Written by Drew Goddard
Directed by Matt Reeves
Part II: Why Cloverfield isn't nearly the movie it could have (and should have) been. (Part I here.)
One of the first things that you learn when you start looking at movie criticism in any kind of serious way is that one should review the movie that the filmmakers made, not the one that you wish they had made. This is sometimes tricky, sometimes impossible, but Part I of this review follows that guideline as well as I could, talking about what Cloverfield was, rather than what I wanted it to be.
Part II is a lot more about the issues and problems I had with the film. (And will have spoilers aplenty.) I've also added a "Writers and Writing" tag, because I think a lot of the criticism that can be leveled on the film come from the script. The film is flawlessly executed, beautifully conceived, perfectly designed and well-directed (with one caveat, which I will mention below), but the worldbuilding is lacking and I wish the film had felt more free to be what it was trying to be.
One thing at a time. The direction is very well-handled, but I did wish the shakycam wasn't quite as prevalent. A quick line of dialogue saying that Hud is a cameraman who's done work in Iraq, or even works for a local NYC news agency or production company, would allow for a lot more steady shots, and at least give the audience's stomachs a break from the constant shakiness of the film.
That's really a minor complaint, though. More serious (at least in my mind) is the way the movie is structured . The main "through line" of the film is Rob's decision to go back and get Beth, to save her. It gives the whole thing a structure that, well... feels like a movie. What makes other disaster/horror movies like Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later work as well as they do is that they are basically plotless, and so anything feels like it could happen at any time. With Cloverfield, Rob decides to go after Beth, and all his friends... follow him without too much complaint.
As Rob is saying he's going to find Beth, Hud says from behind the camera, "I'll tackle you, dude." Well, why doesn't he? Why does this group (one of whom, Marlena, isn't even that good of a friend with the others) blindly follow Rob into certain doom? At least, why isn't there more of a fight over it? Exploring the inter-group dynamics would reveal character, increase tension, and make the whole thing so much more real. As is, these spoiled rich kids just act like movie characters following their leader because, well, that's what the plot demands.
Also, where are all the people? Once you get past the first half-hour or so, our characters are basically walking around in a deserted New York City. It takes a hell of a lot longer than a couple of hours to evacuate eight million people, and every scene in the movie (excepting possibly the ones underground) should have a mass of panicking people engaging in every sort of behavior that panicking people engage in.
Imagine a panicked New York. Where are the people trampling other people? Where are the people (as in Dawn of the Dead) who use the disaster as an excuse to take out age-old hatreds on their fellow man? Where are the people engaging in one last lay before the monster destroys them? For that matter, how about all of the old people, the infirm, the babies, the small children, people in hospitals and nursing homes? People who just can't live with the loss of their homes, their loved ones, people who collapse in tears or go psychotic and start destroying all around them? We get a bit of looting (which becomes a plot point), but where is the world that would be collapsing physically and socially around these characters?
I know that the response to a lot of this is that it happens, but it's just not on-screen. But without the artificial structure of the "rescue mission", you could have these characters essentially running into a lot of this simply by trying to escape the city.
Let me tell you Daniel's version of a monster movie. The idea here is good, but instead of using a "found footage" concept, why not do it as a documentary incorporating said footage from all over the city? How many cell phone videos, digital camera videos, et cetera, would exist in the aftermath of this kind of event?
Give us an Errol Morris-style documentarian, clinically detached, standing in front of the ruins of the city, years or decades after the events. He talks on-screen about the events, then cuts to some of the opening footage. Telling the stories (major and minor) of dozens of individuals in the process. Stories of heroism, of cowardice, of selfishness, selflessness, greed, et cetera et cetera. Some good people, some evil people, some in between... but always human.
And that's what's missing in Cloverfield. Despite the ground's-eye view, it's missing the humanity. That spark of something that makes us recognize ourselves on screen. Despite the thrills and the amazing sights, we're always aware we're just watching a really glossy example of a Dead Teenager Movie. And that makes Cloverfield something less than the Timeless Classic some would like to anoint it.
Update: Amelie Gillette over at The Onion AV Club has a cute little list of things not to think about while watching Cloverfield. You could pretty much read that and just ignore what I wrote above.