The star of JJ Abrams’ new film Cloverfield isn’t a giant monster, or the handful of bland 20-somethings trying to escape it. It’s a video camera.
It might strike you as unlikely that this camera should happen to be pointing in the right direction to capture the monster’s explosive arrival on Manhattan. But exactly the same thing happened to Jules Naudet, who just happened to have a camera pointed in the right direction when American Airlines flight 11 hit the North Tower of the World Trade Centre. Millions of whirring cameras saw United Airlines flight 175 hit the South Tower 16 minutes later, with those of the world’s press hugely outnumbered by those held by amateurs. 9/11 was the most documented event in human history, and a defining moment for what is pompously titled “citizen journalism” – what is really just recognition of the fact that if a major disaster happens in our society, the first person on the scene with a camera will not be a professional journalist. Citizen journalism of this kind is simply technologically advanced eyewitness status.
Cloverfield is the first film about this digitally-enhanced eyewitness mentality, that strange and counterintuitive sense of duty towards posterity that causes people to reach for their camcorder or camera-phone when really they should be escaping. “People are going to want to see what went down!” says Hud, the character in Cloverfield who holds the camera for the bulk of the film. What is going down is the attack by the aforementioned monster, a Godzilla-scale horror that has emerged from New York Bay, decapitated the Statue of Liberty, and is trashing Manhattan.
Hud was, that evening, videotaping a party held for his friend Rob. After the arrival of the monster, Hud and a handful of friends attempt to rescue Rob’s ex-girlfriend from her apartment and escape. We see all this, of course, because Hud is taping it; and a couple of times his desire to continue taping endangers or impedes the group. We know, of course, that the tape survives – it is found in “the area formerly known as” Central Park, and has thus not left the doomed city, information that gives a pleasing ambiguity to the plot.
The idea of a film taken from a salvaged tape isn’t entirely new – 1999’s The Blair Witch Project is an obvious example of the genre. But Cloverfield plays with the idea far more effectively. The filmmakers in Blair Witch intend to make a film about a witch – Cloverfield is a monster movie made “by accident”. And the tape is unedited. At times the camera is switched off, and we see a glimpse of what was on the tape before Hud decided to record over it – tender moments between Rob and the girl they are now trying to rescue, neat little techno-flashbacks for the VHS generation.
Stripped of the “amateur footage” conceit, Cloverfield would just be another monster movie. The characters are thin and uninvolving; the plot is the usual slalom from peril to peril. But it’s amazing how much mileage Abrams gets out of his approach. We don’t see more than a glimpse of the monster until very late in the film, but rather than coming across as a weary bit of directorial tension-building, it seems a natural byproduct of the method of the film’s production.
In fact, the whole film feels more believable as a result of the camcorder concept – an astonishing feat considering its B-movie premise. Disbelief is easier to suspend when we understand how we have come to be watching what we are watching, and the single point of view is tense and claustrophobic. It is never explained where the monster has come from or why it is doing what it is doing, but we do not expect explanations because the director has abdicated his storytelling responsibilities right at the outset. What’s left is confusing, messy and often defies rational explanation – attributes that would be problematic in a conventional film, but which serve to make Cloverfield feel more like real life.
In this respect, the citizen journalism format is the ideal way to tell stories in the 21st century. The ubiquity of cameras has completely changed how we interpret unfolding disasters. The presence of a Walter Cronkite or Kate Adie on the screen suggests the existence of an overarching, secure and comforting structure in which events take place. But these modernist certainties have collapsed – we no longer expect journalists to be able to explain what is going on. Amateur cameramen don’t make that claim and are thus well placed to relay the confusing, structureless, non-“story” that is news; and it’s a good format for filmmakers to make a story feel more like real events.
A sequel is mooted with exactly the same premise – the same events being shot at the same time by a different person. If it comes to pass, Abrams will have created something unique, and Cloverfield, whatever else it is, will stand as a fascinating experiment in 21st-century cinema.
images Paramount Pictures