Cloverfield looks, intentionally, like a home movie; the raw video that makes up the film is passed off as found footage a la The Blair Witch Project, an exhibition of tape recovered by the Defense Department from the “area formerly known as Central Park.” But, more than a mere retread of the Blair Witch approach to the filmmaking, Cloverfield is the first film to successfully use the internet’s dominant YouTube aesthetic and to reflect the “shoot first and let computers sort it out” ethos of today’s shutter-happy generation. Notice that not-exactly-hip critics like The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane are complaining that the shaky, amateur camerawork induces dizziness.
Cloverfield starts off as a camcorder document of Michael Stahl-David’s going away party and the ensuing WB-style drama between he and his hip, affluent (and white) New-York-yuppie friends. (Director Matt Reeves is credited with penning 64 episodes of Felicity and directing five.) But it soon takes a turn for the worse—it’s Stahl-David’s last night in New York, as he’s about to start a new job in Japan, but the film does him the dubious favor of bringing Japan to him, in the form of a Godzilla-esque, city-demolishing, run amok monster.
The party is interrupted—bummer, dude!—by the creature’s attack on the city, which, first things first, sends the Statue of Liberty’s head crashing down into the streets; the survivors gather-round with their cameraphones, natch, before they’re sent running for their lives. As a monster movie, Cloverfield is unique, a new breed perhaps—it doesn’t serve as an environmentalist and/or anti-nuclear allegory, like the original Godzilla or the more recent The Host (or plenty of other flicks in between), nor is it really even about the monster. If Cloverfield’s monster represents anything, by its rare appearances, resistance to the methods of modern warfare and anti-New York inclination, it’s Terrorism. (Notice the monster’s first victim is Lady Liberty, just as 9/11 robbed us not only of our right not to be killed but also of our right not to be wiretapped.) Exposition is handled perfunctorily, doled out via speculation by people on the street, quickly captured news broadcasts and brief encounters with the military; we hardly even see the monster at all.
But we do see its trail of destruction, as a few people from the party improbably make their way uptown to save a friend trapped in the rubble of what used to be her apartment. Cloverfield is about terrorism’s human effects, not its spectacle. (Unlike, say, Independnce Day, whose most, if not only, memorable moments were the obliterations of iconic American structures.) Of all its cinematic forefathers, Cloverfield owes its greatest debt to Children of Men (though that’s not to say it’s on par with it); above all, it’s an exercise in cinematic urgency, immediacy and naturalism, with the unbroken takes, the handheld, first-person camera and recognizable if not exactly likeable characters working to suture the viewer into the middle of the action. It exploits memories of 9/11, obviously, as well as provides a vicarious experience of the Iraq War when our heroes stumble upon the military in the midst of an urban, street-level firefight, but those are only jumping-off points; the film’s pleasures derive not from (re-)witnessing the leveling of New York landmarks but from sharing the emotional experience of the characters amid the carnage. Reeves & Co. keep the film compelling from end-to-end, balancing the grueling action and attacks, including a terrifying one by giant spiders (?) in the abandoned tunnels of the No. 6 train, by maintaining a sense of humor in the downtime with a running commentary from cameraman T.J. Miller. Despite the occasional levity, though, Cloverfield is relentlessly draining and depressing as a human story of surviving through, and bearing witness to, unimaginable destruction. It’s really about cinema’s capacity to deliver a vivid emotional experience—when asked why he’s kept the camera on, Miller responds, “people will want to know how it all went down.”
“You could just tell them.”
“No, that wouldn’t work,” he answers. “People will want to see this.”