What do you get if you cross Roland Emmerich’s US reworking of Godzilla, The Blair Witch Project and classic 70s disaster movies like Earthquake or The Towering Inferno?
Well, an unholy mess, obviously. But also Cloverfield, an oddly satisfying chunk of New York-based monster mayhem.
It starts badly, with unlikeable characters (think Friends cast by JJ Abrams) introduced at a confusing party. While the film does the din of crowds superbly, what it fails to do, therefore, is the dialogue of movies. So it is frequently very difficult to tell who is saying what to whom, and often it’s even hard to work out who is who – especially with the two brothers. I think they’re called Rob and Jason, but I’m not 100% on that. One of them wears a tie. Anyway, just as you start to slump in your seat and wish that the moster would show up, already – BOOM! The monster shows up.
Well, sort of. You never really get much more than the odd glimpse of the monster (it appears to be a big-assed troll airlifted in from LotR. But a troll that disgorges SPIDERS!). But boy do you ever hear it. The sound design is fucking aces in this film. Explosions are hugely powerful, the footfall of the monster shakes the ground beneath your feet and when the first pieces of flaming debris smash into the surrounding neighbourhood it’s s bit surprising that the cinema doesn’t come down around you. Forget the shaky camerawork (didn’t bother me after the first few seconds), the element which will leave the lasting impression on you is the sheer volume of this thing.
Spoilers follow, be warned.
After the arrival of the monster, the film pretty much never lets the tension down, and zips along to its inevitable conclusion in Central Park in a sprightly 85 minutes. The central conceit – Blair Witch – is handled well for the most part, but it does need a bit of "People will want to know" dialogue in order to explain why they wouldn’t just ditch the camera at the first opportunity, especially when it is actively a hindrance. Still, it is used to good effect when, for example, they use the nightvision facility or switch on the built-in light. And the feeling of "being there" is difficult to escape during the horrible, vertigo-inducing climb to and from Beth’s apartment. The main problem is that it makes these people "normal", so when they appear utterly superhuman (Jesus, I don’t think I could run that fast with (probably) a punctured lung, nor do I think I could survive so violent a helicopter crash) there’s a kind of disconnect between film talking the language of home movies using the grammar of a blockbuster.
Performances are fine, mostly. Well, they might be shit but, as I mentioned, there’s so much background noise who knows if they’re saying their lines ok? They run fine, they look scared – a lot – and someone even says something which was genuinely fairly amusing once. Oh, yeah, not a film with a particular sense of humour. It wears its 9/11 badge quite prominently (there’s a shot which will be very familiar, very early on, of a dust-cloud barrelling up a street and people running in panic) and so doesn’t really seem able to poke fun at the idea of a huge monster flattening Manhattan. Because, you know, that’s not funny, man.
So, yes. Short, punchy and well-made. Better than I was expecting, but disposable in exactly the way it clearly doesn’t want to be.