I know I’ve paid to see plenty of bad movies in my time, but I recall being particularly reluctant to shell out for Cloverfield upon its release back in 2008. I was put off by the drawn-out marketing campaign that leaned so far on being mysterious that I just found it irritating. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate promos withholding plot details but I completely failed to comprehend what could have been gained by not even revealing the title of the movie. Then on top of that it was found-footage? Of course, I was ultimately persuaded, and it was quite fun, but not something I’ve ever revisited or given much thought to since. The point being, similarly to it’s found-footage forbearer The Blair Witch Project, I’d associate Cloverfield far more with its marketing campaign than the actual movie itself.
What a surprise then, that producer J.J. Abrams has adopted a completely different tactic for this – can we even call it a sequel? – I’ll get to that in a bit. Instead revealing that his already well-in production thriller known as Valencia was in fact a Cloverfield movie a mere six weeks before it’s US release.
In this sense, 10 Cloverfield Lane is an unusual movie in the way it relates to franchise filmmaking. There is basically zero crossover between this movie and Cloverfield – a person does not in any way need to have seen the original to comprehend this. In fact, there’s a case to be made that they could be better off without. It seems fairly clear that this was an original screenplay that was given the Cloverfield tag after the fact (by no means the first time that sort of thing would have happened). Well if that’s what it takes to get more mid-budget thrillers from first-time directors into the multiplexes then I’m all for it.
Enough about that though, what of the film itself? It begins following a young woman called Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who gets into a car accident while driving out of town. Later she awakens in some sort of underground survival bunker. There are two men in there with her; the intimidating Howard (John Goodman), who built the place, and Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr) a more jovial if still elusive type. Injured, and in an understandable state of confusion and fear, she’s informed that there’s been some sort of “attack”, and she can’t leave as the air outside is poisoned.
10 Cloverfield Lane is visually a completely different beast from Matt Reeves’s original, most obviously in that it’s entirely dropped the found-footage gimmick. New director Dan Trachtenberg (a former podcaster who first gained attention with a short film based on videogame Portal) immediately demonstrates a real skill for visual storytelling. The first sequence of the film is mostly wordless, yet succeeds in conveying our lead character and her situation before leading into one of the more striking opening title sequences of recent years.
Trachtenberg keeps up this knack for small yet important visual details throughout the film, with a number of subtle yet effective reveals in the bunker scenes. He’s working from a tight script by Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and most interestingly, Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle that takes a similarly efficient approach to its dialogue.
The film unfolds entirely from Michelle’s perspective, and our initial impressions of Goodman’s Howard equate to hers. Goodman’s brilliant in this role, bringing a combination of threatening and paternalistic mannerisms that are always put you uncomfortably on the edge, but leave his true nature uncertain for some while. His first line to Michelle, informing her that he’s “going to keep her alive” perfectly encapsulates how his motives could be sinister or altruistic.
The bunker sequences maintain a consistent level of claustrophobic tension, as Michelle (a career best turn from Winstead) attempts to deduce what exactly her situation is and what she will try and do about it. Along the way there are a few moments of levity (one montage in particular) as well as a couple of turns into horror territory, all of which Trachtenberg handles with aplomb.
It’s tough to talk about the film’s third act without spoilers so let’s just say that it performs something of a ‘genre-shift’. If you’re familiar with Cloverfield, you probably already know the gist of what that will be. It’s not jarring though, nor does it feel tacked on and Trachtenberg prove himself just as adept at bringing these types of larger-scale sequences to the screen as the smaller, earlier ones.
The only slight gripe, or rather source of confusion I had with this film, is exactly what its relationship to the universe of Cloverfield is – or is there even such a thing? There are no date stamps but technology used implies that this takes place in the present, rather than during the time of the original. However is this a world in which that film’s events took place or not? Some of Goodman’s dialogue suggests that perhaps it does, while the actions of Michelle do otherwise.
I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see if J.J. Abrams is actually setting up a Cloverfield universe or just using it as a banner title under which to launch new genre films. But on the strength of this I find myself pleasantly surprised to say that I’d welcome either. In particular, this is a very confident, genre-savvy debut from Trachtenberg, leaving me wondering what his mooted Y: The Last Man adaptation could have been, and also eager to see whatever he turns his hand to next.