Knowing that the new monster movie ‘Cloverfield’ was produced by JJ Abrams was enough to make me interested in seeing it. He has many faults – a lack of narrative discipline, for one, and a tendency to overestimate the goodwill of an audience – but his projects always have intriguing scenarios, and I figured that if he was confined to the format of a single movie he wouldn’t have the time or the space to go off the rails.
Apparently I was right. ‘Cloverfield’ is absolutely awesome.
The thing about ‘Cloverfield’ is that although it’s a movie about a giant monster attacking New York City, it’s not actually about a giant monster attacking New York City. It’s about a group of hip but normal modern twentysomethings suddenly thrown into a horrifying nightmare, and how they attempt to deal with it. Their initial priority to understand quickly gives way to the simpler priority of survival, but the desire to know what is going on never leaves. And we as the audience never know any more than the characters do – we learn things only as they do, and only as much as they do. We are never given the relief of a wider picture: the entire movie is nothing more than the content of their camcorder SD card, played without introduction, editing, narration or epilogue.
The amazing thing about the whole handheld camcorder perspective is not just that it works, but that it works brilliantly. It isn’t a gimmick – it’s an integral part of telling this story. The fact that it’s a handycam means that it feels like a home movie, and therefore real, even as we see impossible monsters hurling cars or iconic skyscrapers collapsing.
Either the script is brilliant or the actors are masters of improvisation. The dialogue often struck me as exactly what I would say in the same situation. There is no distance between these characters on screen and the ordinary people we meet every day. There are no clever quips, stirring monologues or sassy one-liners, except those which people like you or me would come up with if we were there.
This film was marketed by the most modern means, through viral videos on the internet, fake websites, carefully manipulated leaks and firing up the imaginations of fanboys with too much time on their hands. It’ll no doubt be dissected frame by frame by those same fanboys as they watch it over and over again (and eventually shell out millions for the inevitable special edition DVD sets). But for once, this is a movie that may possibly deserve such obsession.