Back in 1999, there was a lot of buzz about a movie which claimed to be true. It featured a group of kids who went out into the woods to investigate an urban legend about a local witch – and never came home. Some time later, their footage was found, edited, and broadcast to audiences around the world; websites were set up detailing the mythology of the Blair Witch, or about the lives of these poor, unfortunate young filmmakers.
Surely not many people could really have believed that The Blair Witch Project was real. But it was a massively successful film nonetheless, imitated and parodied endlessly for years. The film divided audiences; some people loved the rough, handheld camera footage and improvised dialogue, while others were frustrated by the ambiguous ending and always wobbly visuals. While no-one is going to believe that Cloverfield is a true story, that whole debate is about to kick off all over again, because this is another film shot entirely with handheld cameras with an extensive viral marketing campaign behind it. Clues about Cloverfield have been dropped for months now, none of them actually giving very much away, so anticipation is pretty much at fever pitch right now.
And within the next couple of weeks, everyone’s going to find out whether the hype was justified.
Honestly, I think some people are going to be disappointed. Cloverfield is a very, very simple story based around a very, very simple idea, so anyone who’s been following a series of clues on a series of viral websites might feel somewhat short-changed. There’s not a lot to work out in Cloverfield; it just is. But what it is, is brilliant.
The plot is that of your basic monster movie – a monster attacks, and people run away. In Cloverfield, instead of being handed an omniscient view of the attacks unfolding, you’re only given the perspective of one small group of people. The genius, though, isn’t in the storyline, or even really in the technique – it’s in the writing. Cloverfield‘s script is word-perfect. The film introduces a group of characters, all but one of whom are impossibly gorgeous young people (but it’s okay, the one who isn’t attractive mostly stays behind the camera). There’s half an hour’s worth of not much happening as we figure out who’s who, and what their relationships to one another are, and then, suddenly, everything kicks off. There’s a huge explosion in Manhattan; the Statue of Liberty’s head goes flying across the sky; the streets are in chaos. The only available escape route, across the Brooklyn Bride, is quickly cut off. Things get scary, and fast.
What really sets Cloverfield apart from all the other horror movies that use exactly the same elements – a group of people, an isolated place, and something scary lurking around the corner – is that it makes so much sense. The characters are brilliantly observed; they’re not all likeable, exactly, but they all seem real. They all act like people – rational, reasonably intelligent people, at that. Most horror films feature at least one moment, if not several, where you want to scream at the characters to stop being so bloody stupid. Cloverfield manages to avoid that. Every decision they make, makes sense. Maybe I’m over-stressing this point, but it seems so rare that a film gets something this right. And in order to be scary, you need that. It’s no good throwing monsters into a film with characters so stupid they constantly run into danger; the audience can’t empathise, can always see a way out, and get frustrated when the characters don’t take it. When you feel like you’d do everything in the same way as the people onscreen do it, that’s when it starts to feel scary.
It’s also useful that the characters act like real people when the film tries to make you feel something. There are so many moments I want to write about, at length, and describe how great they are, but at the same time, I don’t want to spoil them for everyone else. So I’ll just say that there are several absolutely heartrending moments in this film. There are also some brilliantly funny lines along the way – my favourite, I think, is when someone asks of the monster “What’s that?” and gets the reply “That’s a terrible thing.” Everything just works; the conversations flow like you’d imagine real conversations would, in the circumstances.
There is, admittedly, one moment where you’ll roll your eyes in disbelief. Something happens (I know, I’m being annoyingly vague, I’m sorry) that you know, from having seen films before, has to happen, but at the same time, you can’t actually believe that would happen in real life. It’s okay, though, because there’s only one moment, and it’s not so outrageous that it couldn’t happen. It’s just one ever so slightly faltering step in what is otherwise a note-perfect script.
(Actually, there’s one more thing – why is everyone in this movie so bloody gorgeous? It’s the Lost effect – how come there just so happened to be a plane filled with people with movie star looks? I guess we’ll never know.)
Another part of what makes this movie so great is that the monster design is completely unlike anything you’ve ever seen. (Unless, maybe, you’ve seen The Host.) It’s not a recognisable monster of any particular existing type; it’s just something weird. (And terrible.) It’s scary because it’s so weird – it’s just a monster, and it doesn’t have any obvious weaknesses, and it’s huge, and it wants to eat you. Having glanced at the credits on the IMDB, I’m not sure who to congratulate on creating that thing, because there seem to have been an awful lot of people involved, so you can all give yourselves a good pat on the back. And then give Drew Goddard a good pat on the back, too, for writing such a great script. And maybe Matt Reeves. And the entire cast.
Weirdly, I think Cloverfield will play just as well, if not better, on DVD as it does on a cinema screen. Because it’s all shot on handheld cameras, it sort of feels like a small screen movie, even though the production design and sheer scale of the monster and the destruction it wreaks makes it feel like a big screen movie. It’s hard to categorise Cloverfield, actually, but then, why bother? It’s brilliant. And that’s enough.