There are movies, to enjoy which, you have to turn off your brain; Cloverfield is a movie that turns your brain off for you. Suddenly your pulse rate is up and, if you are unlucky, you get all the effects that rapid jerky movement, flashing lights, and loud noises can induce. Migraine and motion-sickness are a potent combination and rarely have I felt so intensely that a film should have a health warning attached.
All films manipulate you emotionally; Cloverfield's director Matt Reeves and screenwriter Drew Goddard manipulate you physiologically. To that extent their film has to be acknowledged as something impressively new. Its sophisticated technical exploitation of the appearance of technical sloppiness is not like anything else Hollywood has produced; The Blair Witch Project is its obvious precursor, but that was a film which exploited limitations of technique rather than feigning them.
It is a film which piles up common phobias—spiders, the dark, heights, massive bleeding, tunnels, yuppies—and flings them onto the screen alongside memories of 9/11 and news footage of the war on terror. This hyperactive constant escalation of terror, discomfort and emotional pain is effective film-making in the sense that emptying random spices into food is cookery.
And then there is the hangover—if poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity, the effect of calmly contemplating Cloverfield is irritation. Irritation at its idiocy, and self-contempt for letting yourself be swallowed up in a narrative that has some emotional force but makes little logical sense whatever.
The central conceit is that this is a videotape found, presumably by the U.S. Army, in the area that was once known as Central Park, a videotape that started as a record of a surprise party for a young yuppie and became instead a memorial of the grisly deaths of him and his friends. The cameraman, Hud, has been put in charge of the camera as much to keep him out of mischief as anything else; he knows so little about using it that he is filming over another tape, parts of which periodically interrupt the chaos with moments from happier days. The early sequences introduce us to Rob, in whose honour the party is being thrown, to his brother Jason, and Lily, Jason's partner; we also meet Beth, Rob's estranged girlfriend, and Marlene, on whom Hud has a crush. Rob and Beth have a confrontation and she walks out, and Hud tries to film this row along with everything else.
Then there are noises outside and everyone rushes onto the roof and then, when the building shakes, down into the street. There are explosions and debris falls on cars—one of those pieces of debris proves, in the movie's most iconic shot, to be the head of the Statue of Liberty. Several blocks away, something we cannot make out swipes away the side of a building and suddenly there are helicopters and tanks and soldiers herding the population of downtown Manhattan towards the Brooklyn Bridge. None of the partygoers or their neighbours appear to have ever consumed contemporary media or to be aware that to leave a threatened city by the most obvious route is to put on the red shirt of mass anonymous death.
After surviving the deaths of everyone else including Jason, Rob announces to Lily, Marlene, and Hud that he is going scores of blocks uptown through a combat zone to rescue Beth, who is trapped in her apartment. Now, the world is divided into those who think that Ripley should, or should not, go back for the cat and I can see a case that Rob and the others do the right (because the heroic) thing and weigh the risk against the righteousness. You can see this as yuppies assuming that they are invulnerable Masters of the Universe, but I think this is an over-determined reading.
What is not tolerable is that, on the way, and knowing from televisions in a store that they face not only the vast monster, but its translucent spider-crab parasites, they loot only batteries for the camera rather than better shoes for the two women, who are wearing stilettoes, heavy jackets, some sort of weapon—even a carving knife would be better than nothing—and perhaps, since Beth lives on a high floor, some rope. It is their failure to equip themselves sensibly that makes them officially Too Stupid To Live.
Marlene dies directly as a result of this failure, from super-Ebola contracted from a spider bite through her flimsy party dress. (This is a horror film in which female vanity has to be punished.) Other parts are rendered radically implausible by it—when they find Beth alive, but impaled on a rebar, their failure to acquire a first-aid kit becomes more glaringly irresponsible. The fact that she survives de-impalement and then wanders around in "I'm all right—it was just a scratch" mode for the rest of the movie is merely silly.
When, after lots of half-glimpsed limbs, we more or less see the monster, it is a randomly generated combination of dinosaur and spider—like the earlier vertoginous crawl across the interlocked masonry of collapsed skyscrapers, it is a flashback from bad dreams rather than conscious experience. Were Cloverfield entirely a fragment of collective nightmare, it would be a better film.
Perhaps the only surprise in its later stages is that one of the characters survives. We know that the tape is a relic of disaster and the flashes of happier times on it are the sort of heavy irony that means things will end badly. Hud gets monster-squished—Rob and Beth leave last testimonies as sirens wail—it becomes neccessary to destroy the city in order to save it. Then we are back with yuppies in love on Coney Island—what will remain of us, it appears, is love. Terror culminates in fortune-cookie wisdom, and a taste of bad faith on the tongue.
Roz Kaveney is a writer and reviewer living in London. Her most recent book is Superheroes!; other titles include Reading the Vampire Slayer, From Alien to The Matrix, and Teen Dreams.