Be warned. Minor (very, VERY minor) spoilers beneath the fold.
Yesterday, my wife and best buddy and I went and saw Cloverfield. Since the only films that the three of us have seen together in the past were Tim Burton’s "Planet of the Apes" and "Dungeons and Dragons", we all had very low expectations; we figured the three of us together laid a curse on whatever film we saw to make it suck so hard that it would collapse in on itself and form a singularity of suck that would make even movies in adjoining theaters suck harder. Fortunately, "Cloverfield" surprised us all by being a good film, and we think the curse is broken.
Granted, it was, at heart, just a movie about a giant monster stomping on New York. I’ve been so over-exposed to the genre of giant monsters stomping big cities that it’s hard for me to take them seriously at all (and films like 1998’s Godzilla didn’t help). The original Gojira is scary in its own way, but films like Godzilla Vs. My Little Pony are not. The Host, a 2005 monster movie from Korea about a critter that rises up from the sewers and brings people down to its nest, was a good monster movie, but it didn’t scare me; it delighted and intrigued me, but there wasn’t really anything scary about it. But Cloverfield gave me some genuine chills, and not just the "BOOGA BOOGA! HA HA GOT YOU!" type sudden scares that most horror films don’t aspire beyond these days (though there are a few of those). There’s an atmosphere about the film, probably a combination of the lighting and the camera work, that are very effective in combination.
I had problems with some parts of the script. It’s true that if you’re watching a movie about a giant monster stomping New York, your disbelief is already suspended pretty high, but there were still some parts that I thought were not quite believable. Could Elizabeth, for example, really run so fast and so far with a lung that had been pierced by an iron bar? But these are minor quibbles.
One thing that I enjoyed about Cloverfield was its avoidance of conspiracy theories or explanations like ‘The government did it!" or "The giant corporations did it!" In our post-X-Files world, such notions are cliched, and there’s not much original that can be done with them. There’s some brief discussion of such theories in the film, but they’re passing commentary by people terrified out of their minds, the sort of conversation anyone would be expected to have under such circumstances.
Cloverfield also avoids the temptation to be any sort of message movie. Gojira had words to say about America’s use of atomic weapons against Japan, and The Host had plenty to say about American military presence in Korea. Cloverfield doesn’t go that route. There’s no commentary in this film; at least, if there is, it’s a very subtle message about our modern post-9/11 culture of fear.
So, while Cloverfield is not the best horror flick ever made, in the giant monster subgenre it definitely ranks up there with the original Gojira and The Host. I highly recommend it.