Cloverfield, the Internet sensation of the past few months, opens on a social gathering that looks suspiciously like the wrap party for any common-or-garden teen movie. Here are interchangeable hotties from central casting - haircuts and stubble for the boys; lipgloss and a vague semblance to other, better-known actresses for the girls - gathered together in a New York loft conversion to sip beer from plastic cups and frug non-committally to a soundtrack of recent indie hits. Fortunately for us, if not for them, the party is crashed, just after midnight, in the most spectacular fashion imaginable; someone, or something, decapitates the Statue of Liberty, and sends a number of fireballs hurtling into midtown Manhattan, forcing the revellers outside to negotiate the growing panic in the streets. We see it as they see it: the cloud of dust rushing up Broadway, as it did on that fateful day in September seven years ago; the debris and paper falling from overhead; the broken skyscrapers leaning on one another for support.
The twist is that all the action we see has apparently been recorded on one character's digital camcorder, an item of equipment that - like the amateur cameraman and his contemporaries - gets shaken, shot at and bloodied as the film goes on. This gimmick isn't as innovative as the frenzied Web-hype might suggest: George A. Romero's recent Diary of the Dead is arguably even more radical in its use of cellphone and webcam footage to tell its story, and Brian DePalma's Iraq reportage Redacted, "shot" by troops on a vengeful rampage, has been making waves on the festival circuit for just under a year now. It hasn't even been ten years since The Blair Witch Project did for the woods what Cloverfield does for city streets. Something about these shaky, wobbly, disorientating visuals remains tremendously effective, however. What the film evokes above all else is a sense of being present at monumental events - a bridge collapse, say, or the evacuation of a densely populated area - without having the context, the wider picture, that might enable us to fully process them.
The film is presented as an artefact, retrieved by the Department of Defense after a major societal breakdown; at no point are we told definitively where those responsible for engineering this collapse come from, or indeed what has happened to them. Instead, we get raw, and (in one sense) unmediated glimpses of a moment we can't fully comprehend; it's as though the producer JJ Abrams and the director Matt Reeves were striving to find a celluloid analogue for that commonplace Internet abbreviation "WTF??!!" (Though what we hear coming out of our heroes' mouths tends more towards tearful gushing and "oh my Gawd"s; just as the performers are very American teenagers, so Cloverfield is a very American nightmare, with little of the stoicism we Brits displayed in the immediate wake of the 7/7 attacks. Viewers on this side of the Atlantic might start to think the characters wuld be better off if they'd just take a moment, put the bloody camera down - had a cup of tea? - and gave serious thought to what they were doing and where they were headed. But then there'd be no film.)
Cloverfield is a B-movie at heart - you can see it in the way the female characters persist with high heels even as they're running for their lives - but it's cleverly assembled, genuinely resembling the kind of footage posted every day on YouTube or Facebook, while making some attempt to get at the psychology behind it. The recording is initially intended as a going away present for one member of the gang ("Can I watch this every night when I'm in Japan?"), but it's been taped over footage of two lovers enjoying a day out in Coney Island, images that emerge whenever the recording is interrupted, providing a poignant counterpoint to whatever it is that we're watching in the present. What these films suggest is the emergence of a generation prepared to use any technology at their disposal to document the good times, in anticipation of darker days to come. As Cloverfield's designated cameraman puts it - in the most American of ways - shortly before the world comes crashing down around his and everybody else's ankles: "It's about moments, man."
Cloverfield is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment; a sequel, 10 Cloverfield Lane, opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow, and is reviewed here.