Cloverfield is a monster movie for the YouTube generation. As a horror movie, it’s only so-so. It borrows quite a few concepts from other films, from Alien to Godzilla, but what makes it so interesting is how much it’s in tune with the culture of the early 21st Century. It’s a film that borrows just as much from the images of September 11 and reality TV as it does from other horror films. I don’t know how well Cloverfield will stand the test of time, but it definitely is an innovative take on the monster movie genre.
Basically, you know the setup. A giant thing attacks New York City, laying waste to everything in its path. The movie starts with some typical reality-TV fare—setting up the relationships between the characters. This doesn’t drag on too long before all hell breaks loose.
The scene where the head of the Statue of Liberty flies into the street begins the chaos, which leads into a scene that is shockingly reminiscent of 9/11—and is unquestionably inspired by it. Even though the monster barely makes an appearance here, those first scenes are some of the most effective. We’ve seen horrible monsters before, but the scenes of people running from a cloud of dust and flying papers resonates so strongly because we know that it’s real. What makes Cloverfield such a cultural artifact is right away a crowd gathers around the severed head and starts taking pictures with cellphone cameras. It’s a moment that’s both absurd and perfectly believable.
Cloverfield just misses becoming a great movie. This may be apostasy to a monster enthusiast, but I think the monster shows up too often. It’s a great and unique monster, but it loses some of its impact when we get to see the whole thing. We barely get to know the characters before everything goes to hell, and it’s hard to care about them—except for one scene that is the most emotionally powerful in the movie. The film is actually surprisingly clear—which made it look a little too polished. A little more grain to the film and maybe the occasional compression artifact would have added to the idea that this is found footage and not Hollywood. The cinematography doesn’t get in the way as much as one might expect, but if you get motion sick easily this is not the movie for you. The audience hated the ending, but it’s the right ending for this movie. Cloverfield will not do well in the theatres, because it simply is not a mainstream movie. That’s it’s greatest benefit—it doesn’t pander to the audience at all.
Cloverfield isn’t perfect, and it isn’t a movie for a general audience. However, Cloverfield is a very smart film with a ton of subtext in every shot and a film that does a great job of capturing what it would really be like to be caught up in the destruction of Manhattan at the claws of a giant sea monster.