I’m not a great fan of J.J. Abrams, and had no immediate desire to see Cloverfield when it came out (not that seeing movies at the cinema is practical for me right now). So, I find myself both surprised and disappointed by the final product. I’m surprised that it could quite easily have been great and disappointed that it fails in such simple, obvious ways.

First of all, as my wife puts it, it falls in the large and lamentable class of movies where a whole bunch of people die in order to save the hero’s girlfriend. There are many movies which somehow manage not to be in this class, even some Hollywood blockbusters somehow avoid it. (Given that Abrams’s rise to fame was by producing a spy show in which almost everyone important turned out to be members of the same family, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised.)

Second, it suffers rather badly from the main characters being remarkably unsympathetic. This turns out to be key, because the movie might have survived its other big problem (see previous paragraph) if we actually cared about the hero or his girlfriend.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the monster is butt ugly and lacks character. When you finally get a good look at it, you’re disappointed. It’s just bad imitation Giger (and his creature looked both more alien and more sensible, despite suffering from the rather major constraint that it had to be a guy in a suit).

There’s a lot to like about the movie.

First of all, the characters aren’t superhuman, and this makes their generally minor feats all the more exciting and heroic. When they climb across from one building to another across a rubble-strewn rooftop, it seems really dangerous, but not in a “quick dodge behind this pillar to avoid the exploding cars and airplanes” way. (Perhaps my favorite moment in the movie is when there’s a jump cut where Hud is crossing the roof — the implication that things got so hairy he stopped filming — the movie really needed more of that kind of thing.)

Oh, and the story is pretty ruthless. People die really fast and you’re quickly led to believe that no-one is safe.

Next, the special effects are fabulous. (Well, except for the final shot of the creature.) It really looks like they filmed it all actually happening on a portable video camera. That’s quite an astonishing feat.

And finally, it’s by-and-large very well written and acted (like Lost). It doesn’t — with a few exceptions noted below — cheat you (unlike Lost).

Spoiler Alert!

The fundamental conceit of Cloverfield is that we’re looking at a videotape recovered from the scene of an “incident”. The tape’s structure is a day in the life of two young friends-turned-lovers which has been taped over with an incompetently shot farewell video shot the night of the incident. Throughout the movie there are gaps where “Hud” (a not very funny joke which I assume refers both to “Heads Up Display” and the guy who panics and says “Game Over Man!” in Aliens) has fast forwarded the video and left a bit of the older recording in tact as a fragmentary flashback. I think this structure is great — I have no idea how original it is — and could have been brilliant. It’s a much cleverer and less contrived premise than that of, say, Memento.

The story is generally well-paced (except for the overlong and dull beginning — which needs a jump cut with “oh shit, I think I accidentally erased a bunch of stuff… fuck fuck fuck” or something replacing ten minutes of boring throwaway characters saying boring throwaway stuff) and with two annoying exceptions (both in the subway) manages to adhere very diligently to its overarching concept. The largely invisible and laconic Hud even manages to somehow come across as the kind of person who might go to stupid lengths to keep a camera running during the events as they unfold.

The two annoying exceptions are the “montage” while they wait in the subway. Why turn on the camera to shoot nothing happening? A jump-cut to the next significant event (or even something that might look like it could have been significant) would be fine, but random shots of nothing happening don’t make sense. Later we discover the camera has a built-in floodlight (barely plausible) but they only switch on night-vision mode to do a scary reveal, and then it switches back to normal mode for no apparent reason.

It also seems odd to me that Hud, having decided to film everything because it’s important, doesn’t care to, say, tell us about stuff that didn’t get taped because it was out of shot or the camera was off. Or point the camera at his face and give us some context. Or stop and shoot some close-up footage of the first dead alien they come across. Or occasionally try to get a good shot of something he thinks might be important and either fail or discover not to be important. If it’s important, why isn’t it important to try to fill in gaps? (Hud’s an idiot, so his gap-filling could have been worthless. But it makes no sense for it to be absent. If he’s not trying to inform us, then why not leave the camera behind… even the hero’s dead brother’s girlfriend eventually stops carrying her heels around.

Given the remarkably strict adherence to its arc conceit, it surprises me that there’s no point at which the characters actively rebel against their insane mission of rescuing the hero’s girlfriend. It’s also remarkably annoying that they find her (impaled through the shoulder by a metal rod). It’s even more annoying that she’s still alive. And yet more annoying that she’s able to run at high speed a few minutes later.

From the bonus features on the DVD it’s apparent that the director considered the ending to be High Art. The ending isn’t happy (the only possible survivor is the dead brother’s girlfriend), but that’s about the point at which any resemblance between the end of the movie and High Art disappears. I didn’t care about anyone who died because there’s almost no conversation. There are places where one character will beg and scream at another character to do something, but there’s no point where — say — we discover a reason to like someone or forgive them their minor flaws, or even just get to know them, or even get some kind of intriguing hints about them. If the high concept of the movie as “found footage” is to eschew conventional components of narrative, such as character development and plot, then why wrap all this around something as dumb and cliché as a guy trying to save his girlfriend against all odds because he never told her he loved her? And why end it with the corniest of all possible juxtapositions?

Here’s the ending: hero and girlfriend exchange vows of love as they die. View becomes covered in rubble and goes black (presumably camera is broken). Jump cut to the end of their perfect day on Coney Island as the tape is running out. Girlfriend says something like “It was a really great day”.

I don’t hate the ending — in fact I like the end of the flashback video — but I think it would have been truer and braver and — well — better to have ended the movie differently. It seems too much of a coincidence — heck let’s call it cheating — for the story to end just a few seconds before the tape ran out. In the end, all the good qualities of the movie (and there are more than a few) are undone by the few conventions they either couldn’t bear or didn’t dare to abandon. I think if they had been willing to completely de-romanticize the story — e.g. by having the characters opt to give up the rescue, or simply never find the girlfriend — and not give the story a neat ending then they might have achieved greatness.

Oh, yeah, and the monster needed to not look like poor imitation Giger.

Sadly, the conceit can’t be revisited, except as a period piece (which would ruin it anyway). A similarly specced camera today stores footage on memory, not tape, so the intercutting would be artificial. Oh well, they had their chance and they blew it.