The theme of the ‘common man’ is a recurrent one in poetry, the idea being that an untrained mind (as opposed to, oh, the massive genius of the poet let’s say) has a purer, more honest, richer and therefore more interesting experience than a mind bogged down by intellectual matters. Unhappily, that patronising assertion is alive and well in the entertainment industry, as manifested in the current obsession with “user generated content”. The theory goes that video sharing sites such as Youtube have empowered the aforementioned common man to fire up his webcam and convey the thoughts and feelings of real people more successfully than any film-makers or TV crews could ever dream of. It’s a seductive theory, but what’s actually happened is that we’ve given a platform to either (a) camera-wielding narcissists more interested in speaking than listening, or (b) people who don’t seem to realise that You’ve Been Framed will pay £250 for videos of hilarious accidents. If you can watch UGC for more than ten minutes at a time without wanting to gouge your own eyeballs out then good luck to you. For the rest of the viewing public, the true value of web video appears to be its flexibility – downloading episodes of Lost or looking up music videos that you can watch on your own terms, rather than at the whims of schedulers.
The rise in people getting off on filming themselves means that, a decade on from The Blair Witch Project and its flurry of imitators (and indeed, nearly three decades on from Cannibal Holocaust, the big daddy of all “found footage” movies) film-makers are dusting down the tried and trusted technique of the first-person hand-held narrative. Brian De Palma’s Redacted is apparently “Apocalypse Now for the Youtube generation”, George Romero’s poised to release Diary of the Dead (“Night of the Living Dead for the Youtube generation”) and we currently have Cloverfield, which is meant to be “Godzilla for the Youtube generation”. Cloverfield tells the story of a group of friends trying to escape Manhattan during an attack by a giant monster. One of the friends has a camera, which keeps rolling as they run. On paper, it looks like a pretty good concept but in practice the results are wildly variable.
There is a lot to admire in Cloverfield. The monster is fantastic in both concept and design, and in the grand old Romero tradition isn’t over-defined – refreshingly, the apocalypse just happens, without requiring a reason or rationale. There are some genuine shock moments that do get the heart racing, particularly in the helicopter sequence towards the end of the film. Perhaps the most effective scenes are those where director Matt Reeves plays with the audience’s expectations of the handheld style; there’s a brilliant scene in a subway tunnel where one of the characters suggests putting the camera on night-vision so they can see where they’re going. As an audience, we know they’re going to see something horrible when they do, but Reeves has the characters spend what feels like an eternity fiddling around trying to find the right button, ratcheting up the tension in the process.
Unfortunately, there’s far too many scenes which consist of little more than a lot of running around and people shouting things like “We’ve got to get out of here” and “It’s not safe, we’ve gotta go”. And herein lies the main fault with the film: there’s absolutely no reason for it to be filmed first-person hand-held. At a time when the rule of the day in Hollywood is to go big big big, producers JJ Abrams and Bryan Burk are to be commended for having the balls to go small; however, of all the stories that will be told in cinemas this year, surely the tale of a giant monster that levels New York warrants the big screen blockbuster treatment? Much as Reeves does his best, our inability to get a good look at what’s going on is actually irritating rather than tantalising. All the action is reduced to a lot of incoherent banging and crashing. It’s akin to being forced to watch a Broadway spectacular through a keyhole. There’s a really exciting story here, it’s just that it’s all happening off-camera; you become resentful of all the cool stuff that’s going on just outside your line of vision.
I also resented having to see the apocalypse in the company of some of the most vapid, substance-free, zero-note characters I’ve seen in a long time. The whole point of the first-person narrative is that there’s inherently got to be something about the narrator that’s interesting or comment-worthy to justify the sacrifices in objectivity and omniscience that third-person gives you. Unfortunately, despite going through the worst ordeal ever with the characters, it’s hard to feel anything other than total indifference to their fates. The first 20 minutes or so, before the monster shows up, are excruciating. It would be fine if they were there just as monster-fodder, but they’re on screen, in our faces, ALL THE TIME, whereas the monster (which is far more interesting) is only fleetingly in the foreground. The whole plot revolves around Rob’s romantic mission to rescue and win-back his on-off girlfriend Beth; unfortunately Rob is as dull as dishwater, and our understanding of the depth of their relationship is limited to a couple of shots of them giggling together on the subway. Some reviews I’ve read have tried to pass this as a comment on the narcissism of the Youtube generation, but frankly I saw no evidence of this; if we were supposed to dislike the characters I would have been more interested but I have a horrible feeling that Reeves intends for them to be our point of identification in the ensuing madness.
Crucially, despite the shakycam, you never once get the impression that this is real footage or that these are real people. They are clearly actors working from a script, and they’re not doing a particularly good job of it. Now, horror and sci-fi don’t necessarily have a proud history of naturalistic performance, but the Cloverfield’s gimmick relies on us buying into the reality of the situation to sell the rest of the story, which falls apart as soon as any of the characters open their mouths. Most ruinous, however, is the decision to make the cameraman a Hollywood stock “comedy dork” figure. This fulfills the Hollywood rule of only putting beautiful, aspirational people in front of the camera, but his irritating babbling actively saps the tension out of some rather good setups.
Cloverfield is not a bad movie by any stretch, but it’s a frustratingly missed opportunity. It’s been ages since Hollywood made an honest to god, balls to the wall, giant-monster-smashes-stuff-up film. For a while, I thought Cloverfield might be that film, but it wimps out by taking the hand-held route – a technique designed to suggest modernity and immediacy, but that actually feels horribly old hat. It’s jarringly uncinematic; I’ll give the DVD a go when it comes out as I have a feeling that I might enjoy it more on my TV, but on the big screen it feels neutered. As a big-landmarks-get-destroyed film, it can’t hold a candle to Independence Day, which is nearly twelve years old now. As a monster movie, it happily sits in the first division, but comes nowhere near the premiere league of Godzilla, King Kong, Gamera 3 or The Host – for my money, still the best 21st century monster movie yet.
There’s no music in Cloverfield, except over the end credits, where we hear a stirring, militaristic, doomy march in the spirit of the old Toho kaiju films. This pretty much sums up what the film could have been, but wasn’t. Monster movies don’t have to be a treatise on the human condition, but if you’re going to make the characters more important than the monster then it helps if you have something interesting to say about them. Cloverfield should have been an all-out popcorn belter, but in truth it’s just a bit incoherent and unexciting – which is the worst crime of all.