Opening with an official-looking title card, stamped Department of Defence and making ominous reference to ‘the area formerly known as Central Park’, the story starts with a going-away party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who is off to take a job in Japan. His pal Hud (TJ Miller) is videoing the revellers, including brother Jason (Mike Vogel), Lily (Jessica Lucas), Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) and Beth (Odette Yustman). Suddenly, without warning, the lights flicker, the ground shakes and the crowd hear an enormous roar. They arrive on the street just in time to see the head of the Statue of Liberty flying towards them. Something is causing chaos down town, and it’s time to start running.
Shot throughout from the hand-held point of view of Hud, the fleeing survivor, the frame is constantly in motion, a blur of jerks and shakes that is occasionally too much to watch. The restless camera isn’t the only thing that might make the viewer feel queasy, the constant visual references to 9/11 – collapsed skyscrapers, streets filled with bloodied people fleeing billowing clouds of dust – are indelicately evoked and clumsily subversive. Seven years on from the event, what looked like a disaster movie has become one, made even more effective by the unbroken illusion that we are witnessing events as they happen, in real time.
Director Matt Reeves and producer Abrams cleverly cast their film with virtual unknowns, adding another level of realism at the cost of any nuance in the performances themselves. None of the characters are particularly well developed, but there really isn’t time. A further inspired decision is to delay the introduction of the monster itself. We see the devastation the beast wreaks, hear its ultrasonic roar and catch tantalising glimpses between crumbling buildings until, late in the game, it fills the frame. Its origins remain unexplained, although the closing credits offer hints of a sequel that might fill out the backstory.
Barring documentary, all cinema requires some suspension of disbelief in order to be enjoyed, but Cloverfield demands a completely blank slate if the viewer is to get past the first twenty minutes. The geography of Manhattan, and the time it takes to get anywhere on foot, is ignored. Characters adopt a stoic philosophy towards pain and the death of loved ones, while ignoring the basic rules of bodily safety and successfully quietening the instinctive urge to flee from harm’s way. Everything technological, from video camera battery life to cell phone coverage to the physics of tons of falling steel, is better left unconsidered. The story demands such acquiescence, from its own frantic characters and from the jumping audience. In the race to a conclusion, Reeves and Abrams pile on the implausibilities but with such tremendous style and verve that logic succumbs to nerve endings; Cloverfield is loud and dumb, but it’s exhilarating fun.