Opinion on this film seems to see-saw between the impressed and the violently ill. Having watched people need to leave the cinema while the film was on, and having my own girlfriend spend 65% of it watching the floor because she already felt sick and this was making it worse, I can see how the film is so polarising. It's a question of style, and if you can adapt to the constant motion then chances are you'll find a film to love here. I fortunately could adapt and found a film that is less centred on narrative, and more on and experiential piece.
Most of you have probably heard the constant superlative "Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla" thrown around like rice at a wedding.
It is an apt phrase - the film deals with a giant monster attack on New York, and all the action is captured POV from the handicam carried by a partygoer. It is this device that attracts the most discussion, for all the reasons I listed above.
What I immediately felt and loved about this film is it is so damn contemporary. It is a film that hits the zeitgeist and the world of today without ever once resorting to strange fashion choices or terrible slang - it is contemporary because of the way people react to the crisis, and the way it is played to the world. Disaster strikes, and everyone is on their mobile phone. CNN is playing broadcasts of the news. People are filming and photographing on their cells and cameras. Never once is anyone pointing this out, or making it a big deal - it is simply part of the detail in the film. It plays out like you could watch the whole thing on YouTube as well. It feels contemporary and modern and refreshing.
This style and detail makes it particularly relevant in the so called "Post 9-11 World". 9-11 was signifcant not just for the event, but the way that a media rich western society captured every second of it - cameras were rolling for both planes into the towers, photographs were taken, footage came from in the streets as people watched gigantic structures fall around them. In many ways, it was the fact that the world was able to live the horror of enormous buildings toppling around them that made 9-11 such an horrific event all over the world. Every day disaster strikes all over the world - suicide bombers, genocidal acts, children fighting children - yet 9-11 sparked such ferocity throughout the world because we were made to live through it. In a world (a western world at least) obsessed with media and media consumption, 9-11 was the ultimate horror story - a disaster that we all experienced first person. *
Cloverfield learnt from that, and its aesthetic is very true to life that way (insofar as a giant monster movie can be). This is an account of survivors - of little people watching giant buildings and monuments to the supposed endurance of America get toppled and destroyed. This is about seeing terrible things in the distance on the next street corner as much as right in front you. Cloverfield channels 9-11 in telling a story of survivors in a distaster zone.
Characters that you get to know are killed with little fanfare, like in a real disaster zone - and their companions have to either give up or carry on. There's never really time to mourn. Cloverfield is relentless from the time the attack begins. Everyone is forced on the move. People die and no one can stop to say goodbye. This relentless pace makes the quieter moments in the film possibly the most absorbing. My two favourite moments in the film are quieter ones, when the camera actually stops moving. **
The characters are a little hit and miss for me, and the party at the beginning to try and get to know them ends up feeling a little drawn out. Hud, the character who ends up with the camera is frustrating - a slightly creepy goofball that gets on your nerves. Rob and Jason, the two brothers work well - Jason in particular I liked. Rob is… well, a bit of a douchebag as played at the party. His sudden need to save his former roommate/love of his life Beth is definitely contrived - but it serves well enough to get the party of survivors walking through the city. Lily, Jason's girlfriend is also a well drawn character. Moreso than Beth in fact, who I thought was more McGuffin than character. Marlena is also underserved, being little more than someone for Hud to want to paw all over. Thankfully she never reciprocates.
The effects in this movie blow me away - not because I've never seen better - simply because of the way they integrate into the hand-held filming so perfectly. Most effects movies have very structured camera choices to showcase the effects fully. Cloverfield's chaotic camera makes the effects seem all the more amazing. The monster is a bit goofy looking, but still evokes the necessary amount of awe and terror. His little insect/children/things that scuttle around are great however - I like that they're deadly in their own way, though not how the creatures in Aliens et al are. They're the kind of menace that a solid plank of wood can chase away, but they're face and slippery, and good at finding you in the dark.
Storyline wise there are a few things that chafe. The continual contrivances that just happen to put this group of people at ground zero are difficult to believe - not so much it ruins the movie, but it does leave you with a sense that everything that happens is a little… convenient. Their journey to rescue a single girl manages to cover every significant angle and event of the entire New York destruction. I have also heard complaints that the movie never attempts to explain what actually happened, where the monster was from etc. For me though, the movie was enhanced by that choice, deciding to focus on how ordinary people react to an extraordinary event. I wasn't put off by the unanswered questions of the film's conclusion, I was pleased by it.
And that camera - always in motion, always turbulent. I think that's why I didn't like Hud much in the end - that prick really couldn't film. Any moron can hold the camera steadier than him. A ten year old could film better. He shakes and moves and swoops the camera all the goddamn time - I don't just mean in the "running in terror" moments, but in quiet conversations between other people he swings that thing around maniacally. Yet at sudden moments, he inexplicably does work out how to hold the camera still for a second before suddenly forgetting and swinging it around pointlessly again. As a filmmaker, the cinematography choices between motion and stillness became distracting at times. More consistency would have been nice - either he gets better or he doesn't. Either he's shit or he's okay. When you make the camera tied to a character, it should always be consistent with the character - it can't change for the convenience of the film.
Cloverfield is a visceral, enjoyable experience from start to finish. It's short, it's powerful, and it connects you with the characters more than you expect. It's a genre film that's really about humans in a disaster zone, and it plays all the better for it.
* Imagine if access to phones, digital capturing devices, video cameras and general media were the same in all countries. Would we be as willingly complacent about the war in Iraq and similar things if we were exposed to all this first person footage straight from the memory cards of the Everyman? Journalism evokes little more than cynicism, but real accounts from real people are hard to ignore. If the disgusting murders and attacks in Burma were being covered the same way 9-11 was covered - would the world stand for it?
** *SPOILER (MAYBE)* The first is after Jason has died, and all his friends are hiding out in a Subway station while conflict and chaos continues on the street. His brother is torn up but determined to try and save his love interest somehow. But then, his mother calls on the cellphone - she's seen the terrible action on the news, and wants to check up on her boys. Instant connectivity, even in a battlefield… it's a terrible moment and brings a crushing sense of pathos to the audience. My second favourite moment that really took advantage of the format was when they finally find Beth (the previously mentioned love interest) and she is impaled on a piece of metal. Hud (the camera operator) puts down the camera and helps them to lift her off it. The camera sits where it has been left, and we see only the feet of the characters, as they try to lift the imapled woman off the metal rod. *END SPOILERS*