Back in the early 20th Century, after the devastation of 9/11, there was a resurgence in ‘human survival’ movies that depict an end-of-the-world scenario, movies such as 28 Days Later, Children Of Men, I Am Legend, The Day After Tomorrow and J J Abrams’ Cloverfield. Cloverfield was one of the more stand out films to come from that era of cinema. Cloverfield is primarily a monster movie heavily inspired by films such as Godzilla and King Kong where a giant monster attacks Manhattan. However, Cloverfield stands out amongst it’s predecessor due to changing the focus of giant monster movies. Unlike Godzilla, King Kong or Them!, Cloverfield never directly focuses on the monster itself, instead, the story of Cloverfield is about a small group of young adults who try desperately to survive whilst the monster levels their home city during a going away party. Cloverfield stands out in the film industry as being one of the few movies where most of the events happen in real time as it follows the group of young adults over the course of one night with occasional cuts and few transitions, following them every step of the way.
However, what really made Cloverfield stand out was how it utilized the ‘found-footage’ style of film-making: a style that was created by Ruggero Deodato in 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust and popularized in 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. The found-footage’ style is a very manipulative cinema technique that creates an illusion of realism in an obviously fictitious setting. Most ‘found-footage’ films endorse the fact that whatever the viewer is seeing is real and unscripted, that the events they’re witnessing actually happened to actual people, although that’s never the case and a lot of critics talk about how found-footage films are amateurish, unprofessional, and shoddy compared to more traditional film-making- mainly because the found-footage style eliminated the need for slick cinematography and multiple camera angles. Nonetheless, the ‘found footage’ cinema technique is a very effective technique that as been used many times over the years as it’s a gimmick that has created a lot of very successful movies such as REC, The Blair Witch Project, District 9, Paranormal Activity and, of course, Cloverfield, the acclaim and success of which boosted the use of the found-footage style in independent cinema.
To my surprise, I thought Cloverfield was quite well-written for being both a monster movie and a found-footage movie. The story had a decent dynamic throughout, but I really liked the way that the film starts off quite normally, allowing a viewer to identify and empathize with the main characters before flipping the script and introducing the monster. By that point in the film, a viewer would already know who these characters are and their relationship to one another as they fight their way to save another whilst the monster rampages through New York, allowing a viewer to understand and empathize with the character’s struggles. As much as the monster seems more incidental than anything, it’s obvious that the focus of the film isn’t on the monster’s activities, the focus is more on the people and their survival as they tread through a gauntlet of hell just to get to central Manhattan, and the movie succeeds in presenting an easy-to-follow story that’s exciting from when the monster strikes to the final credits.
As for the characters, the characters of Cloverfield aren’t the most deep as their based of stereotypes and archetypes, but they’re interesting to follow and they definitely feel more ‘human’ than most of the protagonist characters seen in the monster movies of days gone by. As the movie goes along, their struggle is evident as they try to help each other in the face of adversary simply because of ‘human survival’ (which was a plot-thread that every survival movie had in common and something which is rather cliched nowadays because cinema goers have seen it done too much). The purpose of a ‘survival’ movie was to beat the characters down so that they can have an uplifting struggle against adversary and a happy ending, and Cloverfield is no different. All in all, Cloverfield doesn’t stray too far from being a typical survival movie, even down to the unwelcome patriotic cliches. I found that there were a few moments in Cloverfield which, in my opinion, are trying way to hard to manipulate American film-goers, and the scenes just felt unnecessarily egregious in the long run: such as the iconic moment where the head of the Statue Of Liberty flies across Manhattan and the overly helpful military personnel. I know that this was common thing in American disaster movies to try and appeal to the common patriot, but it’s way too silly and far too distractingly ‘American’, and I couldn’t take it seriously. I feel that Cloverfield is good on it’s own ideas, it didn’t need to exploit the American culture like it did just to try and get a positive outcome from audiences.
As for the movie’s CGI: in all honesty, by today’s standards it looks rather primitive. If one were to look closely at the effects, especially on the monster and the destroyed bridge, one can see the unrealistic textures and ‘rubber band’ style movement, but thanks to the ‘found-footage’ camera style, those effects are either hidden in the low-fi aesthetic, or only focused on for a split second before the camera moves away. All in all, I think that Cloverfield used the found-footage style cleverly as the found-footage style supports the CGI effects, especially when one takes into account the state of CGI in 2008, however, I do have one problem with the filming style. See, I can understand that someone would want to document everything that’s happening, but I can’t understand why someone would hold continuously the camera at eye level. Surely, they would want to put the camera down once in a while, especially if they’re running away from danger, but apparently. the characters in Cloverfield continuously hold the camera at eye level, and to me, it broke the film’s intended realism. I just kept thinking of how many shots were done by the actors themselves and how much was done by professional cinematographers with Steadicam.
Upon it’s original release, Cloverfield received a very mixed reaction from fans. Some people loved it, others hated it after getting motion sickness from the camera effects after watching Cloverfield in a cinema. In my opinion, Cloverfield should never have been shown in cinemas. Found-footage films are more effective when watched on home media because, firstly, motion sickness is reduced on a smaller screen, secondly, to watch a found-footage film on home media is a very intimate experience. A viewer would be closer to the screen, ergo, closer the action, and the experience of watching a found-footage is definitely exaggerated when watched in a secluded area with no-one around. This is how I experienced Cloverfield, and, in the end, I ended up really enjoying the film. I thought is was a very entertaining film about human survival that was quite clever with it’s subject material.
However, I feel that the film should’ve stayed contained in it’s own world instead of having the production company force in a cinematic universe by creating sequels. Especially sequels which are the results of changing other people’s existing scripts a la Hellraiser. I predict that in a few years, the Cloverfield series will consist of ashcan copies just to try and hold on to the franchise license before anyone has any proper ideas for a sequel. But, nevertheless, I definitely recommend the first film. Cloverfield was a landmark film of early 21st Century cinema and still holds up relatively well 10 years later.