At some point we knew it had to happen. After all, it does to nearly every great event in modern American history. It doesn't matter if the subject matter is tragic or horrifying or simply embarrassing; a Hollywood exec can take that signature moment and turn it into a crowd-pleasing actioner, a goofy rom-com, or a half-witted television pilot. Tinsel Town hungers for new concepts like Bill Clinton hungers for 40 winks and a hummer.
The slavery era was given a zip-a-dee-doo-dah makeover in Song of the South. By harnessing the combined powers of Technicolor, animation, and songwriting, Walt Disney was able to whitewash the darkest days of American history.
Later, the POW camps of World War II provided the inspiration for Hogan's Heroes, which covered up the crimes of the Nazi regime and the cries of the beaten and broken with an ever-present laugh track.
And in the decade after the Vietnam War, we were carpet-bombed with one steroid-infused action flick after another — films like Rambo: First Blood Part II and Missing in Action — all in an attempt to mask our country's pain and to give its citizenry a more satisfying end to the conflict — we came back and kicked their ass.
Now, there's Cloverfield, a piece of 9/11 porn packaged as a monster movie. It says a lot about how far we are now removed from the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, that it has become fodder for Hollywood, not that it should surprise you. Thanks to Rudy Giuliani, it's already been reduced to little more than a campaign slogan.
Some folks may deny that Cloverfield is a commentary on 9/11, and frankly it's those folks who we can thank for crap like Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties and the continued career of Uwe Boll. They have all the depth of the backwash at the end of a pint of Guinness and all the mental sophistication of Kirk Cameron arguing that the banana proves there is an intelligent designer and he wants us to insert long, slender objects in our open mouths. Ignore them. They may watch the screen, but all they see are a bunch of pictures moving by real fast. That's all, folks.
And then there's the rest of us.
When it comes to Cloverfield, it's not so much the images we see but how we see them that conjures up memories of 9/11 — through the eyes of the man on the street documenting the chaos with his own video camera. Lest we forget, nearly all of what we know visually about 9/11 was caught on film by amateurs. Cloverfield director Matt Reeves admits he was inspired by this footage in a recent USA Today report. "In our minds, this is a way of exploring the terror of our times," Reeves says.
However, some argue that the terror of our times should have been handled more tenderly. Stephanie Zacharek of Salon.com says, "If 1950s horror films were really about the communist threat ... then why can't modern horror films mirror our own fears about real-life terrorism? There's no reason that they can't. But there's also no reason we have to accept the cheapening of real-life tragedy as a means of entertainment."
Zacharek adds, "I'm not saying those images should never be used dramatically in any way. But like all potent images, they deserve some care and respect, and some discretion. Why use them just for kicks, as a means to get a rise out of the audience as it recognizes something familiar and terrifying?"
Of course, there's a precedent for Reeves' use of a monster movie to capture the drama of a truly monstrous moment in time — Godzilla, the radioactive, fire-breathing atom bomb of all motion picture metaphors.