In the 1950s, Hollywood had to raise its game, to provide more thrills and spectacle, in order to compete with television. Today, the movies are competing with YouTube. You might imagine that lifelike images on a big screen would be more alluring than blurry footage of people collapsing drunk on a few square inches of laptop, but apparently not. Well, the new blockbuster Cloverfield offers a response to that. Produced by JJ Abrams, the creator of TV's Lost, this is an old-fashioned monster movie of the sort they used to make in the Fifties; the twist is that Cloverfield is designed to look as if it was made on a domestic camcorder. The premise is that we're getting a slice of urgent amateur documentary, a raw unmediated experience – Godzilla Unplugged, if you like.
Directed by Matt Reeves and written by Drew Goddard, Cloverfield purports to consist of video footage shot by a man who's filming a chic Manhattan party when a very large and unruly gatecrasher hits town. The revellers are well-heeled, uptown young people, mainly white, mainly Fashion Channel-pretty. Played by names you're unlikely to recognise, (Lizzy Caplan, Michael Stahl-David, Odette Yustman), they're barely characters, more like computer-game avatars, their main function being to pelt through the streets yelling, "Go, go. GO!"
Twenty-eight minutes in, boom! The lights go out and the fun begins. The action starts with a projectile crashing on to a street in front of the camera: it's the severed head of the Statue of Liberty. I've heard complaints that this is the film's only memorable shot, but that's missing the point, as it is virtually the film's only "shot" as such, the only image that we get to stop and stare at. Cloverfield is not about looking at images, but about feeling the motion, being immersed in relentless action. More than a dumb creature feature, Cloverfield is an ingenious formal conceit: a $25m (£12.6m) CGI blockbuster that mimics a no-budget Dogme-style effort. This means long continuous takes (or the simulation thereof), shuddering camerawork, hiccups instead of conventional cuts, and occasional "glitches" when the camera is briefly turned off. Hud, the character behind the lens (TJ Miller, barely seen), keeps filming no matter what, so that we're always in the thick of things, overwhelmed by the seismic rumble. The film's principle is that a wide shot of a collapsing Brooklyn Bridge is old-fashioned epic stuff, but to feel you're actually on the bridge, in a panicking crowd, while it's collapsing around you, that's a whole other thing.
Another effect of the shooting style is that the monster is never revealed in its entirety. Right up to the climax, we only see something looming behind buildings; when we glimpse a slither of tail or a crustacean limb in the first TV reports, it's genuinely alarming, because for a few seconds, you could almost think it's real. Implicit in Cloverfield is the admission that over two decades, CGI artifice has worn itself out, that there's no longer any thrill to be had from detailed, photorealistic views of monsters and marvels: that the blurrier the horrors, the more frightening.
Sold on a clever viral marketing campaign, Cloverfield is strictly a novelty movie but it follows in a long and (sometimes) honourable tradition. Its gimmickry is the digital-age inheritor of Seventies disaster-movie fad Sensurround, or of the effects once specialised in by B-movie showman William Castle, who used to rig cinema seats with electric wires to literally give audiences a thrill.
You might regard Cloverfield as cynically distasteful, since it's essentially a symbolic re-enactment of 9/11 for the purpose of mere thrills. But then, a function of such films was always to sublimate cultural traumas: for all its silliness, the original Godzilla (1954) was no less authentic a Japanese response to the H-bomb. That said, there's not a huge amount of subtext to be found here: unlike George Romero in his zombie cycle, or even Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds remake, Cloverfield is not interested in theories of social breakdown, just in evoking the thrill of apocalypse. It may just be a deluxe drive-in movie, but if you enjoy crashing masonry and flailing tentacles, pay to see it on a proper big screen with a proper go-deaf sound system, and be prepared to drop your popcorn.
Need to know
The mother of all monster movies, 'King Kong' (1933) spawned remakes in 1976 and 2005. 'The Thing from Another World' (1951) was remade as grisly effects-laden 'The Thing' in 1982. Godzilla – aka 'Gojira' (1954) – gave birth to Mothra, King Ghidorah, and others. Pestilences have ranged from 'The Birds' (1963) and the bees ('The Swarm', 1978) to killer bunnies ('Night of the Lepus', 1972). More recently the terrific 'The Host' (2006) had a fish-like thing terrorise Seoul.Reuse content