Whatever else is true of Cloverfield, I must give J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves credit for making one of the few films to use 9/11 imagery in an effective and appropriate way. It is entirely possible that the last time I saw a film that played a similar card without coming across as exploitive or crude was also a genre film, Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds back in 2005. I am not certain what this means. Possibly only that I like sci-fi thrillers more than sociodramas.

I'd rather say that it's because horror movies, when they're working properly, are one of society's finest outlets for all those things that terrify us, filtered through a haze of Entertainment that lets us confront those fears on our own terms. This is 101 level theorising, I know. But just as Godzilla, Cloverfield's obvious ancestor, gave room for the Japanese to confront the spectre of nuclear devastation, so does this film play on the modern version of an irradiated Hiroshima, letting us ponder the devastation of New York from a safe distance that permits a level of reflection which a film like World Trade Center couldn't have achieved even if it wasn't terrible.

Or maybe Cloverfield is just using 9/11 as a means of getting the audience anxious and thereby plopping asses into theater seats. It's honestly not that easy to tell. On the one hand, the film isn't nearly so pornographic as it might have been, spending most of its time in an intimate frame and broadening its scope to appreciate the devastation of a city only rarely. On the other hand, the film is somewhat clumsy in execution, and a lot of it is staged something like a video game, or a theme park ride. Ultimately, I think the biggest flaw is that it's just not effective enough as a horror film for everything else to work as it should.

Really, though, the interesting part of the film isn't what it says about 9/11, but the mode in which it speaks (though I don't believe the two things can be separated). As pretty much everybody knows by now, Cloverfield was shot entirely on prosumer HD cameras from the perspectives of the characters. It's a home movie, in other words, and rather amazingly the first film in nine years to take the seemingly obvious step of copying The Blair Witch Project. And just like that movie, the finished product is something of a mixed bag.

Like so many horror movies, disaster movies, and Ingmar Bergman films, Cloverfield follows the simple arc of "Act One - things are good; Act Two - things get bad; Act Three - things get worse" (though as I think about it, I do believe that Cloverfield has a four-act structure). The plot begins at a going away party for Rob Hawkins (Michael-Stahl David), bound for Japan. His brother Jason (Mike Vogel) is given the job of filming testimonials from all the guests, but he quickly tosses that duty to Rob's best friend Hud (T.J. Miller), who uses the opportunity to harass his longtime crush Marlena (Lizzy Caplan). After a row threatens to end the party, an explosion in downtown Manhattan ends it for real, and Hud, Rob, Marlena, Jason and his fiancée Lily (Jessica Lucas) try to find some way out of the city as a great big something causes all sorts of horrible devastation.

Now, although the filmmakers don't go so far as to launch an ad campaign suggesting that the actors were all killed by a ghost witch, within the film's diegesis, we're meant to take this very seriously. Starting at the first frame, the film itself argues for its realism (the opening scene, as it were, is a series of institutional title cards explaining that this video card was retrieved from the former Central Park). For a while, it even achieves this realism: the first moments of video show Rob and his friend Beth (Odette Yustman) the morning after a one-night hookup, behaving exactly like a tired young woman and her young male friend who is cute but kind of a dick. All the behavior on display at the party is perfectly recognisable, although the characters I recognised were generally the sorts of people I go out of my way to avoid, which tended to lessen the impact of their deaths. The camera, manned by a couple of fumbling guys with some booze in them, skips around believably, and the occasional cuts to the video underneath - Rob and Beth at Coney Island - feel real of themselves, and they even serve a significant meta-narrative purpose, establishing the fluidity and accidental artistry of amateur video that makes Cloverfield conceptually possible.

Once the big bad comes down, though, this all seems a little less believable and forced. It was easy to see why the young idiots in The Blair Witch Project held on to their cameras; they were film students, and if anyone would chase death down with a camera in hand, it's a film student. Cloverfield comes up with a plausible excuse for keeping the camera with the characters: Hud argues that it's going to be important that there be some ground-level video evidence of what's happening (given that we're watching his evidence, he seems to be correct). But that doesn't explain why the cameraman, frequently shown to be out of shape, would hold the camera to his eye as he runs, or jumps from building to building. When confronted with the choice between what would plausibly be found on camera and what the audience would like to see, the filmmakers consistently go for the latter.

Then, there are the moments of raw Idiot Movie characterisation. The most obvious is the event that permits the second half of the film to occur: three people all agree that a young woman is probably dead, that it would be suicide to look for her, and then they go looking without any further discussion. There are smaller moments scattered throughout

What annoyed me the most, however, was the continuing interjection of footage from the movie under the movie, Rob and Beth's Coney Island video. It ceases after a while to be arbitrary, but instead becomes more and more clever as it comments on the content of the A-plot. Yet it was the arbitrary nature of the footage that made it interesting in the first place! As it becomes more appropriate, it ceases to be about the random, messy nature of video and becomes just run-of-the-mill chorus.

The first of these complaints can be answered with an appeal to YouTube culture: young people are so accustomed to understanding the world through a camera lens that it becomes the only sensible way to process a great crisis (after all, how did most of us perceive the original 9/11?). Certainly the ad campaign suggests that such a reading might be deliberate, given its knowing manipulation of the internet and viral videos. J.J. Abrams knows better than just about anyone how to use new media as a narrative tool and a marketing technique, and it would make sense that he'd make a film about how his target audience thinks of everything in terms of video clips. But making this argument is meeting the film itself much more than halfway. Of course, using extra-narrative knowledge to resolve narratives is another Abrams trick, and one that pisses me off fiercely.

In other words, Cloverfield might be a clever new-media commentary, but it's an awfully circumspect one. Too much of what could make the movie great is outside of the movie. So why still give it a three-star review? Because this very same clumsy handling of meta-narrative makes the film incredibly interesting, and especially in January, interesting movies are always better than good ones.