10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) – Movie Review
10 Cloverfield Lane
Directed by: Dan Trachtenberg
Written by: Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken & Damien Chazelle
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman & John Gallagher Jr.
Music: Bear McCreary
Release Date: March 18th 2016
2008’s ‘Cloverfield‘, while a critical and commercial success at the time, seems to have fallen out of public discussion in recent years and is mainly known for its attention-grabbing marketing campaign that was orchestrated by a pre-‘Star Trek‘ and pre-‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ J.J. Abrams. Its viral marketing and teasing trailers may not have added up to a worthwhile film (in my opinion) but it has its fans. However, can such a unique marketing approach work a second time?
Well, apparently so because this spiritual successor ‘10 Cloverfield Lane‘ had its own attention-grabbing marketing campaign. Initially written as “The Cellar” by Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken, the attention-grabbing spec-script found its way under J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot division and was re-written to work in the same universe as the original ‘Cloverfield‘ in the vein of “The Twilight Zone” and its production was mostly kept a secret until January 2016; 2 months before the movie’s release date. This short-term mystery-box has worked wonders for getting fans excited but is this just another flashy marketing campaign like the original or do we have an actual good movie this time?
The movie opens with Michelle (Winstead) leaving her fiancé and driving away from New Orleans. However, before she can get very far she’s involved in a car accident and wakes up in an underground bunker built and maintained by Howard (Goodman) who believes that some form of apocalypse has happened and that it’s not safe to return to the surface. Also in this bunker is Emmett (Gallagher Jr.) who wholeheartedly believes Howard but Michelle has her doubts and attempts to escape the bunker to find out what’s going on and also avoid a mentally-unstable Howard.
It’s a simple set-up but rife with opportunities for misdirection as well as tension-filled intrigue but it’s also a set-up that is far removed from the original ‘Cloverfield‘. Despite it being considered a spiritual successor there’s no mention of the events from the original film, no returning characters, no hints or connections to the canon (Emmett mentions that Howard had worked on satellites and the internet seems to have leapt on this as confirmation of the two films co-existing but I personally consider it to be a massive reach). The entire structure and filming style is far removed from ‘Cloverfield‘ as well since instead of one-note, arc-less characters running around going nowhere in a found-footage format we instead have richly textured, interesting characters in a tightly shot and incredibly polished thriller-drama.
One reason the tension remains high is because we’re seeing everything from Michelle’s perspective. She is the anchor and the gateway in which the audience learns about this alternate scenario and with the exception of a couple of cutaway shots the audience and Michelle’s experiences are completely in-sync. Driving this mystery is whether or not Howard can be trusted and whether or not he’s telling the truth about why they’re in this bunker. Has the world really been destroyed up above? Have aliens invaded? Is there some sort of virus contaminating the air? We don’t know, but Howard certainly has compelling evidence and conviction on his side and Emmett who claims to have known him for a long time certainly seems to have his back. All the way through the film, little nuggets of information are sprinkled into the polished screenplay which removes doubt but also raises more questions in equal measure throughout.
But whether or not the world has gone to hell up above, it might be better up there then it is in the cellar of 10 Cloverfield Lane because Howard is clearly a disturbed individual. His heavy breathing, short temper and superiority complex due to his vindication of the world-ending events he believes to have happened which he claims to have predicated have led to an unstable mind. A big part of why this character is so effective is with John Goodman’s portrayal and not just because he’s a big guy, but because of his booming voice and his facial and bodily ticks he manages to elevate ‘10 Cloverfield Lane‘ as a whole.
There’s been talk of giving John Goodman an Academy Award nomination due to his performance and while I doubt it’ll happen I think we need to find SOME way to give this guy an Oscar at some point.
So much attention has been lauded at John Goodman that I think some love needs to be given to John Gallagher Jr. who may not have a particularly showy role or as complicated a character but he still imbues a lot of warmth to the film by acting as a small glimmer of humanity in the cellar. Michelle, while a good character and our hero can’t really act as the humanity AND the audience cipher in a set-up this thin so a 3rd party is absolutely essential in preventing the movie from just becoming another mystery with our hero fighting a mentally deranged nut-job (if he IS actually a nut-job). He’s a simple, nice guy who may have a connection to Howard but he’s not so dense and single-minded that he’ll completely ignore any reasonable concerns and questions from Michelle. It’s a hard line to walk, but John Gallagher Jr. does it well and while he may be the least important character in terms of plot, ‘10 Cloverfield Lane‘ simply wouldn’t work without him. It’s a thankless role but hopefully this paragraph makes people re-think his role in the story and appreciate him a little bit more.
But let’s not forget Mary Elizabeth Winstead who is one of the best people in the industry at playing young, formidable female characters. As the audience cipher she may have the least amount of depth but ‘10 Cloverfield Lane‘ does a great job at humanising her and giving her a backstory and motivations behind her actions. The movie may have actually over-compensated at making her a strong character though because the moment she wakes up, handcuffed to a railing in the cellar, she’s immediately fighting back, creating make-shift weapons, setting fires and more. That means she doesn’t have much more room to grow, particularly with the films ending which seems to rely on the fact that she has grown to become a fighter…even though she already started off as a fighter. She still works a character in her own right, but in terms of the movie’s bigger picture and her arc the film does drop the ball slightly.
At 103 minutes, ‘10 Cloverfield Lane‘ moves at a brisk pace with enough character moments to add additional investment towards the characters. But when all is said and done, despite the great mystery at the heart of the story the characters aren’t especially deep or complex. Yet they come across much better then they would on the page because of the great performances. ‘10 Cloverfield Lane‘ is an actors showcase more than it is a character-study. Put 3 incredibly well cast actors together, give them a solid though not ground-breaking character and just watch the sparks fly. In the hands of lessor actors, ‘10 Cloverfield Lane‘ could have been boring but with Winstead, Goodman and Gallagher Jr. it’s riveting stuff.
And all of this is possible because ‘10 Cloverfield Lane‘ ditches the found-footage in exchange for a highly polished conventional filming approach that allows the camera to explore the intimate and highly detailed setting. Cinematographer Jeff Cutter gets a lot of mileage out of the bunker set and despite the cramped environment the camera never feels restrained. When the camera loses its restraints towards the end it does start to feel a bit more generic but the bunker-stuff is well done without being over-stylised. Bear McCreary’s score ranges from a bombastic full orchestra to a subliminal bass-line when appropriate and there’s a lot of confidence given to the movie’s score as the first few minutes are almost entirely musically driven and it works wonders.
But…we must talk about the ending. I will not spoil the ending of ‘10 Cloverfield Lane‘ but it’s safe to say that what is really going on and what happens at the end of the movie is far less interesting and far more generic then what’s been happening in the bunker. The mystery is great but the actual reveal of what is happening and how it does or does not relate to ‘Cloverfield‘ actually winds up being the least interesting part of the film. If this film is going to be remembered for anything it’ll be the great performances and production values, not how the film ends and I can say that with confidence. That’s not to say the ending doesn’t deliver, it just feels like the movie devolves out of obligation to its ‘Cloverfield‘ roots when the movie did such a great job being its own thing.
Which is even more interesting when you take into account its predecessor because if this movie could be considered a sequel to ‘Cloverfield‘ this might actually be the biggest increase in quality I’ve ever seen from one movie to its sequel. Now, to be fair, that’s mainly because ‘10 Cloverfield Lane‘ completely ditches the broken and flawed found-footage conventions in favour of a format that actually works to convey tension and character. But it would be all for naught if the mystery wasn’t interesting and the characters weren’t endearing and the performances weren’t compelling and thankfully director Dan Trachtenberg (in his feature-length debut no less) does a great job working the setting and engaging the audience. ‘10 Cloverfield Lane‘ may lead to an underwhelming ending but the journey is most definitely worth experiencing.
I give ‘10 Cloverfield Lane‘ 4 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 6th Oct 16