A personal camcorder recovered by the U.S. Department of Defense in the area once known as Central Park contains footage of the Cloverfield Monster Attack. First, it shows Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) waking up with Beth McIntyre (Odette Yostman) in her father’s apartment above Columbus Circle on April 27th, and other personal events that day in New York City and Coney Island.
On May 22nd, Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel) throws a party for him, helped by Jason’s girlfriend Lily Ford (Jessica Lucas). They are celebrating because he has a new job as vice-president of a company in Japan. Rob’s friend Hud Platt (T.J. Miller) is filming. Rob is no longer with Beth and she brings a new boyfriend to the party. After an argument, she leaves just before a major earthquake occurs, followed by a city-wide power outage. From the roof, they see an explosion and flaming debris.
As they leave the building, the severed head of the Statue of Liberty crashes in front of them. Hud’s camera records an enormous creature destroying the Woolworth Building. An evacuation order is declared, but the creature’s tail destroys the Brooklyn Bridge, killing Jason and many other people, and they can’t escape that way. The 42nd Infantry Division of the Army National Guard attacks the monster, but smaller parasitic creatures fall from it and attack both soldiers and bystanders.
Rob hears a phone message from Beth. She is trapped in her apartment in the Time Warner Center and cannot move. Rob, Hud, Lily, and Hud’s girlfriend Marlena Diamond (Lizzy Caplan) head for midtown to rescue her. They are caught up in a battle between the creature and the Army, run into the subway and are attacked by huge parasites. Marlena is bitten and as they escape the subway, she falls ill. She is taken to a field hospital, bleeding from the eyes, and then explodes. Rob, still trying to save Beth, talks the military into letting them go. He is warned about the Hammer Down Protocol, which will destroy Manhattan after the last evacuation helicopter leaves.
They arrive at Beth’s building to find it toppled to one side and have to cross over to the roof from the adjacent building. Beth is impaled on re-bar and they free her and take her to the evacuation site at Grand Central Terminal, where the creature turns up again. Lily is taken away in a helicopter before the terminal is destroyed, and then Rob, Beth, and Hud board a second one. They see the creature again, being bombed by the military. It rushes out of the smoke and crashes the helicopter in Central Park.
The voice in the radio says Hammer Down will begin in 15 minutes. Rob, Beth, and Hud flee the wreckage as the bombing starts, but Hud goes back for the camera and is killed face-to-face by the creature. Rob and Beth grab the camera and hide in a tunnel as the bombing starts. The shelter crumbles, the camera is buried, and Rob and Beth are heard declaring their love as the nuke explodes. From the found camera, in the end, there is footage of them on the Ferris Wheel at Coney Island. In the background, an object falls from the sky. After the credits, a voice says, “It’s still alive,” but backwards.
The film was directed by Matt Reeves, written by Drew Goddard, and produced by J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot Productions. It was a new wrinkle in the creature feature, focusing not on the military struggle or the scientists’ race against time, but on a handful of ordinary people caught up in the event, who happen to have a camera. It was positively reviewed, attention being paid particularly to the cinéma vérité style. It was a box office success and spawned at least two sequels.
It all began with the image of the Statue of Liberty’s head in the street on the poster for Escape from New York (1981), which Abrams loved. The head was made larger because it looked too small in the trailer. Some people in the theaters experienced motion sickness from the shaky-cam effect. The creature was designed by Neville Page and the Phil Tippet studio. Much of the movie was kept secret despite teaser trailers appearing everywhere, rumors of all kinds, and viral tie-ins. Rotten Tomatoes called it Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla. New York is actively creating cell-phone zones in the subway, so the characters use of those phones is not unrealistic. In fact, with sufficient destruction above, subways might be the only place they work.
There are single-frame images from Them!, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and the original King Kong hidden in the film. Clovers are the first plants to grow back after a nuclear strike, though the name Cloverfield is that of the military operation. Monster designer Neville Page countered criticism that the creature looked like the one in The Host by pointing out that it had the same underwater genesis. Hud was played by T.J. Miller, a stand-up comedian, because he was able to improvise quickly. The sloping apartments in Beth’s building were not filmed by a tilted camera, but constructed that way, and the actors tended to become nauseous. Ironically, one scene of destruction was nearly cancelled because of a bomb scare in the city.