Note: Originally posted on The Optional Boss in March, 2016.
The spiritual successor to 2008’s small movie about a giant monster attack, 10 Cloverfield Lane sets out to create something of a unique movie franchise. Whereas other studios are concerned about creating one consistent, cohesive “cinematic universe,” Paramount and Bad Robot have instead opted to go with something more akin to the “Twilight Zone.” Rather than one continuous story, or every event occurring in the same world within the same timeline and rule set, the “Cloverfield” movies are meant to have a similar sense of science fiction and weirdness. It’s an interesting concept for a franchise, if indeed they do wind up crafting a reliable franchise (a little early to tell – two films in eight years hardly constitutes a “franchise”). However, connections between the two films are extremely limited to the point that it’s not even really worth talking about.
The one big similarity between the two is how they take a story that is global in scale, but shrink the movie in scope. Where Cloverfield was determined to show the better movie happening just off camera so they could instead focus on just four friends at the ground level, 10 Cloverfield Lane again takes an event global in scale, but instead focus the film on three people in a bunker. This time, though, the better movie isn’t constantly unfolding off screen. In fact, the events of the bunker are far more compelling than the events happening outside it could have been.
It opens up quickly, with a montage depicting Michelle panicking and deciding to flee the city. She’s clearly distraught as she drives through empty country back roads. It’s a neat little piece of misdirection for people expecting some big thing because of Cloverfield. She isn’t fleeing a monster though. Instead, she’s running from a personal problem. Again, smaller scope is the focus in a larger world. After she’s run off the road, she awakes to find herself in a bunker. It’s a frightening situation, made worse by the fact that she’s chained to the wall.
Eventually, she finds Howard, the owner of the bunker who has been caring for her in the few days that she has been unconscious. She also meets Emmett, who made it into the bunker by choice and effort. Through the two of them, Michelle learns that there was an attack of some kind that has rendered the outside world toxic and irradiated. Nothing can survive on the outside for at least a couple of years. The three survivors must find a way to deal with each other until such a time that they may leave.
Yet Michelle is suspicious. The entire film is built around this question of Howard’s honesty. Can she trust him? Is he lying? Is he just a crazy conspiracy theorist? These are the central questions driving the suspense and drama. As it progresses, more information comes to light and new questions are revealed. What exactly is Howard’s story? Who exactly was Megan? Producer J.J. Abrams is known for his love of the mystery box plot device. Sometimes it’s effective – as it mostly is here. Other times, it gets too convoluted for its own good and the mystery becomes so annoying that some viewers may stop caring (as I did watching “Lost”).
Because there are a whopping three characters, and it all takes place in a very confined space, the film lives and dies by its cast. Fortunately, they brought in John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. John Gallagher Jr. is good as the simple, wise-cracking country boy, but his performance isn’t exactly on the more memorable side by comparison of the others. This, of course, ultimately makes sense given that the central relationship of the film is between Howard (Goodman) and Michelle (Winstead). Emmett (Gallagher Jr.) is an important character and plays a significant role in Michelle’s completed character arc, but the entire film is from her perspective. Howard’s true motive for taking her in is the central plot of the film, really. Because these two actors straight up kill it, the film works.
In fact, for a film that takes place overwhelmingly in a three room bunker, it actually is paced pretty well. The opening montage feels like it drags a bit, but once Michelle awakens in the bunker, it flows pretty smoothly. These types of films can sometimes struggle with making good use of their run times, often stretching things out to reach an arbitrary time. Yet director Dan Trachtenberg makes the most of each minute. There are lulls in the film, of course. The weirdly gender-color coded sequence where Emmett and Michelle spill their big regrets is a little contrived and feels a tad dragged out, but even that never felt terrible. The performances were so gripping that one can forgive Trachtenberg for lingering on his great actors.
Pacing is largely built around the build up and release of suspense and tension. There’s an ebb and flow to Howard’s believability and Michelle’s capacity to trust him. While there isn’t much action throughout, these elements truly give the film its peaks and valleys that can keep viewers on the edge of their seats while letting them relax in the right moments. It’s no Mad Max: Fury Road, but what is? It plays out as a mystery, with new clues introduced at key moments. It makes it exciting, but some of it feels a tiny bit cheap. It’s hard to tell a good mystery in which the viewers are getting all the clues but don’t piece it together until the big reveal. This is one of those mysteries where the characters keep stumbling upon new clues that shed an entirely new light on the story, but neither the characters nor viewers are really piecing anything together. Instead, new clues literally fall out of the pages randomly when the movie needs more tension. It’s effective in doing that, but some might find it a bit too convenient. Doesn’t necessarily hurt the film at all, but at times it does feel a bit quick and easy.
Of course, it’s inevitably impossible to talk about 10 Cloverfield Lane without bringing up the final ten minutes. Some viewers may be disappointed to learn that there isn’t really a hard connection with the events of Cloverfield. On the one hand, they never said that it would have any. On the other hand, it’s hard to blame those viewers for expecting some link when they specifically changed the title in post-production for the sake of arbitrarily creating a “Twilight Zone” type of franchise. It’s a neat idea, but one that isn’t ultimately clear from the marketing. (It isn’t exactly fair to expect anyone interested in the preview to go online and just read a bunch of interviews with the director.)
I won’t spoil the specifics of the ending here, but I will say that I felt like the end clearly answered the questions I didn’t want answered, but didn’t answer any of the questions that I did hope to get some more insight in. I had hoped for something of a more ambiguous ending that doesn’t clearly spell out whether Howard was right or wrong, given that the entire movie is essentially built upon the premise that Michelle doesn’t know. So it felt like a bit of a missed opportunity to have this entire movie where the audience – like Michelle – spends the entire time wondering if Howard is right or not, and then the finale spells it out.
I’d also argue that the final ten minutes felt tonally out of place. It felt forced in there. The story goes that when they were initially working on the script, they noticed a number of themes and elements that connected to Cloverfield. That’s when they, with the aid of Abrams, decided to make the Cloverfield brand more of a thematic franchise than a canonical one (think Edgar Wright’s “Three Flavours Cornetto” trilogy and less Fox’s X-Men franchise). The end result is this finale that feels a bit arbitrarily forced in there to strengthen whatever connections they saw, but winds up feeling unnecessary, and almost hurts the rest of the movie. Personally, I wouldn’t have minded a bit of that, but done in a more ambiguous fashion so viewers would not know for sure. I wanted more of that It Follows ending where viewers leave the theater and debate what we thought was behind them at the end. Was it a normal kid? Was it the sex ghost, or whatever? That concept would have been the perfect way to end 10 Cloverfield Lane given the entire movie is structured around wondering who Howard is and whether or not he is lying.
At the end of the day, it was still leaps and bounds superior to its spiritual predecessor. Being more claustrophobic might mean some may feel it’s ok to skip it in the theaters, and that might actually be fine. However, it is worth seeing, if only for Goodman’s and Winstead’s performances. I’ve seen some articles use the film as a example of why the mystery box concept works. It doesn’t always, and the takeaway from the film should not be that more things need to work that way. Still, it’s hard to argue that it isn’t very effective here.
Reductive Rating: Pretty good!