New Yorker Rob is ready to leave to start a new job in Japan when his friends hold a going away party from him. Things get complicated for Rob and his friends when what seems to be an earthquake rocks the city and a massive explosion is seen in the distance. Fearing a terrorist attack, the party goers flee down into the street below but are confronted by a giant monster which has suddenly started to attack New York.
One of the better ‘found footage’ films out there, Cloverfield uses its gimmick to maximum effect as much as possible. They’re a Marmite kind of film – you’ll generally love them or hate them and I tend to fall into the latter more often than not. There’s only so much disbelief I can hold when idiots continue to film whatever is happening using their cameras or mobile phones, even putting themselves in danger to do so. If you or I were in the situations that people find themselves facing in these type of films, the last thing I’d want to do is ensure that I’m recording everything as some morbid memorial for when I’m killed off. You’ll up sticks and run like the wind. Jerky or frenetic camera movements, out-of-focus shots, not quite getting a clear look at things in the sense of a traditional film – these are all hallmarks of the found footage film and Cloverfield has them in abundance. You can almost forgive some of them here due to the nature of the chaos that erupts during some scenes but it can be frustrating at times to be teased with a good look at the monster only to be robbed at the last minute. These hallmarks weren’t as common back when Cloverfield first hit the cinema and so the novelty factor was still fresh.
Fresh is what Cloverfield feels like for the majority of its running time, at least the last two thirds of the film. It’s not your traditional giant monster movie and offers up a unique approach to the material. Ever wondered what it would be like being stuck in a city whilst Godzilla and friends did a number on it? Well here’s a first-person look at just that. In many ways, Cloverfield is the film that the most recent Godzilla film so clearly wanted to be. There are some great scenes of destruction, all seen from the ground up and the characters always feel a moment or two away from certain death. As soon as the film kicks into gear with the first attack about twenty minutes in, Cloverfield rarely lets up. With a budget of $25m, a paltry figure given today’s blockbusters, these scenes are especially effective in conveying a sense that this is carnage on a grand scale. The very famous trailer with the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty flying down the street gives the audience a flavour of what to expect. Equally as effective and chilling in its realism is the scene in which the monster destroys the Brooklyn Bridge. Seeing a giant monster attack from a human’s point of view certainly makes the experience something unlike anything Toho ever cranked out for Godzilla.
Cloverfield does seemingly take an eternity to get going which is its main drawback. I can understand the need to engage with the characters but this is not a traditional character-driven narrative in the sense of a normal film. Found footage films rely on the nature of the situation to sell the story, rather than characters – they’re meant to behave in the same way that the audience would behave being in their situation, not try to sell the story through dialogue or expression. However, the first twenty minutes or so here runs like someone’s awful home movie compilation. Then as soon as the monster strikes, all of this build-up is literally out of the window because we now only see the world through the eyes of one person. We can’t hear conversations that characters are having across the street (whereas in a traditional film we become omniscient and can see and hear everything). We can’t go and explore anywhere else. We’re stuck wherever the cameraman goes – and if the other characters aren’t with him, tough! It’s at this point where characterisation is virtually pointless in a film like this because the audience is just wanting a first-person experience be it a giant monster attack, a zombie attack ([REC] or Diary of the Dead), ghostly encounters (Paranormal Activity), stranded in outer space (Apollo 18) or trapped under the ground (As Above, So Below).
The good thing is that with the found footage approach, there comes a deliberate attempt to withhold as much information about what is going on as possible. There’s no explanation scene in which some scientist reveals the entire plot for the benefit of those unable to work things out. Hell, you don’t even get a good solid look at the monster. Cloverfield skimps on the details and hopes that the sucker punches to the gut that it continually delivers are enough to keep you guessing and holding on for more information. It’s a fine line to tread but the film works to leave the audience on tender hooks. Yes, you may feel a little frustrated when you finish watching but I’d rather scratch my head in a positive way and let my brain do some imaginative guessing than be spoon-fed everything Michael Bay/Roland Emmerich-style.
Perhaps the most unsettling aspect to Cloverfield is its post-9/11 subtext in which the audience is placed smack bang in the middle of an unprecedented catastrophic scenario. We watch the horrific events unfold through the lens of the camera, unable to take our gaze away from what is happening. From the images of buildings collapsing, loud, fiery explosions raining debris down from skyscrapers and then, in the most uncanny shot of the film, a dust cloud slowly working its way along streets, engulfing those who dared to escape its grasp, Cloverfield will be harrowing viewing for anyone who sat through 9/11 in the comfort of their living room, eyes glued to the TV.
I’ve tried to be rather vague with more specific details of Cloverfield because it’s worth a watch without knowing too much about it. The first-person experience really hammers home some of the intensity of the destruction and chaos, whilst leaving the audience craving more. Ironically, the only way they’d have gotten more is if Cloverfield had been a traditional monster movie with shifting focus on characters and narratives – but then this would have taken away the personal, eye-level experience to which Cloverfield works so well to create. Arguably the pinnacle of the found footage genre, though that’s not really hard to become.