Lean and Mean
A Review of Cloverfield
One of the smartest choices the makers of the much-anticipated Cloverfield made was to keep matters short. As in, short short—a lean 76 minutes. If they had pushed things longer, the film's gambit—a monster attack on Manhattan captured by a single camcorder (9/11's version of Hiroshima's Godzilla, obviously)—would buckle under and sink. It might also have sent people vomiting in the aisles. Shaky camerawork always risks upturning an audience's stomach, and no matter how kick-ass the monster, two hours of a single POV would quickly prove unsustainable.
Keeping things quick doesn't just extend to the running time. For the majority of Cloverfield, the monster in question is merely glimpsed—an arm here, what looks like teeth there—which only adds to the film's tension. Only near the end does the beast come fully into view, and it's no coincidence that in the final reels the film starts to fray, its smart manipulation taking a backseat to a more conventional, and bland, finale. As Spielberg learned some 30 years ago, the less you show the audience the better, and much like it is deflating when Jaws finally splashes onto the deck of the Orca, the inevitable full-on sight of the monster in Cloverfield risks spoiling all that was so beautifully built up before it.
Thankfully, this final-act skid isn't enough to derail what is, for most of its running time, a smart, and in many ways groundbreaking, creature feature. At one point, a soldier is asked what the monster is. "We don't know," he replies, "but it's winning." That's Cloverfield right there, and it's a hell of a lot of fun to watch.