Camera documentation on the tropes and images of September 11 helps us perceive and understand the trauma unfolding that day. Numerous horror films following the post 9/11 decades have resulted in an approach that focuses on documenting the horrific moments of the event and trying to reproduce 9/11 in an oblique and subtle way, offering different understanding and meaning to the national tragedy. The film Cloverfield attracts numerous commentaries for simulating the terrifying moments of a terrorist attack. Many recognized the level of authenticity and credibility in the film through the use of faux-amateur footage, which truly resembles the kind of found footages in the post 9/11 world. In addition, the kind of amateur production also suggests how camera technology has allowed us to become digital historian in our own light. These lenses come to be that powerful filter to which we use to understand the world around us and take responsibilities as security citizens.
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Cloverfield offers plenty allusion to September 11 by employing numerous visual references. By beginning the film with the color test pattern, marking it as the property of the US department of defense, and following with the text on the screen that states “Camera retrieved at incident site ‘US-447’/ Area formerly known as ‘Central Park’”, the film establishes the setting of an seemingly archived footage. The renaming of Central Park to US-447 also defamiliarizes the place to resonate the 9/11 attack when “World Trade Center” was transformed to “Ground Zero”. Immediately, the audience gets an apprehensive feeling that this tape might have captured something horrible. While the first twenty-five minutes of the movie is documenting a farewell party, it then shifts to documenting their own extreme survival as they are running across the New York City. In addition, Beth’s predicament in the movie as she’s trapped on a high level apartment also parallels to the 9/11 survivors who were trapped inside the building, unable to call out for help. The scene is a clear reference to 9/11 as Rob’s effort to rescue Beth from a collapsing building, especially similar to the structure of that of Twin Towers, mirrors the experience of people who were in fact trapped in the Twin Towers and required the help of police and the fire department to rescue them. In addition, the moment before the helicopter crashed, the point of view shot of the characters watching from the window also reminiscent the horror of the passengers on that hijacked plane, pondering their last moments of their lives as they know it is about to come to an end. Roger Ebert, a film critic, commented that many scenes in the movie were “unmistakably evocation of 9/11…[and] so explicit are the 9/11 reference in Cloverfield that the monster is seen knocking over skyscrapers” (Ebert, 2008). The shakiness of the camera gives us a powerful sense of direct experience, and the sense of disorientation, confusion and panic of what it might be like to live through that kind of chaos. By simulating this kind of virtual reality, it gives the film a sense of credibility and realness, reminding the audience of the individual behind the camera who is experiencing the horror directly alongside all the other characters, and that he is in danger as well. Thus, Cloverfield simulates the experience of watching 9/11 happen onscreen from either a close or far distance through these amateur-documented footages.
September 11 isn’t simply unambiguous national tragedy; rather it was a national tragedy that we as a nation and those outside of the national boundaries as well, are processing through the medium of a screen. The newly introduced camera into our own digital technology comes to be a powerful tool through which we can process and understand the world as each person can disseminate information and become a digital historian, writing their own narratives. Indeed, in the movie the character Hud sees the act of filming as a creation of an archive, precisely because he knows that the event is going to be part of the national history. As a matter of fact, this is something that so many citizens during 9/11 felt as they stood on ground zero witnessing and recording those colossal buildings tumble to the ground. “Their footage was later used by local and national media, documentaries and by the 9/11 commission in order to construct an accurate timeline of events”(Wetmore, 2012).
Meanwhile, the documentation in the movie is important in other ways as well particularly in the post 911 context. After the Patriot Act came into being, there was this kind of heightened sense that we as the average ordinary citizen were to take greater responsibility of events as they were unfolding around us. We were asked to be aware of the potential threat that someone might unwittingly use us in their own terrorist plot. There is a heightened state of alert of the possibility of threat around us, in which we essentially become accomplice of the security apparatus of the United States. In addition to having the security that exists in the airport, whether through surveillance or TSA, the citizens are partially enlisted to be another eye watching out. Thus, documentation is not only the way of thinking about unfolding historical event, but also a way in concerning our national security and the possibility of threat that might happen around us as well.
In the light of documenting every moment and how each of them can be colossal and significant, the movie shows how memories and consequence of 9/11 can continue to live on well beyond the tragedy. In fact, in Cloverfield, we see time stamping the footages every time we move to a different moment in the film, which not only is to remind us that the screen is filtered through a handheld camcorder, but also to show how consequential and monumental any given moment ever could be. The scene in the beginning of the film when the camera focuses on a whole wall of family photograph at Beth father’s apartment is to ask us to personalize it, in part because photographs and film footages have powerful residence in the post 911 world, where they might be the only physical traces we have for people who have lost their lives in this particular tragedy. The videos and images of 9/11 are being played over and over again as part of the pledge to never forget what happened on this tragic day. So by documenting them, the images lives on forever in the heart of the survivor and people who have never directly experience nor witness the event.
In attention to what Matt Reeves deliberately shows us in the documentation, the film generates a kind of Islamic phobia in the post 9/11 world. With this in mind, Cloverfield presents death in a very abstract and collective sense rather than dealing with individual death more closely. Indeed, camera mostly shields us from the close scrutiny of individual death because the movie wants us to think about the collective death toll caused by terrorist acts. One of the representative death scenes when Marlena is hustled into a quarantine tent, where her silhouette expands and explodes, spattering blood on the plastic, it is as if she represents the monstrous suicide bomber who generates fear among the already chaotic situation, which calls to mind the kind of Islamic terror and reminds us the evil that lurks behind the making of this movie in the first place. However, Matt Reeves does show us some of the responses that characters have towards some personal losses of people that matters to them. For instance, when Rob was in a phone conversation with his mother to deliver the news of his brother’s death, we see his kind of stoic to grief responses. All the awaited grief we see in the movie is important as it helps us process and reflect on real deaths that had happened during 911. In fact, fictional death become representatives of the loved one that many families in the New York City and beyond had lost during the event. In addition, one symbolic scene in the movie, the decapitation of the Statue of Liberty, also reminds the audience on how al Qaeda and other terrorist groups executed either the American civilians or soldiers on footages and disseminates them, particularly in America, so that average American citizens could see the horrific violence that these groups are capable of. Thus, to have these scenes documented in the movie are to recall some very specific kind of terroristic violence residing in the 2008 period, and the importance of how fear can be politicized.
Correspondingly, Matt Reeves’ decision to reflect upon the horror of 911 through a monster movie suggest the kind of way Hollywood refuses to directly acknowledge or confront the 9/11 tragedy. The evil that the Cloverfield monster embodies is never directly addressed, and it remains vague and ambiguous to the very end. This implies Reeve’s unwillingness to name what in fact are the primary actors upon which this film is speaking to. However, one of the criticisms of the film is that this is a movie where we see a very white American fighting against an existential threat, which in some ways cheapen the experience of this national tragedy. By turning that threat into monster, it is problematic because it engages the film in a certain degree of Islamic phobia. We are not looking at the real cause of the problem and certainly by monsterizing Islam we’re dehumanizing a large segment of the American population.
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Additionally, many critics have chastised the film in exploiting a national tragedy and the memory of many innocent people who died in the result of that. Indeed, Matt Reeves and the creative crew that made this film are being criticized for capitalizing off death, grief and trauma. Salon.com chastises the movie by saying “Cloverfield harnesses the horror or 9/11…and repackages it as an amusement-park ride. We see familiar building exploding and crumbling before our eyes, and plumes of smoke rolling up the narrow corridors formed by lower-Manhattan streets, images that were once the province of news footage and have now been reduced to special effects” (Zacharek, 2008). Similarly, the New York Times dismisses the film by saying, “Cloverfield works as a showcase for impressively realistic-looking special effects, a realism that fails to extend to the scurrying humans whose fates are meant to invoke pity and fear but instead inspire yawns and contempt” (Dargis, 2008).
In short, even though there are a lot of criticisms on the making of this movie, I believe this is a work that is trying to interpret a tragedy in an imaginative way. The kind of symbolic act of documentation and making this event a movie is a way for the younger generation to understand what happened during this tragic day and a way for them to process it through visual imageries from the event. In fact, traumatic incidents such as 9/11 can be and will be remembered and experienced through film representation rather than solely by people who were directly part of the event. Cloverfield presents a way to approach the horror of terrorism but at a kind of safer distance that’s not too direct and confrontational. Urban disaster narratives awake and alert us to reflect upon our own nation in relate to whether or not we are too self-absorbed and unprepared when threats like this happens. The movie informs us citizens to be more aware and alert as we are capable to become security citizen with our own light of documentation, and being another eyes watching out for possible danger around us. It is a chance for us, as a nation, to learn from the past, and to prevent anything like this from happening ever again to our future kids and generation.
- Dargis, Manohla. “We’re All Gonna Die! Grab Your Video Camera!” The New York Times,
- The New York Times, 18 Jan. 2008.
- Ebert , Roger. “Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook 2011.” Google Books, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2010.
- Wetmore, Kevin J. Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema. A&C Black, 2012.
- Zacharek, Stephanie. “‘Cloverfield.’” Salon, Salon.com, 25 Sept. 2011.
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