Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) is a young guy living in New York who's just got a promotion and is moving to Japan. To celebrate this, his friends decide to throw him a going away party and his friend Hud (T.J. Miller) ends up being given the job of documenting the event on a hand-held camera. During the course of the party, Rob has a falling out with his friend Beth (Odette Yustman) who storms out. After a tête-à-tête with his brother Jason (Mike Vogel) in which Rob reveals he has feelings for Beth, it seems like things are looking pretty bad for Rob. Then the Statue of Liberty's head comes flying out of the sky and all Hell breaks loose.
As a film, Cloverfield is pretty standard stuff; it knows it's a monster movie and complies with all the requisite conventions and clichés of the genre. Quiet lull at the beginning: CHECK. Fiery destruction of iconic monuments: CHECK. The military intervenes but they clearly have no idea what they're fighting: CHECK. Talk of 'last resorts' to combat the monster: CHECK. So far, so standard.
However, what Cloverfield does is that it changes the perspective; instead of some omnipresent observer showing all aspects of the crisis, we get one small, personal account, told entirely through the camera Hud uses to record the party and which subsequently ends up recording the experiences of Hud, Rob and others as they try to survive on a Manhattan island being destroyed by a frequently heard but only fleetingly glimpsed monster. There's almost certainly a General somewhere struggling with the decision about how to handle the problem and whether 'last resort' means 'nuclear', there's almost certainly a scientist trying to figure out where the creature comes from and how to stop it, and there's almost certainly a reporter trying to get the scoop about what’s going on. These things are all almost certainly happening, but we don't see them, or we are only aware of them because we know what the conventions of monster movies are.
No, all we see is what Hud records on his camera, and therein lies the tension, the thrills and the terror of Cloverfield, as well as much of the humour, as Hud tries to make sense of what is going on as he keeps filming. We only know what the characters know (perhaps a tad more if you've been following the labyrinthine viral marketing) and it is this sense of mystery and dread that sets Cloverfield apart as a monster movie. Usually a movie like this would pride itself on showing just how cool a monster the filmmakers have concocted and whilst the creature in Cloverfield is pretty cool, there are only two or three moments in the entire film where you see it in any real detail. The rest of the time, it's this unknowable force causing chaos across the city and all we know of it is what Hud records.
It helps that the actors are all thoroughly convincing as people caught up in the middle of something they can’t possibly comprehend and upon the outcome of which they have absolutely no bearing. Apart from the, perhaps slightly too long, preamble at the party in which the relationships between the characters are established, as well as snatched glimpses of Rob enjoying a day out that crop up as Hud is recording over an old tape, we get almost no back story to the characters; we meet them fully formed, are thrown into this cataclysmic event with them, and have to process what they are dealing with at the same speed they do, never really seeing the big picture. The willingness with which the filmmakers kill off characters also lends a sense of dread to things as you genuinely do not know who is going to survive and who isn’t. Even though you can pretty much guess when characters are going to die, you can’t ever be certain and throughout its length Cloverfield practically delights in throwing up terrible surprises for the audience. It’s the reality of the characters, their flaws and the constant sense that any of them could die and that they are incredibly lucky to survive however long they do, as much as the style of the film that lends a sense of verisimilitude to proceedings; it truly feels like we are witnessing a tragedy through the ‘eyes’ of those who experienced it.
This is, of course, the point. Cloverfield is quite possibly one of the bravest films of the past decade in the way in which it plays on contemporary fears and conjures up very vivid images of September 11th 2001. Sure, other films have done this before, most notably Steven Spielberg's under-rated War of the Worlds, but I can't think of one which has so explicitly mimicked the style in which the events of that day were recorded. If we cast our minds back, we remember that many of the crucial moments that have since been seared into the our collective memory were caught on handheld cameras by ordinary people, and Cloverfield repeatedly invokes that sense of confusion and peril. From the sight of skyscrapers crumbling to people running in fear from an approaching cloud of smoke, the filmmakers are unafraid of toying with people's fears of what we witnessed six years ago, in much the same way that the original Godzilla did with Japanese audiences and their memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's a bold approach that pays off even if it does occasionally veer into predictability and there are moments when you can see the scares coming from a mile off (strange sounds in a dark tunnel; let's turn on the night-vision mode on the camera...). You can forgive Cloverfield these things because a) they’re genre conventions, and the film was never intended as a means of reinventing the monster movie as a whole, just giving us a new spin on it, and b) because it's carried off so well.
Producer J.J. Abrams has taken a simple enough idea (a Blair Witch take on Godzilla) and delivered something quite extraordinary. Sure, there's not much in the way of plot or characterisation, though that is an accusation that could be levelled at any number of great monster/disaster movies, but that is not what Cloverfield is about. Earlier, I said that Cloverfield wasn't anything special as a film, but that's because Cloverfield isn't a film, it's an experience, and even with its home movie aesthetic, a surprisingly cinematic one. It's a film that needs to be seen on a big-screen to give the proper sense of immersion and to really experience what the characters do; their fear is our fear, their pain is our pain, and their confusion is our confusion. Ultimately, the audience aren't offered any more answers about what the Hell Cloverfield actually is than the characters are, all we get are theories from Hud behind his camera, but it's the ride that makes it worthwhile, not the destination.