I saw it Saturday, and pretty much agree with Ace’s take on it. I probably liked the monster design a little more than he did though. It’s an ugly beast but seems naturalistic. And I agree that the camera motion is a bit too much. A steadier camera once the idea is established would have helped make Cloverfield more enjoyable. If you’re susceptible to motion sickness, do not see Cloverfield. Ever. That said, I had a great time with this one. You shouldn’t expect profound works of theatrical brilliance in a monster film, and Cloverfield doesn’t deliver any. But it’s fun and it works.
The one thing I would add to Ace’s take is that Cloverfield pretty much demolishes the rules and cliches of monster films, and that’s why it worked so well for me. Ever since the 1954 Godzilla, the rules of big monster films have been set: You have a monster. You have scientists explaining the monster’s origins and maybe its intentions in some briefing, the proximate cause of the attack is usually something mankind did (though it can be an alien or whatever, but you’re always given that bit of information and it’s usually that we had it coming), you have some intrepid reporter chasing the story, you have arguments between officials over what to do about it, and you nearly always get some super weapon or aircraft deployed to stop it after it has crushed several army battalions and swatted our best fighters out of the sky. Or you get a second, third or fourth monster to fight it, such as in some of the more recent Japanese kaiju films. And you nearly always have some helpless kid caught up in the chaos. I always hate that kid. His presence in the film is always contrived and he’s given screen time that would better spent serving up more monster mayhem.
Cloverfield gives you some of the usual stuff, but never in the way previous monster films have. The monster’s origins and intentions are never explained. It just shows up and commences wrecking the town. The intrepid reporter becomes fleeting glances at flat screens in an electronics store, and you get plot surprises even in those few seconds. The kid in jeopardy becomes you as you tag along with the main characters. The opening of the film gives away what’s going to happen to most of those characters, so you’re removed from having to pretend to care about that and thus are left to take in the scenes with less certainty of who is going to survive what. That plus the camera work makes the whole film more visceral than any previous monster film. The wait before the attack begins has the same effect — you know it’s coming, but not exactly when, and by the time you get used to the lives of the somewhat vacuous characters, you get thrown with them into the insanity. Unlike previous monster films, you never get the distant shot of the creature as it marches inevitably up the harbor — when you do get a wide shot of the creature, well, even that ends with a bang. You never get the ground-level shots of the monster stomping on trains or neighborhoods. You do get one low shot looking up at it, and it’s memorable. Cloverfield takes out all of the usual kaiju kabuki, making it the most original monster film made in decades and maybe ever, even though it follows the same basic plot trajectory that all monster films follow: Monster arrives, monster attacks, stuff falls apart and people die.
There is heroism and cool competence as in previous monster films, particularly in the way the military is portrayed, but the film doesn’t give you the grand arrival of the army the way previous monster films usually do. The military just appears amid the chaos and nearly kills the main characters since they’re between the army and the monster. That struck me as playing out much like it probably would should an actual gigantic space or whatever monster ever wreak havoc in a major city (though the military would probably take a little longer to get the tanks on the scene). What little plot there is gets exposed in quick conversations between a military officer and the lead character, but even that isn’t handled in the same way monster films usually do it. They make the main character a key to the monster’s destruction somehow, so the military is either resisting him or deferring to him. In Cloverfield, the main character is just another guy trying to survive, and the military officer spends all of maybe 10 seconds explaining the situation to him. It works. Every time Cloverfield jumps past a monster movie cliche, it works.
So though I half expected to get mad at Cloverfield, I liked it. It left me with a bit of a headache, but I liked it.