I loved this movie. Cloverfield has more character development in the first 10 minutes than No Country for Old Men (2007) did throughout the entire movie.
Yes, I just compared a silly monster movie to last year's "best" picture and said it was better (at least one aspect).
The motivations of the characters throughout the film are easily traced back to the initial development and make a lot of sense given what happened. Furthermore, since the entire movie is supposed to be shot on a home movie camera by the characters (like Blair Witch Project), they very cleverly cut in scenes from the tape that appear to be something taped over. These scenes even further enhance the moviegoers' bond with the characters and really help to conclude the movie, which seems like it could be otherwise not easily concluded.
I never read any reviews of Cloverfield before watching it, other to hear from people at work that the amount of camera movement makes this film hard to watch in a theater. That's why I decided to wait until it was on Xbox Live in HD. I mentioned Blair Witch, and I'm sure there are lot of comparisons of Cloverfield to that movie out there which I'll read after I'm done with my own review. The difference is, Cloverfield had a $25m budget, most of which went towards effects I'm sure (none of the actors are notable). The effects are awesome in this movie.
Since the camera is in constant motion, every effects shot needed considerable match moving. Match moving is matching a 3D camera in the computer to the movement of a real camera in real life. So when the T-Rex is running at the car in Jurassic Park, someone had to sit down and match the exact camera movement of the real shot so the T-Rex looks like he's in there. One nice thing about extreme match moves like this movie is that sometimes, the more the camera moves, the easier it can be to make that shot work as an effects shot. When the camera's moving a lot, it's harder to notice little details like a sliding effect (a 3D camera that doesn't perfectly match the camera of the shot). However when the camera is moving more slowly, it gives the viewer time to evaluate whether something is off in the shot. In Cloverfield, every shot is moving so much that it really seals the deal on the effects. You don't get time to critique it as much, and the match movers, TDs and compositors did a really nice job of getting the cameras, motion blur, lighting and levels correct for the shots. I think if this was a more traditionally shot movie, with locked off cameras I wouldn't have been as impressed.
Oh, and the pyro, smoke and destruction effects were killer. Hats off to the FX TDs on the movie. I love the debris effects off of the 9 West 57th street building, for those who were paying attention to that shot.
The other refreshing difference with the effects is that they feel much more natural because of the home movie nature of the film. Effects have been ruined in recent years by over-art- direction. Every shot in Transformers, every shot in Indiana Jones 4, name any huge effects movie here, is perfectly storyboarded and art directed ahead of time. Someone pastes up a bunch of reference from other stuff, like Dinotopia, that should be referenced for the look of this shot. The shot is then given a painterly amount of lighting. It's so unnatural. A turning point for effects, in my opinion, was Star Wars Episode I. Every shot in that movie was so over-art-directed it was sickening. Since then, I feel like every summer effects blockbuster is headed along those lines.
My general complaint about movies is that they're always too long. This movie isn't at all -- it's arguably too short and doesn't explain enough. I found the length to be just perfect, and I like the mystery that's left when it ends. Since the hand-held presentation can grow pretty old, keeping the movie to around 80 minutes w/o the credits was a good plan.
Some of the acting is sub-par, but given the low budget nature and unknown actors I don't think that should be any surprise here.
In any case, this is the most entertaining movie I've seen in a while. JJ Abrams finally made something I liked a lot (and I haven't been shy about critiquing his work). I went back to watch Cloverfield from the beginning after I finished it the first time. Surprisingly, there are small details to be noticed when watching it a second time through that make it even more interesting and mysterious when it ends. I didn't expect that.