For the very first time in cinema history, there was a teaser trailer that didn’t bear the name of any particular movie. We had nothing to go on, save only for the dismembered head of Lady Liberty, and the release date of 01.18.08. Everything about the film was such a closely guarded secret that fanatics the world over were searching desperately for clues where none existed. It certainly didn’t help that numerous unrelated Alternate Reality Games (“Ethan Haas Was Right” was a particularly infamous example) sprang up, implying a connection with the enigmatic 01.18.08 when they were really just riding coattails. Tension was running so high that nobody knew what to believe — even the rare few statements from producer J.J. Abrams himself were often brushed off as misinformation.
Over time, we eventually learned that the film was named Cloverfield. It was a working title, named for a street near Abrams’ office in Santa Monica. The film had been produced under several working titles, and that just happened to be the one that stuck.
Then came the official ARG, as so many fake websites sprang up with the promise of dispensing clues as to what the film was really about. Fans all over the world scoured the internet, looking for clues and trading theories about Tagruato Corp., Slusho, seabed’s nectar, and all the rest.
And for all of that speculation, all of that hype, and all of the effort spent following so many breadcrumbs, what did we get? NOTHING!!!
The alternate reality campaign raised a ton of questions that the movie did nothing to answer, and the movie raised a ton of loose plot threads that the tie-in material did nothing to resolve. The human characters were all unremarkable paper dolls made specifically to be killed off, and the monster itself — easily the most elusive and anticipated secret of the whole film — has utterly failed to find any kind of iconic staying power.
(Side note: Hey, Mr. Abrams? The next time you want to create an iconic American monster to rival Godzilla or King Kong, maybe try giving the monster a name and letting us see the damned thing so that every time we see it or buy anything to do with it, nobody has to issue any spoiler warnings, you JACKASS!)
All these years later, Cloverfield is primarily known in pop culture for three things: 1. Sending countless moviegoers (myself included) to toilets and trash cans in fits of motion-sick nausea, 2. Acting as one of the earliest and most prominent exhibits for why the found footage horror genre just needs to fucking die already, and 3. It helped cement J.J. Abrams and his “mystery box” promotional method as so much masturbatory bullshit that only serves to harm the final product and waste everyone’s time with unanswered questions and unquestioned answers.
Cloverfield was a failed experiment. It was a mistake that had blown up in everyone’s face. And I thought we had all agreed to shove it off to the side and never try it again.
Which is probably a huge part of why 10 Cloverfield Lane snuck up on us the way it did.
Nearly a decade after the nuclear fallout that Bad Robot left behind, we were getting another film to bear the Cloverfield name. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman were in the cast, the Oscar-nominated Damien Chazelle co-wrote the screenplay (hot off his wildly successful Whiplash debut), Emmy-winning geek favorite Bear McCreary wrote the score, and this would be the directing debut of Dan Trachtenberg, who made a massively popular Portal fan film.
All this talent in one movie… and it was made entirely in secret. Nobody had any idea that this movie was coming until the first teaser trailer bowed, two months before the film came out. As with the previous film, we had no idea what the film was about or what the big threat would be like, but this time at least we had a title and only two months’ wait to find out.
Our story opens with Michelle, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. We know absolutely nothing about her at first, save only that she’s running out on her significant other (Ben, played by Bradley Cooper in a voice-over cameo). There are reports on the radio of power outages all along the eastern seaboard, and then Michelle is knocked unconscious under strange circumstances that I don’t dare spoil here.
Michelle wakes up in a state-of-the-art doomsday bunker, belonging to a man named Howard (John Goodman). Howard takes responsibility for saving Michelle’s life, claiming that some apocalyptic disaster has made the entire outside world so toxic that no one can ever enter or leave the bunker. Michelle is naturally skeptical at first, but the domicile’s other resident (Emmett, played by John Gallagher Jr.), claims to have witnessed the event firsthand.
Even after Michelle is given some very reliable evidence that something’s gone wrong on the outside, she also has just as much reason to believe that Howard isn’t on the level. We don’t have any reason to trust Emmett either. And hell, we don’t even know all that much about Michelle, either.
So here we have three characters we know nothing about, such that none of them can trust each other and we have no idea what any of them will do at any given time. And all three of them are stuck together in an enclosed space. All the ingredients are here for a great suspense thriller, and this movie absolutely delivers.
To start with, the sound design and score are crucial to developing the proper mood. And both are superbly on point. I loved the sound design from start to finish, and Bear McCreary shows an impossibly deft touch at orchestrating a sense of dread (for those who didn’t know, McCreary’s the same guy who gave us this and this). I can’t possibly overstate how crucial McCreary was in making this movie work so well.
Then we have the visuals. The camerawork and editing are stellar in how they show us what the characters are hiding and planning while also concealing whatever needs to be saved for a later surprise. I loved the set design — the common area is a particular highlight, with its curved walls to forcibly remind us that this is an underground prison, no matter how cozy and happy it was made to look. Kudos must also be given to a particular sequence that cuts between Michelle and Emmett during a conversation, made all the more striking by the color choices involved.
But of course the biggest factor here is the cast. Michelle is a role that demands incredible strength and intelligence hidden under an everywoman charm, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead has long since gotten that balance down to an art. As for John Gallagher Jr., he does a fine job of playing a young man with more heart than brains, though he’s capable of courage and quick thinking when the need arises. Also, I appreciate that the film didn’t push very hard in selling these two as a romantic item. After all, they’re the only two people of each other’s age in the whole bunker (maybe the whole world, for all they know), and the female lead in this case is freaking Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Everything we need to know can safely go unsaid.
As for John Goodman, he’s easily the MVP. Howard is a character who could either be a big teddy bear or an ogre, or switch from one to the other on a dime. And as Goodman has already proven too many times to count, that is totally his wheelhouse. In Goodman’s hands, Howard comes off as a mad genius control freak who genuinely wants to be loved. His pride makes him vulnerable, but it also makes him exceedingly dangerous when provoked. There’s always the question of what he’ll do to maintain control, to say nothing of what he’s already done.
It’s very telling that even though Howard talks a great deal about surviving, he never talks about the longer game plan. Why did he build this huge elaborate bunker? What does he plan to do when it’s safe to go back to the outside world? What is he living for? Hell, when you get right down to it, what is life really worth and why would we fight to keep on living after everything else is gone? These are the questions that the characters face, in many implicit ways. And if Howard has the answers, he sure as hell isn’t talking.
As much as I’d love to keep on praising this movie and all of the ways it succeeds at being smart and suspenseful, I’m afraid of spoiling any more than I already have. So instead, I think I’ll bitch about the Cloverfield connection.
Specifically, there isn’t any. This movie doesn’t have a single damned thing to do with the previous film. Quoth the director in a Reddit AMA:
So, 10 Clover Lane and Cloverfield are two different stories. They’re on different timelines. But, I think the exciting thing is that now Cloverfield is becoming a universe, and there are some connections. And hopefully, there will continue to be more connections.
So these two movies are two completely separate stories on two completely different timelines… and yet they’re part of the same universe. BULL. FUCKING. SHIT.
This movie was only given the Cloverfield name for brand recognition. That’s it. They slapped the name “Cloverfield” onto this movie just to get people hoping that maybe, after eight goddamn years, we’d finally get some answers as to what Cloverfield and its tie-in material were all about. And instead, the filmmakers took this opportunity to release another ARG and another movie, stringing us along in the hopes that we’d find answers for this movie and the previous one, when all they finally gave us was jack shit.
What really sucks about all of this is that 10 Cloverfield Lane didn’t need all this “mystery box” wild goose chase masturbatory fecal matter. It’s a perfectly good movie that’s superbly acted, tightly scripted, and wonderfully crafted. It’s a fantastic suspense thriller with a neat sci-fi twist. The film is perfectly good on its own merit, and tying it up in this absurd, labyrinthine, contradictory, completely useless shell game of a franchise is completely unfair.
Folks, please let this franchise just fucking die already. Forget the ARG crap, and don’t listen to the filmmakers no matter how much they promise that everything will all tie together. We’re never going to get any answers because there were never any answers to begin with. They’ve been stringing us along like saps and we’ve been stupid enough to play along. I’m seriously begging anyone out there who’s listening: Don’t give this movie a sequel, and please don’t treat Cloverfield as its prequel.
This movie works perfectly well — perhaps even better — on its own merit. Please just let us enjoy this awesome movie, and leave it alone.