Review: “10 Cloverfield Lane”

Review: “10 Cloverfield Lane” March 11, 2016

cloverfield land

There’s very little that “10 Cloverfield Lane” has in common with “Cloverfield” on a narrative or aesthetic level. Matt Reeves’ 2008 found footage movie followed a group of twenty-something New Yorkers in the wake of a monster attack. The new film, which producer J.J. Abrams has called a “blood relative,” is a more classically filmed thriller, more interested in creating claustrophobic tension than showcasing large-scale destruction.

Yet there is a thematic similarity to the films, which both use of-the-moment fears to drive their high concepts. “Cloverfield” was a “Godzilla” movie filtered through the lens of 9/11 anxiety. “10 Cloverfield Lane” is more psychological horror than monster mash, told through a prism of contemporary fears about impending apocalypse and fueled by a dose of female empowerment.

The film opens with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) fleeing a rough relationship when she’s involved in a violent auto accident. She blacks out, only to awaken on a bed with an IV in her arm and her leg chained to a wall. The man who saved her, Howard (John Goodman), has imprisoned her in a bunker 40 feet below his farmhouse. Howard tells Michelle that there’s been an attack that has left the air outside poisoned. She’ll have to stay in the bunker with Howard and neighbor Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) until the air is safe again, which could take years. Howard is a former satellite technician who’s been preparing for this eventuality for a long time. The bunker is stocked with food, games, movies and more. He’s prepared to stay years; sometimes, he seems eager to. That’s pretty much all you should know. 

If “10 Cloverfield Lane” is a sequel — and that’s highly debatable — it’s a rather odd one. It gets rid of the most identifiable elements of the first film, namely the found footage conceit and the giant monster. More than that, it shrinks the scale. This isn’t a citywide chase; it’s a tense, slow burn of a thriller centered on three characters in one location. While I’m sure some will parse the story to link it to its predecessor (and some already have), the best way to look at it is as a spiritual sister, dealing with similar themes of paranoia and modern fears but with a narrative that is largely, if not completely, disconnected from the 2008 movie. Taken on those terms, and treated as its own movie, “10 Cloverfield Lane” is a tense and often very effective little thriller with some fun surprises in store.

Goodman, an actor who can balance likability and intimidation better than almost anyone, is fantastic as Howard, a paranoid conspiracy theorist who’s spent years building this shelter, sure that the world is going to eventually go to hell around him. There’s always something unnerving about Doomsday preppers; they seem too eager for the end too arrive, and there’s often a self-righteous smugness to them (one of the games Howard has in the bunker is Bible Pictionary). Goodman captures that off-kilter sense of paranoia, along with a temper that can fly off the rails at a moment’s notice. But he balances it with a paternal, folksy charm that makes him kind of endearing even when his social skills are off. The script largely keeps us in the dark about Howard’s true motives — until the final 30 minutes, that is, which could have used another pass at the script stage to clean up reveal that’s a tad too much — but there’s a weird balance of fatherly warmth and something wrong just beneath the surface. The question becomes less “what if the Doomsday preppers are right” and more “what if they’re right, and it’s still safer to be out in the chaos than trapped below with them?”

Winstead makes a strong foil for Goodman. She’s an actress who is too smart to play the damsel-in-distress role well, and I appreciate that Michelle isn’t passive. From the moment she wakes up in the cell, she’s looking for a way out, and she’s shown to be quite resourceful. Winstead’s fierceness and independence are a refreshing change of pace from the normal gender roles in these movies. In fact, John Gallagher Jr.’s Emmett, who’s a fun addition to the film, is the more passive character. It’s Michelle who spurs him on in their attempts to figure out more and possibly find a way out into the atmosphere. After “Cloverfield” found its hero on a quest to rescue his one-night stand, it’s refreshing to see this film put a heroine front and center in a film with a real subtext of empowerment.

Working from a tight script by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle, director Dan Trachtenberg delivers an impressive debut. The film is a clever collection of mysteries, reveals and claustrophobic action, and Trachtenberg is skilled at building suspense, both through tense character interactions and fraught set pieces. He captures the geography of the bunker, making us familiar with the nooks and crannies that the characters will need to navigate as their situation grows more perilous. It takes a skilled hand to navigate the film’s tonal shifts, alternating from humor to suspense to out-and-out horror in the space of minutes, and Trachtenberg plays the audience like a fiddle. Even the most capable directors could bungle the film’s insane third act, but he makes a smooth shift and ably takes the film into its bizarre, sometimes terrifying final moments. Reeves famously went on from “Cloverfield” to become one of the best genre directors working, helming “Let Me In” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” If this movie’s any indication, Trachtenberg could have a similar career down the road.

While I generally think it’s misguided to discuss the film’s marketing in a review, I do feel “10 Cloverfield Lane’s” unique attempts to anchor it to a franchise have an impact on the overall enjoyment of the movie, and so I feel it’s worth talking about. There will be some vague spoilers to follow. If you want to check out now, just know that I think “10 Cloverfield Lane” is a strong B-movie that will surprise and scare audiences. 

Now, about that marketing….

As has been somewhat widely reported, “10 Cloverfield Lane” didn’t begin life with any association to the 2008 movie. Throughout its production, it was basically viewed as a small psychological thriller, and I’m not even sure how much of its third act (which has no overt ties to “Cloverfield”) was changed once Bad Robot decided to link it to the previous film. Possibly none; the film stands alone perfectly fine. It was previously known as “Valencia” and “The Cellar.”

My guess is that Abrams and the other producers looked at the film and liked what they saw, but feared it might be too small-scale to make much of an impression at the box office. They noted that (again, spoiler) its third act takes a twist and thought they could link the films together to increase visibility and get an audience. And I’m sure that might happen, and that’s not a bad thing; this is a movie that I’d be glad to see become a hit.

But here’s the thing: linking it to “Cloverfield” sets unreasonable expectations. First, it ties the film into a large franchise universe when it best exists as a small thriller that’s, honestly, best enjoyed with no knowledge of it. This is the type of movie that should have built by word of mouth, a small movie that surprises with a crazy final act. Instead, it’s now tied into a franchise overseen by the director of the most financially successful film of all time, and I can’t help but think some will be upset that it’s such a small story. Also, the “Cloverfield” moniker automatically puts us in mind of big, science fiction happenings; the events of the film’s climax work best as an out-of-nowhere surprise. With the “Cloverfield” associations, we’re already looking for it to happen.

But in the end, films aren’t judged by marketing or expectation, but by how well they deliver on their premise. “10 Cloverfield Lane” isn’t revolutionary, and its psychological horror is a bit too on-the-nose and ham-fisted to be compared to Hitchcock (even if there’s a thread that could have been worked that way). But as a suspenseful, gripping and entertaining B movie? I could think of a far worse films to hold me captive. 



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