Thus the entire film is lensed from the ostensibly "on the fly" point-of-view of the video camera; a player in the events as much as the characters. So...if you've ever wondered what it must be like to live in Tokyo when Rodan or Godzilla make landfall and begin to stomp citizenry and destroy property, this movie is for you. No giant monster movie before has been vetted in this fashion, and this flashy, highly-imaginative perspective is actually more than enough to ignite new interest in the genre. The film certainly captured my fancy. It grabs a hold of you at the start and doesn't let go. Even when it's over, it lingers in the mind.
I adore and respect the Godzilla films (and Kong films, and Gamera films...) of old, but I also realize two things about these predominantly Japanese films. One: I'm from a generation that demanded less "effects" realism in my entertainment. And two: the trend in cinema history is irrevocably away from artificiality/theatricality towards naturalism/realism. The inherent fakeness of the monster suits in old Godzilla or Gamera films never bothered me a lick. In fact...I loved the costumes. They represent an artistry all their own, even if they weren't "realistic" in the purest sense. Plus, I always felt those films offered powerful and artistic sub-text (about the atomic age, about pollution, etc.). So their historical and aesthetic value, in my book, remains undisputed. Not everyone, however, feels that way. Those who didn't grow up with these monster mashes will look at them and laugh. You know you are. You either "get" War of the Gargantuas, or you don't.
But - and at the risk of offending the purists - it is fair to state that Cloverfield corrects at least one aspect of the "old" monster movie that has always made it a widely ridiculed and under-appreciated form. And that aspect is this: the camera (third person camera, not first-person camera, as here...) is often positioned relatively high in the Toho films, so that as Godzilla (just for example) stomps through a gorgeous, carefully constructed miniature of Tokyo, our eyes correct and synthesize the image in terms of our human scope: we realize the buildings are miniatures (even if glorious miniatures...) and that the monster is a man waddling about in a suit. Of course, there are also low-angle shots to be found in Japanese monster films, but by an abundance, we're right there at torso level with the monster and that's the reason (not bad suits...) we don't quite believe what we're seeing. It's not so much the fault of anything so much as how our "eye" reads and sees these images.
I love the Godzilla vs. Other Monster smack downs - don't get me wrong - but what I'm trying to say is that there's a mental adjustment you must be willing to make to take them seriously. (It's akin to watching old Doctor Who or Blakes 7 - great stories, great actors - but you have to look past the fact you are looking at cardboard sets and floppy monsters...). Again, some viewers have practice with this increasingly lost skill; some don't.
Again - this commentary isn't meant to bash the "old," I'm a huge fan. Only to establish that Cloverfield, with its immediacy-provoking, first-person shaky cam and "street level" perspective, removes the remaining impediments to believing - with your own eyes - in a giant monster. Here, we catch glimpses of the monster from a distance, from street level (and from a helicopter aerial view). All of these shots - I might add - are rather impressive. The monster isn't merely huge, it's actually terrifying. The inevitable result: this is a scary movie. I hasten to add, I believe that this is what the giant monster movie has always strove for, but rarely achieved. I can think of two occasions, perhaps, where terror was achieved: King Kong (1933) when stop-motion animation was a new and unfamiliar form, and Godzilla: King of Monsters (1956), which in searing, atomic-laced, stark, black-and-white felt like a burning, grim testament to the real possibility of apocalypse.
So kudos to Cloverfield for updating the genre so well that it makes the idea of a giant monster pummeling New York not ludicrous, but frightening and seemingly immediate. You never "don't believe" in this movie, and that's actually a remarkable achievement. I do contrast this with the approach of Transformers, wherein characters didn't react consistently with the menace they were facing (giant robots). I mean, what's the difference between Cloverfield and the final assault of Transformers? In both situations - if you were an observer on the street - you would be terrified that giant things were knocking buildings down all around you. But where Transformers went for cheekiness and shmaltz, Cloverfield wallows in the Apocalypse mentality we all live with now, on a regular basis. Don't mistake it for hipster post/911-ism. I mean, this is the age not just of 9/11, but of Hurricane Katrina, and global warming. We're see the specter of food shortages, water shortages, and oil shortages all around. Greenland is melting, political candidates want to "totally obliterate" our enemies and stay in Iraq for "a 100 years." We're indisputably in one of those "end of day" modes usually reserved for the end of a millennium, not the beginning. Cloverfield strongly taps into this Zeitgeist by dramatizing how - in a heartbeat - normality can be shattered.
Visually, the film constantly reminds us of this idea (normalcy destroyed) with a brilliant technique: flash cuts and brief interludes of "old" footage that has been taped over to make room for events of the monster stomp. This taped-over footage, which we see glimpses of only periodically, shows us two lovers (Rob and Beth) waking up early one morning and frolicking, and later taking a trip together to Coney Island, riding the Ferris Wheel. The video of the monster - of the horror - then "overwrites" this more pleasant reality, just as the present always overwrites the past. Yet it is this conceit that makes the film more than just a chase through New York with monsters nipping at young adults' heels. This old "home movie" footage, in pointed contrast to the monster footage, is the human connection we need to the main characters. It is also - once more - the kind of thing that was wholly lacking in Transformers. The timing and events of a crisis (monster attacks...) doesn't exactly leave time for a whole lot of character development and meaningful conversation, but these periodic flashes of a life now lost resonate because they show us that these people are just like us. We understand what they stand to lose (and do lose.)
Matt Reeves, the film's director has done something rather amazing here: he's found a difficult but inventive conceit for a tired genre (the first-person camera perspective) and utilized it throughout the film without cheating. Not once. There's no movie bullshit, no jump-cuts - nothing - to compromise the vision, the belief that this is being recorded by a video camera. And in that framework - with the taped-over footage peeking into the monstrous present - he's even been able to add resonant layers to his would-be-shallow dramatis personae. It's a fine achievement, and Cloverfield is a very, very good genre film.
However, Cloverfield is not a great, deeply-layered horror classic the way that The Blair Witch Project is. I know that many fans will quibble with this assessment, but the biggest complaint I always hear about The Blair Witch Project from horror fans is that "you don't see anything," "you don't see the witch." Indeed. In The Blair Witch Project, the medium IS the message, and the film concerns three students who chase their tails, literally and metaphorically, and we never even know if they are facing a witch or a monster or their imaginations. They possess all these "devices" (camcorders, old-school film cameras) to see, and yet they are lost and see absolutely nothing. Then, they hide behind their comfortable camera viewfinders when they are too scared of "reality." By contrast, Cloverfield is a mass entertainment, and it obligingly provides audiences with the money shots everybody wants: you see the monsters in all their glory. You are not denied the pleasure of "seeing" the Evil Beasties and thus knowing "this is all real." I rather prefer the imaginative, artistic ambiguity of The Blair Witch Project in which you get no respite, no closure, no sense of "certainty." I believe with all my heart that The Blair Witch Project is much scarier, and much closer to the real human experience (in that we are often denied answers about the things which frighten us.)
Also, the main characters in Cloverfield are plainly and competently drawn in endearing and realistic terms (think Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween), yet the movie does paint them in a positive slant that is occasionally a bit much. They are innately and perhaps unrealistically heroic. Rob goes back to save Beth, when by all rights he should assume she is dead. Marlena saves the camera-man, Hud, from the leaping parasites in the sewers, when - again - in this situation, you might think about saving your skin. She didn't even know Hud a few hours before. This heroism is nice to see, but again, it's rather mainstream, speaking to the "finer" angels of human nature, even in catastrophes. Yet again I prefer the shades-of-gray characters in The Blair Witch Project. They got lost, had to stop to take a piss, argued, grumbled, laughed and cried and seemed more fully three-dimensional than the characters of Cloverfield. They still tried to help each other, but it wasn't "kumbaya."
Bottom line: Cloverfield is very, very good. The Blair Witch Project remains the better, more challenging, and more intriguing film of a similar type. Cloverfield is a little bit like The Blair Witch Project Made Palatable For Wide Audiences. There's nothing wrong with that, just that for all of its ingenuity, Cloverfield probably shouldn't be championed at the expense of an earlier film that pioneered the same approach and was inherently more daring and dangerous. I guess what I'm saying is that Cloverfield undeniably moves the monster movie forward a notch with its ultra-realism, but I'm not sure that it breaks any new ground in the horror genre (and there is - I submit - a distinction there). When the cinematic history of the 1990s-2000s is written, it is The Blair Witch Project that will be seen as the classic, the revolutionary; Cloverfield as a highly-accomplished and diverting footnote.