I didn’t enjoy Cloverfield in most of the ways I think the writer and director expected me to enjoy it. The characters, though not quite as two-dimensional as advertised, were bland enough that their deaths didn’t mean a whole lot — although that said, I didn’t find myself as irritated as Roz Kaveney, since yes, the characters are mostly dumb, but (a) they’re disaster-movie dumb, (b) they’re clearly meant to be completely unprepared, practically and emotionally, for what’s happening to them, and (c) the whole film moves along at such a clip that you don’t notice most of the dumbness while it’s happening.
I wasn’t particularly gripped by the story per se, and I especially wasn’t gripped when it was being a New York Story. Although it’s impossible to watch Cloverfield without thinking of 9/11, as Richard Larson points out it’s actually handled with a remarkably light touch; where I disagree with Richard, probably because I don’t live in New York (but bear in mind that’s going to be true for the majority of the film’s audience) is that I think the most effective sequences in the film are those that don’t use the New York setting in any way. I’m thinking of the generic horror/disaster-movie sequences, like the journey through the subway tunnels or the rescue from the collapsing skyscraper, that could be happening in any modern metropolis. Aside from that shot of the Statue of Liberty’s head, I don’t think any of the glimpses that Cloverfield offers will stay with me as New York Images — for comparison, I found the empty vistas of I Am Legend rather more powerful.
I didn’t even get the “hey, that was awesome” buzz that I expected to get from watching a rampaging monster. At least not much. It turns out that not-quite seeing a monster stomping buildings and military vehicles to junk is, for me, much less viscerally satisfying than seeing the carnage full-on. I think Howard Waldrop alludes to the reason in his comments for Locus Online: for a dumb movie, Cloverfield makes you use your brain too much. It’s a bit too artfully casual, for instance; I never really believed that this was found footage, as opposed to a director trying to imitate found footage. All the odd angles and fleeting shots of shoes and legs in the world couldn’t save it from seeming staged.
Which, you would think, doesn’t leave much for me to like, yet I do find myself turning the film over in my mind. I think what interests me is not so much the effect of it being presented as found footage as the logic behind Matt Reeves and Drew Goddard’s choice to do so. As Mark Kermode quite reasonably pointed out in his review on Radio Five, this is hardly a new technique, but the combination of subject matter (by which I mean “New York disaster”, not “monster movie”) and style and timing amount to an argument that more than ever, this is how the world is reported to us. One of the things I liked about the pilot of The Sarah Connor Chronicles was that the first way it signalled its protagonists had time-travelled ten years into their future, to our present — not a huge distance, on the face of it — was to have someone immediately start filming them with a cameraphone. Cloverfield takes this to the nth degree — it’s not just the protagonists who are running around with a camera, seemingly half the people caught up in the attack are using their phone or their camera to capture the event as it happens, giving us not so much user-generated content as victim-generated content. And the film never breaks this reality. Nobody ever explains what really happened, or indeed what happened next, and though there are some obvious concessions to disaster-movie plotting, there’s also a satisfying sense of arbitrariness to some of the deaths. Once again, there’s nothing about this that succeeds in drawing me in and making me feel; but it tickles my brain. So despite the fact that Cloverfield largely fails as a film, I think it succeeds as an artifact.