I thought I knew what Iwas in for when I saw Cloverfield. I had read so many comparisons to The Blair Witch Project that I assumed it would be much like that. And while there are some fairly obvious similarities, such as the hand-held camera technique, there are not differences that I was surprised, pleasantly, at the craft used to create Cloverfield.
For instance, the story of The Blair Witch Project, while promising, was just not very good. I understand the background of the story, but I never reached a place in the movie where that story moved me to fear. I never understood what it was that so scared the characters...rocks moved, tents shook. That might be enough to make me nervous, but not as terrified as they made themselves out to be. On the other hand, the reason to be scared in Cloverfield is very clear, from the moment that the building shakes and all the lights go out. Unlike Blair Witch in which we never see the antagonist (if infact there really is any), we are offered fleeting glimpses of the creature in Cloverfield, enough to hint at its size and scope, always enough to make it more terrible and ironically, making the viewer want to see more even as we watch New York City being destroyed.
Another big difference between the two films is that, as I understand it, a lot of Blair Witch was improvisation by some not very talented actors. I never felt what they felt, nor truly understood wat they were feeling. But the young actors in Cloverfield are generally pretty good, even (or perhaps especially) T. J. Miller, who plays the devoted but dense camera-man, Hud. We barely ever see Hud, but he begins as a constant narrator and then just becomes the unseen actor in the story as he takes his camera around New York City. Sometimes his commentary is a little expository ("What is that?" happens a few more times than I might like) but given that he is set up to be a loyal sidekick in the flight through the city, he plays his role especially well.
Also like Blair Witch, it should be very clear where Cloverfield is going to end from its first few frames. Nonetheless, the story is engaging as it winds down, a remarkable show of the power of media in the current state of our culture. There are moments when the characters find out more about what is going on just a few blocks from them by watching TV. When the famous scene from the commercials occurs, featuring the head of the Statue of Liberty coming to rest in our camera's viewfinder, right after that head is surrounded by people taking pictures with their cell phones, oblivious to what dangers might be around them. And for those moments, it felt that much more true.
But one of the weaknesses of the film is the back story of the characters. I felt like it spent too much time establishing the purpose everyone had for coming together for a party in the first place and then spent a lot of time introducing the characters and creating crisis. Ultimately, the events that surround a giant monster attacking New York City generally blanches away the personalities of the characters because there is very little nuance of choice--fight or flee. I felt that this part could have been far more generic boy has party, has a fight with girlfriend, girlfriend leaves and is trapped by rampaging monster. We didn't need to know that Rob (played by Michael Stahl-David) is leaving the next day for Japan or that most of his adult life has been spent in unrequited love for Beth (Odette Yustman). The unrequited feelings Hud has for Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) does add some texture to the rest of their interactions and some humor when things appear most bleak, but the rest of the emotions are easily described without all the set-up.
And after the monster strikes, things mostly follow the generic monster movie script. Run from the monster, find your path out blocked, run back and then do your darnedest to save the girlfriend who has had the bad luck to be trapped in a building partially destroyed by the monster. There are some resoundingly strong moments, like when Rob gets a phone call and has to tell the caller that a loved one has died. And Hud, while sometimes the voice of idiocy ("What time is 0600?") is also the voice of normalcy. When faced with a ridiculously daunting task, he responds "You do it. I'll just document." It's a funny moment, made more humorous by its reality.
And given the nature of what the movie purports to be, there are many questions left unanswered. We never really get a clear picture of what the monster looks like, seeing it only as it moves between buildings or as it is under fire, shrouded by smoke and steam. The cameraman is always running when the monster is near, and even when they watch telecasts of the monster, it is hidden by the cityscape. The purpose of the parasites the monster carries is completely unclear as well, but they offer a more human-level threat and a chance for the filmmakers to throw in a winking reference to otehr great monster movies (like Alien and Pitch Black). But again, none of these are what the movie is about--it's about the human response to tragedy of outrageous scope.
I think this is a fascinating idea and a real challenge to the tenets of movie-making, though not necessarily story-telling. I would love to see similar movies about what other people on the streets saw that night, or failing that, a nice comic anthology with those stories would be interesting. A lot of noise was made about the viral advertising for the movie (which I must have completely missed--I didn't see a special documentary nor any web sites), put a post-movie web site containing some of the pictures other people had taken that night would be fascinating as well.
Finally, this is a good movie, not necessarily living up to its hype but sliding away from it, becoming something more than the generic monster movie which appeared to have all the fanboys up in arms. It's also going to take some additional viewings to see everything. As the final credits rolled by, they mentioned stills from Them and The Beast from 20000 Fathoms. I'd like to see where those appeared in the movie, but until I do they serve as a reminder that the makers of this movie know the tradition they are coming from and, I believe, push it artfully in a direction rarely explored. Unfortunately, I don't think this kind of movie can be made again without being in the same world without appearing derivative. But when it's out on DVD, I know many people will be using their pause function to look at individual images that much more clearly.