Brace yourselves people, it’s time to burst the hype bubble. Cloverfield is exactly what you’d expect it to be if you’ve been paying attention and the opposite of everything you probably think it should be if you haven’t. Let’s get this out of the way right now. It’s not a monster movie, and it’s not trying to be. Instead it’s a simple little horror movie, one that apes a lot of the filming techniques used by Paul Greengrass on his brilliant film United 93, but wastes them on a bunch of unlikable, happy to see them drop dead characters and instead ends up being more like the first cousin of Blair Witch.
It’s filmed from the point of view of a single cameraman, who has the rather convenient nickname of “Hud”. Hud is almost never seen in the movie, but, oddly enough, he’s the only likable character in this mess. The people we do see are his friends, whom he starts out filming at a going away party for his best buddy, and ends up following through the streets of New York as the whole world goes to hell around them. His friends are a bunch of annoying, pretty boy hipsters with all the personality of a tongue depressor. You know the type: sexily stubbled, wealthy twenty-somethings who six months ago were probably sleeping on the floor of a frat house somewhere living off daddy’s money and who have now graduated college to move into trendy, Central Park apartments where they’ll take their place in the world as either corporate CEO’s or brilliantly troubled, babe-magnet musicians.
I’m just guessing about these people from their clothes here, the movie never actually goes that much into depth about any of the people we’re left following, which doesn’t exactly help the problem. Because once the plot gets rolling, our characters start behaving pretty stupidly. Our head hipster in charge (let’s call him the HIC) starts making a bunch of incredibly stupid decisions, the kinds of choices people usually only make in movies. Worse HIC's friends follow along with his stupidity, and the results… well let’s just say they aren’t exactly successful. Since we don’t know any of these people, it’s hard to believe in what they’re doing. It feels so Hollywood, which is ridiculous in a movie that’s entire premise is built around the idea of presenting a brutally real reality in an incredibly unreal situation. The monster is unreal, the characters running away from him are not supposed to be.
Actually crummy characters aside, there’s another big difference between what Greengrass did in United 93 and what Cloverfield is doing. No, I’m not talking about a thirty-story tall monster. Like I said, the monster isn’t really the point. The big difference is that in United 93 Greengrass knew when to give us a break from the handheld camera gimmick, and spaced his film out with more stable shots of people on the ground in other types of crisis. Cloverfield is all gimmick all the time, it never lets up, and as a result it’s hard to call the film anything other than a mostly entertaining, occasionally irritating, entirely numbing, curiosity.
Watching the thing through a shaky cam held by an amateur just isn’t that effective in this context when you’re trying to scare people’s pants off. The movement in Cloverfield is too fast, frenetic, and badly filmed (albeit intentionally). You never get a clear idea of what’s going on for most of the movie’s key moments. In a couple of places you don’t even see the movie’s key moments, because the camera cuts out or a light goes dead and things don’t clear up again until whatever is happening is over. Don’t get me wrong, it’s interesting if you approach it simply as an action movie showing you what it would be like stuck as one of the ants underneath Godzilla’s giant stomping foot, but Cloverfield is clearly trying to be scary and intense, and after awhile that stopped working for me. I needed a break from all the amateur camera work. I guess I prefer movies shot by Spielberg or Tarantino, not my father-in-law waving around his camcorder on vacation.
Even though Cloverfield isn’t a monster movie, of course the only question anyone has about it is whether or not they’ll see the monster, and if they do was he worth the wait. You can rest easy there. You’ll see him, and see him clearly. Unfortunately the clearest shot of him comes in one of the movie’s stupidest moments when somehow, a thirty-story monster manages to sneak up on our characters in broad daylight in the middle of a wide-open clearing. Yeah, that’s believable. So you’ll see him, just don’t expect to be floored by tons of sweeping wide shots of the creature terrorizing the city. Don’t worry, he looks nothing like Godzilla… though I can’t help but wish they’d actually used Godzilla. They could have plugged just about any giant monster into it and had it work with this story. Why not Godzilla? At least he has city stomping experience.
Having made it this far in my review, you probably now have the impression that I hated this movie, and that’s not really true. It’s a movie with problems which need discussing, but as an entertaining, forgettable little novelty act it generally delivers. As I mentioned earlier I think it does work as a simple exploration of what it might be like to be on the ground when a giant, scary monster attacks, and luckily its short enough that by the time some of its problems start weighing things down it’s already over. As a guy who’s spent a lot of his life watching Godzilla, it’s hard not to have at least a bit of fun watching the world from the perspective of the Japanese businessman who usually gets squashed under Gojira’s foot. If only they’d actually followed around a Japanese businessman instead of this bunch of perfectly gelled twats and their high-heeled girlfriends, the movie might have been a lot better.
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