So yeah, it turns out they did a few stupid things. But not so many that it ruined the film for me.
On the whole, not a bad movie, just a shockingly short one. Turns out I was off by a full ten minutes, and the credits rolled round about the 70 minute mark, making it well under 'feature length'. I know 'feature length' is a bit of a fuzzy line, but my own personal rule is that if you're not a good bit longer than one of those original Columbo movies that were aired in a 90 minute timeslot, then you're not as long as a real movie.
The most puzzling thing about the film is just how little happens in it. The first twenty minutes are kind of a wash, as they're spent trying to build familiarity and affection for the central characters, mostly by watching people gossiping about who slept with whom, and then didn't call the next day. These attempts at relationship-building with the audience are hamstrung by the knowledge that all of the characters are going to die, as well as the banality of the people and their problems. It's been said before that the film answers the question 'What if the cast of Felicity found themselves attacked by Godzilla?" While that's true, I'd like to point out a corollary: There's a reason that Felicity was canceled.
So once the real movie, the monster part, kicks in, there are only fifty minutes left, which, by my count, is only enough time for nine things to happen: They see the Brooklyn Bridge get destroyed – watch the news in an electronics store - see a gunfight – walk down a train tunnel – meet some soldiers – walk up a building – rescue someone – get on a helicopter – get killed. Does that really seem like enough events to make up an entire movie? Well it doesn't feel like it, either.
Also, and maybe this is just me putting my misunderstanding of how technology works on display, when videocameras record onto one of those memory cards, do they really tape over the previously existing video, like with a tape? Because for the length of the film, whenever the camera gets jarred or turned off, there's a flash of content from Main Guy's idyllic date to Coney Island with ex-Girlfriend. I'm sure this would happen with an actual tape, but since the film flat out tells the audience that it's a memory card in the camera, I'm left a little skeptical.
Oh, and while my guess about the film's outcome was mostly spot-on, they threw a couple of curveballs in there just to keep me guessing. For example, one of the people might have gotten away. One of the survivors gets into a helicopter that might escape, we're never told for sure, and the Main Guy and his ex-Girlfriend don't actually die on camera, they're within audible distance when an explosion powerful enough to destroy the camera happens. So if the producers really wanted to push plausibility, they could bring most of the cast back for a sequel. Except for the guy who got bitten in half and then had bombs dropped on him. He's pretty much done for.
I find myself increasingly frustrated with films that start at the end, thereby robbing the audience of even the possibility of surprise. Yes, we've probably had the film spoiled for us by trailers, and reviews, and co-workers, and McDonald's placemats, but do you have to give up and just lay everything out for us at the beginning of the film? It's not like the people who've had the film spoiled for them are going to care one way or the other, you're just ruining it for anyone who's managed to go into the movie cold.
Sure, this was a fake documentary, and so the normal rules of storytelling don't always have to apply, and it follows the structure of the Blair Witch Project pretty closely, after all, the opening of that film makes it abundantly clear that everyone who goes into the woods dies. Does that ruin the ending? Sure, but knowing the ending was an integral part of that film's premise. The movie is never really about their attempts to escape, it's about how people disintegrate under pressure. Cloverfield, on the other hand, is not a Sartre-inspired tale of human misery, it's an action-thriller about people trying to get out of a city while a monster attacks, the ground-level version of a Godzilla movie. Knowing that all attempts at escape are doomed to failure keeps the viewer from being able to get involved in those attempts, and knowing that everyone is going to die at the end takes the sting out of seeing it happen.
Cloverfield would have had to have been an exceptional film to overcome this hurdle, and it's merely a good one. But cut the first minute out of the film, and just let the audience watch the footage in sequence, and you'd have a much better movie, one with a chance of surprising an audience two years from now, seeing the film for the first time removed from the effects of the marketing machine.
Oh, and by the way? The United States Government would never give a giant monster the designation "Cloverfield". Not in a million years. No, they'd have gone for something more bombastic, or possibly mythological. Wouldn't the world be a better place if the film had been called 'Prometheus'?