics. It's almost an in-joke in that EVERYTHING that happens in Marvel happens in NY, and every superhero lives there. So while they did choose to set it in NY and they did know that 9/11 would be brought up subconsciously or not, I don't think we can accuse the filmmakers of exploiting America's personal tragedy for profit. They just used that unviersal sense of unknown attack and fear to make what is in my opinion an awesome movie.

    The movie posters are more visually 9/11 related, but at the same time.. you can't showcase a headless Statue of Liberty in front of New Jersey if the film is set in Manhattan. We even get to see the path through the water and between the destroyed buildings and can conclude that it was something coming from below, not a military-style attack from above.

  5. You're missing the point, Ken.

    Let's say you set a film about an attack on Pearl Harbor in 1940. Would that be foreshadowing? No. Now let's say you set a film about an attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942. Could any person in the world say that film was not about the actual attack a year earlier? Also no.

    Once history happens, you cannot just erase it. You can't pretend it never happened.

    Does that mean you can never make another movie about an attack on NYC without it being an allusion to 9/11? Pretty much, yeah, in the same way that you can't make a movie about nuclear war without it being at least a passing allusion to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These things actually happened, and like it or not, a filmmaker has to rely on them for guidance as to what goes in the film - these events tell the filmmaker how it would actually go down.

    All assuming, of course, that another major real-world attack doesn't happen in NYC, in which case I imagine filmmakers will start invoking that instead.

    As for the original Godzilla films, it has long been accepted that they were a post-war expression of shared Japanese experiences during WWII. This is even in the Godzilla films - there are repeated references through all the various series about him either getting his power or being created by the atomic bomb, or the souls of WWII victims, or various other things. So he is not just figuratively an allusion to WWII, he is a literal one too.

    Go read the Wikipedia article on Godzilla - it explains all of this.

    JJ Abrams' statements that he wanted to created "our own Godzilla" could easily be interpreted in various ways - why does he think we need our own Godzilla? Why did Japan need Godzilla in the first place?

  6. Anonymous4:43 PM

    " about an attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942. Could any person in the world say that film was not about the actual attack a year earlier? Also no."

    I think they could, yes, if it was attacked by underwater aliens. It might tap into the fears which as you already expressed can be cathartic. Not everything has to be a direct symbol or metaphor. Just because a historic event is in the national consciousness does not mean every similar depiction directly relates.

    I understand fully well that Godzilla is a direct response to Hiroshima. I brought up Godzilla because of Hiroshima. Are the Japanese people exploiting their own tragedy by making these films, or are they dealing with the fear in a fictional manner. Certainly Cloverfield and 9/11 are going to be connected. There is a fear of the unknown and a fear of destruction, and yes, real people did experience that in real life. I just do not think, as you said, that Cloverfield is an "obvious attempt at cashing in on a specific trauma, and the deaths of thousands of real people."

    A monster attack is not a specific terrorist attack. Buildings fall without terrorist attacks. The monster has no agenda and is not murdering Americans. It is eating them. This is an attempt to make a science fiction story using images that are familiar with post 9/11 audiences, not an attempt to spit on the graves of people killed by Osama Bin Laden.

    There is a wealth of images and events in monster movies and horror motifs that show up in this movie. There are also very real depictions that the nation probably wouldn't know about before 9/11. This movie is not a 9/11 cash cow. I do think it does make brilliant use of what you and the nation experienced. Cathartic. And as I mentioned in my first post, it is non-sensincal to keep the NY skyline from advertisements when the movie is set in NY and there is an obvious trail of destruction from the statue past the shore. Are they ignoring history? No. Are they exploiting dead people? Also no.

    I would say that films like Flight 93 and WTC are the ones trying to "make a buck off the lives and deaths of innocent people". Sure, they honor the fallen, but they got their checks in the mail. And they actually depict those actual innocent people dying. That, to me, is obvious.

    "JJ Abrams' statements that he wanted to created 'our own Godzilla' could easily be interpreted in various ways - why does he think we need our own Godzilla? Why did Japan need Godzilla in the first place?"

    Japan needed Godzilla because a new fear was introduced into their collective psyche. I agree with everything you said about a need for a fictional release that we won't find in buddy comedies. I disagree with your assertion that Cloverfield, among all the other movies we have mentioned, is the one that did it wrong.

  7. Not sure you really read my post, Ken. We're having two different conversations here.

    I specifically said it's perfectly ok for a film to express our fears in the way that Cloverfield does.

    What I've said at least three separate times now that I object to is the marketing. That's a different thing, and that's where the images that are a specific and blatant exploitation of 9/11 imagery are being used.

    You don't seem to have any argument with the actual substance of my post.

    Again: marketing and filmmaking are two different things, and I've been clear about that from the beginning.

  8. Anonymous10:34 PM

    I've also said in every post that the movie poster cannot showcase a headless Statue of Liberty in front of anything other than the New York skyline. The poster is the only example of 9/11 exploitation that you mentioned., the myspace pages, the trailers.. all of the other marketing seems ok right? The statue is the most appropriate image for the movie.

    Sorry for the misunderstanding. I was sidetracked from the poster when I thought you were responding to my comments about the film and responded in kind. Especially the response to the Godzilla references (in which marketing was not mentioned at all.) I was a little out of context I realize. Two different covnersations. I still respectfully disagree that the poster is exploitive. Any teaser image of any depiction of the then mysterious monster's aftermath would be remiscent of 9/11 but again, that is unavoidable when the monster's actions and the actual damage had similar physical outcomes.


About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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