The monster that lays waste to New York in Cloverfield arrives suddenly, without warning or explanation, but the movie itself has been a long time coming. It first popped up on our radars last summer when a short teaser trailer played in cinemas before Transformers, showing us a lively party being interrupted by something like an earthquake, and when the intrepid partygoers ventured outside to investigate they were met by a huge explosion on the horizon and the Statue of Liberty's head rolling their way. We weren't given much more information than that – not even a title – just the name of JJ Abrams and a release date, but this secretive approach proved to be stunningly effective, sparking widespread speculation and debate on the internet, and fanning the flames of anticipation for a film which wasn't going to hit the screens for another six months.
Cloverfield retains that air of mystery early on, forgoing traditional credits to open with an official-looking government statement, advising us that the footage we're about to see was "discovered in the area formerly known as Central Park". This footage has all been shot through the lens of a single (remarkably resilient) video camera, belonging to Rob (Michael Stahl-David), and the initial scenes follow him and Beth (Odette Yustman) as they spend a sunny April day together in New York, completely oblivious to the trouble that lies ahead. The tape abruptly cuts to May 22nd, and it is now in the possession of Jason (Mike Vogel) and Lily (Jessica Lucas) as they plan a party for the Japan-bound Rob. By the time the party is in full swing, the camera has found its way into the hands of Hud (TJ Miller), and he'll be our guide throughout the extraordinary events which are about to unfold.
When I first felt the loud rumble that announces the creature's presence, it came as a relief, as the opening party/introduction scenes had already outstayed their welcome. Most of this early section consists of the annoying Hud wandering around asking the uniformly affluent and photogenic guests to record a farewell message for Rob, while the rest of it is concerned with the tension between Rob and Beth after their one-night stand weeks earlier. Thankfully, a giant monster tearing its way through Manhattan eventually occupies everyone's attention, and while most New Yorkers decide to follow the army's advice and flee the area as soon as possible, Rob decides to head into the danger zone instead, to rescue Beth who has found herself trapped in her apartment after leaving the party in a sulk. He is accompanied by Lily, Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) and Hud, who is still wielding that camera, determined to record every step of their perilous journey.
In everything that has been written about Cloverfield during the past few months, the name of JJ Abrams has been so prominent you'd be forgiven for thinking that this is a one-man show. In fact, he only has a producer's credit on the film, instead hiring Drew Goddard (a TV writer making his first feature) to come up with the script, and it has been directed by Matt Reeves, whose last film was the 1996 David Schwimmer comedy The Pallbearer. Despite their relative inexperience in this medium, Cloverfield is, in many respects, a very well-made picture. The art direction and visual effects are outstanding, and the film's greatest achievement is the way it creates a palpable sense of panic amid the crowd scenes and paints a convincing picture of a city being destroyed piece by piece – although it might be a little too convincing for some. Cloverfield draws heavily on the sights and sounds which we naturally associate with 9/11; plumes of smoke and dust billowing down the narrow New York streets, buildings collapsing on themselves, crowds of bloody and dazed people staggering away from the wreckage like lost souls. Remember those days when images of the World Trade Centre were digitally erased from New York-based movies? It wasn't all that long ago, but here we have a monster movie deliberately playing on those emotions. Time heals all wounds, it seems.
Throughout all of this mayhem, Hud keeps on filming. Cloverfield may be intended as a sly commentary on the way people feel an instant urge to reach for the cameras when any major disaster occurs, and when the Statue of Liberty's head falls out of the sky in this film, a number of bystanders pull out their mobile phones in an almost Pavlovian reaction to record this unbelievable sight. "People need to see this!" Hud exclaims at one point, when his determination to capture everything on camera is questioned, but the filmmakers' rigorous devotion to this "found footage" aesthetic is an approach which gradually reveals itself to be flawed in fundamental ways. Cloverfield's camerawork is sometimes effective, often giving just us tantalising glimpses of the monster (its one leering close-up is the moment it starts to look fake), and there's a neat running motif in the way the footage jumps back to the video of Rob and Beth in happier times whenever Hud's recording is interrupted. However, one of the film's chief gimmicks – and believe me, it has plenty – is the fact that we only know as much about the situation as the central characters do, and this state of affairs imposes strict limitations on the narrative. Cloverfield ultimately boils down to one long chase through various streets, subway tunnels and buildings, and even at a ridiculously skimpy running time (around 70-odd minutes, not counting the very long end credits) it feels thinly stretched in places. The handheld look of the thing also grows wearisome after a fashion, and it's frequently infuriating. With so much of Cloverfield involving the characters simply running from one place to another, Hud's camera jumps and jerks around incessantly (when Rob and Hud wandered into an electronics store I was praying they'd come out with a tripod), and it often feels like this attempt to give the film a faux-vérité feel has been badly overdone.
"It's about moments, man" – that's what James is saying when the monster first strikes, and Cloverfield is a film made up of individual moments. Some of these moments are impressive – I especially liked the leaning tower – and there's a stretch in the middle of the picture when Reeves generates a consistent level of suspense, but despite its attempt to create a more intimate sort of blockbuster experience, the film never really got under my skin. The acting from the unknown cast is pretty fair, but aside from Hud (loud and prone to gaffes) and Marlena (glum and sarcastic), their characters are blandly drawn and extremely forgettable. Perhaps this is why their predicament carries no resonance, we haven't really gotten to know these people despite all of the setting-up scenes at the start, and the only reaction Cloverfield provokes is a visceral rather than emotional one.
So when you look past the hype and the publicity capaign, what is Cloverfield? It's an uneven and shallow picture which draws heavily on Godzilla and The Blair Witch Project (and others; one subway sequence explicitly references both 28 Days Later and Aliens) while portraying itself as some kind of brand-new take on blockbuster cinema. If you're looking for a truly great monster movie – a film driven by compelling characters, beautifully staged action sequences, and astute political shading – then you need to see Bong Joon-ho's marvellous The Host, a piece of filmmaking which instantly puts this effort into perspective. Cloverfield gets sillier and less relevant as it progresses, its tenuous grasp on reality finally slipping with a frankly stupid helicopter crash and a final post-credits hint at a possible sequel. Yes, Cloverfield is ultimately just another blockbuster – don't be fooled by the slightly different packaging.