It's Monster Time
Ah, shaky cam. The style of filming that, for a while, became oh so popular in Hollywood. You can see why it started, coming out of "found footage" films like The Blair Witch Project. That movie specifically used the shaky came, and other tricks, to make the movie appear like it was truly found footage, that the movie wasn't a movie but a real document of something that happened. It wasn't, but the style caught on when that movie became a massive hit ($248.6 Mil on a budget far under $1 Mil). Then Hollywood decided that, for a time, the shaky style of footage had to be used for everything.
In some films it did add a sense of verisimilitude. Low-budget horror films used the filming style to great effect. Other movies, like The Bourne Ultimatum, just became hard to watch. Released in 2008, Cloverfield hits both sides of the debate at once. On the one hand, as a found footage film about an alien invasion, the found footage style does add that sense of truth, of realism. At the same time, damn if they film isn't hard to watch, a nauseating experience that just hurts. It can be both, great found footage you don't want to watch, and it certainly didn't stop the film from being a decent enough hit, making $172.4 Mil on a budget of $30 Mil.
The film purports to be a tape found in the wreckage of Central Park, a video shot by civilians on the night of an alien attack (although the text scrawl also says it's an SD Card, so I think someone in the production side didn't quite get the memo). It's a tape made of a party, over a video that two friends-turned-lovers, Rob (Michael Stahl-David) and Beth (Odette Yustman), made the day after they finally hooked up. The party footage, and everything that comes after, is shot by Hud (T.J. Miller), which features a lot of Hud chasing after Marlena (Lizzy Caplan). Hud is there, shooting the footage, as a kind of document (with friendly testimonials) of the going away party for Rob the night before he heads off to Japan for a new job. Oh, and the party turns sour for Rob when Beth arrives with a new guy on her arm, in part because Rob was leaving and he didn't know how to communicate with Beth about their relationship going forward.
That all takes a bigger turn, of course, when something happens in New York City (where they're all living and partying). There's a massive rumble, like an earthquake, and when the partiers all go outside they witness the head of the Statue of Liberty come flying down their streets. Something is up, something big, and it's not just a quake. They soon realize it's a massive monster, an alien, that's come to Earth, and it's steadily destroying all of NYC. The partiers go running, looking for help and assistance, but at every turn they're stymied by the creature. And when Beth calls, needing help as she's trapped in her apartment and can't get out, Rob goes running, dragging his friend behind him into danger and certain death.
Conceptually, Cloverfield really does work. Taking the idea of found footage filming and applying it not to a ghost story or other low-budget horror concept, but something bigger and more intense actually works. While it might seem silly to do a found footage film about, say, GodzillaThe acknowledged King of the Monsters, Gozilla has grown far beyond his early days as a nuclear fallout allegory into one of the biggest, and longest running, franchises ever., Cloverfield makes the case that you can get a good, street level view of the action, of the monster storming through the city, and document the confusion, fear, and anxiety that would come from it. The protagonists here aren't the military, or the people working to fight the monster; they've just normal people trying to stay alive. It's a great angle to explore and the film does solid work to make that feel real.
And, really, the way the found footage is "gathered" for the film doesn't feel too silly. It's a tape of a party started right before the attack, and the guy doing the filming specifically says, "this is important, we should document this," as the attack happens. While not everyone would keep the camera rolling through all the action, I could see certain types actually wanting to document it all. Of course, now it would be with phones and not a camera (tape or digital) and I don't think anyone would stop recording. The urge to document everything for the socials is too strong now (and I include my own inclinations as well).
With that said, the film is far from perfect. The first flaw is the filming style, for sure. While I understand it's designed to feel like it was all filmed by one dude there are a number of shots and sequences that are hard to watch. Any time Hud goes running he points he camera at the ground and the effect induces a serious sense of nausea. Hell, any time he's moving quickly at all, with the camera shaking erratically and barely anything can be properly seen, the film becomes unwatchable. While I understand that hooking a dude up with a steady cam would have ruined the "realism" of it all, it absolutely would have made for a far easier to watch film. I think some middle ground, between steady came and full shake was needed.
Also, if I'm being honest, the actual characters in the film are totally worthless. The film makes it a point to show us that they're Manhattan rich kids, trust fund babies and other well-to-dos. They have nice apartments in Manhattan, can afford to live large, and have absolutely no real concerns outside, well, a giant alien ruining their party. I get that making them Manhattanites works to keep them trapped on the island, and it also puts them near the Statue of Liberty (for that iconic shot in the film), but they are absolutely not "normal" people no matter what the film might say. And the film doesn't really get into their lives with any depth, so it's hard to view them as anything other than spoiled trust-funders, especially considering the way they act and where they live.
They're also idiots. At every turn they have opportunities to get picked up by the military to be taken to safety. But they all decide to stick with Rob who, after a call from Beth, goes charging off into danger to try and get the girl he loves. I get it, love is sweet, but there's an alien invasion going on and your friends are getting picked off left and right. Maybe escape first and then try to get someone to help Beth afterwards. Instead of doing that, and ensuring five of your buddies live, they all get picked off one by one. And, the thing is, even if Rob wanted to go charging off after Beth the rest of them didn't need to go. They all say this... but they go anyway, just to drive to body count up. It makes them look like idiots.
Of course, if we really want to be picky, the whole setup of this film falls apart once you start thinking about it. We're following one group of twenty-somethings who, at every turn, just so happen to be right in the middle of the action. They go hither and yon around Manhattan and see not just the Statue of Liberty get decapitated (right down their street) but also every major turn the alien takes, every offensive strike against it from the military. Is the alien stalking them, going, "man, I could just go home but, no, that Beth girl. I really need to screw over her and her friends." It's so dumb to think they'd see every aspect of the invasion. Yes, that's what the film is about, the monster come to Earth to attack us, but having it all come from one single perspective stretches credulity.
Look, Cloverfield is a very watchable film. The first time I viewed it I thought it was a very effective giant monster story. And it is, on a surface level. It picks you up and takes you for a ride through the alien invasion. But repeat viewings struggle because once you know the basics of the film you start to pay attention not to the action but to the setup and the characters, and that's when the flaws really become obvious. It's a fun movie, but a very shallow one, with stupid and unlikable characters. It does its job efficiently, but if you try to go back you'll struggle to understand why you liked the film all that much at all.