It’s becoming obligatory to reference The Blair Witch Project as inspiration every time a film purports to be found footage or a video diary gone wrong – though smug genre insiders tend to rope in Cannibal Holocaust and those with longer memories hark back to David Holzman’s Diary and the 1960s films of Peter Watkins. Whatever – the format, which is the video age’s version of the assemblage of testimonies, news reports and journal entries used by Wilkie Collins and Bram Stoker in Victorian thrillers, is now so well-established as a cousin to the equally-popular mock-doc (This is Spinal Tap, etc) that it should probably stand as its own sub-genre without anyone feeling the need to claim each new entry rips off earlier efforts.
Cloverfield purports to be a tape found in ‘the area formerly known as Central Park’: it opens sweetly with Rob (Michael Stahl-David) and Beth (Odette Yustman), longtime friends who have finally slept together, enjoying a day and heading for Coney Island; then, as this special memory is accidentally taped over, Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel) hands the camera to his slacker friend Hud (T.J.Miller) with orders to chronicle the surprise party Jason and his girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) are arranging to celebrate Rob departing for a prestigious job in Japan, a gig Hud accepts seemingly to have a chance to make time with a girl he likes, Marlena (Lizzy Caplan); the party runs on for some minutes, rather awkwardly as Beth shows up with a new boyfriend (Ben Feldman), still hurt because in the interim Rob has dumped her, not because he doesn’t love her but because he knows he’s heading for Japan. Just as everyone has got on everyone else’s nerves and Beth has left in a bad temper with Rob, Manhattan is shaken by some kind of impact – which causes a brief blackout, and mass panic. Running out of the building, the young people find the severed head of the Statue of Liberty lying in the street and the panicked, clueless authorities directing everyone to get off the island via a bridge. A fishy-lizardy-monstery tentacle/tail smashes the bridge, and Jason is one of the early casualties, signalling that this apparent slacker comedy with 9/11 overtones is actually a post-millennial take on the ever-popular Giant Monster movie.
The bulk of the film consists of Rob, Lily, Hud and Marlena – thrown together by the crisis, with Hud still filming – struggling across the city, driven by Rob’s quest to rescue Beth from her nearly-toppled apartment and somehow make things right with her. The giant monster rampage is mostly glimpsed as taking place a few blocks away, though the creature sheds smaller vermin (parasites or young) which make a trek through a subway tunnel into a nightmare – Marlena, the most distinctive character, is bitten and infected, then either explodes or is euthanased in a military emergency hospital. It’s a very cleverly-wrought picture, which goes into overdrive once the disaster starts – credibly depicting the panic, heroism and despair of folks who really don’t know what to do, and are on the periphery of the sort of big story usually told in these films. There are monster encounters, but as much terror is worked up by the Poseidon Adventure-style rescue of Beth from her shattered apartment – her building has leaned over, so the rescuers have to make their way up a neighbouring building and cross onto the unsteady, sundered block, to find the girl alive but impaled on a spar. To rub things in, occasional gaps in filming allow for flashes of the cheery Rob and Beth of a month earlier.
New York has seen the rampages of King Kong, the Beast With 20,000 Fathoms and Q, but the touchstones here are (peculiarly) the US remake of Godzilla (which might perhaps have worked if they’d put their monster into this format), the Spielberg take on War of the Worlds and the Korean The Host. Nevertheless, Cloverfield stakes out its own territory by directly addressing 9/11 and subsequent terror attacks on Western cities – it instantly trumps the thin vision of I Am Legend as it devastates New York on a budget, and the ordinary, spiky, harassed characters (all played by unfamiliar faces, though I’d guess that Caplan at least will get a lot more work) express a whole range of reactions to being caught up in a catastrophe they can’t understand. There’s time for a quick, inconclusive debate about whether the monster is a mutant, a deep-sea creature or from outer space – but no answers are forthcoming, and its design, when we get to see it in close-up, is ambiguous: it has elements of perhaps every giant monster ever seen, but it doesn’t fit easily even into the phyla of xenobiology.
It has a short running time, and a downbeat ending which evokes Miracle Mile and Return of the Living Dead – having lost all their friends to the monster, Rob and Beth hug under a bridge in Central Park waiting to be buried under rubble when the authorities institute a ‘hammer-down protocol’ and bomb the island back to the stone age. There are a few gasps of bitter humour (‘are you aware of Garfield?’) but it’s mostly suspense and scare material. While it obviously uses very sophisticated effects, the look is all hand-held, amateurish and awkward as if the Dogme95 rules somehow allowed the making of a monster movie – quite a bit of the monster action, the military response and the devastation is glimpsed at the edge of frame or lost as whoever is holding the camera (usually Hud) turns away to run. Showing us sights we’ve seen before in this manner, reflecting the way major news events are caught on mobile phones or cam-corders, makes the cliches of city-stomping fresh all over again. Naturally, the aesthetic extends to a lack of traditional Hollywood scoring — however, after it’s all over and while the long end credits are running, composer Michael Giacchino contributes a track called ‘Roar!’ which is a wonderful homage to the overwrought scores Akira Ifukube composed for many a Toho kaiju eiga. Written by Drew Goddard; directed by Matt Reeves.