I remember seeing Cloverfield in theaters back when it was first released and I remember thinking "... and about damn time too". It was the right film at the right time, giving the found footage genre that final push in the right direction. I've been a little hesitant to watch it again ever since though, worried that the film itself might not live up that particular experience six years ago. As it turns out, that fear was ungrounded.
Back in '99 The Blair Witch Project started a revolution. From out of nowhere this little film became a tremendous hype. Without the help of a big budget, famous actors or fancy camera work it introduced an entirely new sub genre: the found footage or faux documentary. And then .... nothing. Swallowed up by the Asian less-is-more wave, it seemed that it was just a one-off, a strange footnote in cinematic history. Until, in 2007, some talented people picked up where Blair Witch left off. There was of course Spanish zombie flick [rec], but Cloverfield was the film that stood out the most because it came from out of Hollywood itself.
Even though Cloverfield helped relaunch the interest in found footage films, it remains somewhat of an oddity as it is only marginally part of the horror genre. Most found footage films focus on different horror sub genres (zombies, mutants, the paranormal, vampire), instead Cloverfield re-imagines a good old Kaiju flick (think Gojira) from a first-person perspective. It's actually the film's saving grace as even today, with so many rip-offs and wannabes screaming for the attention of horror fans, it still manages to stand out.
The reason for documenting in Cloverfield is Rob's goodbye party. He's planning a business trip to Japan and his friends decided to throw him one last party before he leaves. When the party moves to the roof disaster strikes. Explosions in downtown New York send everyone downstairs and chaos ensues. Apparently something big is running through the streets of New York, but news reports are scarce and the military is ushering everyone to a safe zone.
These found footage films often appear to be simple, yet I believe there's still a lot of skill involved in capturing the right images at the right time. Just swaying a camera around isn't going to cut it, instead you have to convey chaos and fear by showing just enough, but never too much. Cloverfield is a prime example of this. It's not like Reeves hides the threat, but it's never truly in your face either. He finds the right balance of chaos, uncertainty and information and even manages to sneak in some sexy shots from time to time.
The soundtrack has a similar function. When trying to adhere to the found footage motive, directors can't just put a soundtrack underneath the footage. Apart from natural noises there's not all that much they can do. But this isn't a Dogme film, listen more carefully and you'll notice that the soundtrack is tweaked and edited to add extra tension. The right amount of distortion and some extra sound effects go a long way in accomplishing this. While not entirely up to par with the aural trickery in [rec], Reeves does a commendable job.
The acting too is up to par. Stahl-David and Vogel make for good leads, T.J Miller is a bit much at times but has his function as a goofy distraction and isn't that much in frame anyway (he's the camera operator). The cast isn't going to win any big prizes for this film, but they convey their fears convincingly and make the best of the parts they were given.
The introduction at the party may be a tad long, but once the film gets going it never really lets down. Reeves guides his little team of survivors through a distraught New York, past emptied streets, dark underground subways and even to the top of a skyrise. While the threat of a monster running loose in New York may seem like a pretty singular premise, Reeves adds enough variation and switches settings regularly so it never becomes stale or boring.
The found footage mould is perfect for a film like Cloverfield. It puts the audience right in the middle of the disaster with the same knowledge as its protagonists. Reeves strikes a superb balance between fear, chaos and mystery, revealing bits and pieces of information at the right time and showing just enough to tease without coming off as cheap or low-budget. Since then the concept (found footage meets Kaiju) hasn't been repeated, which surprises me to be honest, but I'm sure this only helped Cloverfield to retain its appeal. It's still one of the best found footage films around.