There are Monsters in 10 Cloverfield Lane, Just Not the Ones You’re Expecting
I’m gonna get it out of the way and just say it. I’m the guy who liked Cloverfield. To this day, Cloverfield resides prominently in my list of top ten favorite movies and I’ve taken my lumps for that. Everything about that movie from the shift of focus from the monster to the people to the viral marketing campaign worked for me. But we’ll talk about that in a different article. Now, it’s 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s time in the spotlight. If you’re expecting a sequel — or even some tiny notion of connectivity between 10 Cloverfield Lane and its namesake — then you’re in for disappointment. If you’re unlike me, though, and closer resemble everyone else who saw Cloverfield, then that may work in your favor.
Getting right down to it: the movie dives into the action almost right away. Shortly after leaving her home, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up chained to a wall in an underground fallout bunker built by Howard (John Goodman). Once she comes to grips with her situation, she meets Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr.), who broke his arm fighting his way into the shelter. To Michelle’s disbelief, both Howard and Emmet are under the impression that a massive attack has over taken the country and their air has been poisoned. On his way to the shelter, Howard allegedly rescued Michelle from a severe wreckage and carried her to the safety of his shelter. Logically, the three decide to live in the bunker with one another rather than investigate the situation above ground.
Like any three strangers stuck together in a cramped space for any period of time, it begins without any problems. They all seemingly get along and there’s plenty to keep them busy. Until the evidence starts to pour through that Howard, much like the supposed attack above ground, isn’t all that he seems. 10 Cloverfield Lane is claustrophobic and tense. The creep factor is through the roof and Goodman plays his role of the obsessive and controlling Howard with all the ominous ambiguity that is necessary in this role. As the psychological temperature rises in the shelter, the mood intensifies to a maddening quake and a decent movie turns into a good movie. And then the third act happens.
I can’t dive too deeply into the plot without delivering some experience-breaking spoilers (and trust me, this movie will be the most enjoyed if you walk in with fewer details), but I think it’s accurate to say that some of the curve balls hit their marks in the catcher’s glove. Some of them, though, are knocked out of the park, pushing your hypothetical team closer to certain failure. I can’t reasonably say that this is a bad movie, because two thirds of it are spectacular. Two thirds of it had me on the edge of my seat, nervously tapping my feet on the mylar flooring tiles, much to the dismay of the behemoth of a man sitting beside me. The last third of the movie, though, had me rolling my eyes and crossing my arms with an intensity my high school self would be proud of. The final act doesn’t so much invalidate the rest of the movie. In fact, I understand entirely what screenwriters Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, and Damian Chazelle were attempting to do: create a juxtaposition of the situation outside versus the situation inside and make you honestly wonder which is better.
Director Dan Trachtenberg, along with J.J. Abrams and his crew at Bad Robot, really had to do some stretching and stealing to market this movie as a sequel to Cloverfield. Let’s be clear here and now that it definitely is not, and by the time the credits roll, all of the little suggestions and misdirects that point in that direction are downright infuriating. Oops, he’s using the term “blood relative” now. I have a tough time swallowing that pill, too. Cloverfield was a daring experiment to shift the focus of a monster movie away from the monster and put you in the passenger seat of what such an experience may be like in reality. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a lot less personal, a lot slower, and a lot less interesting. While the ride is fun, there ultimately isn’t a lot here you haven’t seen before, and no level of mystery and misdirection is going the change that.
The truth is that this film wasn’t meant to be a Cloverfield sequel at all, and every indication that it might be seems like it was added in at post. In reality, 10 Cloverfield Lane was originally born as The Celler, a script penned originally by Josh Campbell and designed to be a low-budget thriller. That is, until Paramount got its filthy hands on it and dropped it in J.J. Abrams’ lap so it could be another half-assed afterthought he brushes off while jumping between major studio sci-fi franchises. And it definitely shows. His fingerprints aren’t anywhere near this movie. None of the excitement and curiosity and thick, compelling imagery that usually pack his films, such as his work on Super 8, the true spiritual successor to Cloverfield, are present here. Trachtenberg tries his hardest to pump out a worthwhile feature debut, but it looks and feels like his support staff left him stranded at the studio and he had to put the damn thing together himself.
But that’s mean, and it isn’t fair. Not everyone phoned in their parts. Considering there are really only three people present in this movie, each of the actors really pulled it off. John Goodman as Howard is equal parts sympathetic in his apparent lunacy and loneliness and terrifying in his intensity and menacing demeanor. If he hadn’t already lived out so much of his career, filling it with fantastic performance after fantastic performance (his scenes in that turd Coyote Ugly even made that film somewhat bearable), then 10 Cloverfield Lane may have been a defining moment in his filmography. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and her massive alien-sized eyeballs does very well not to play her part as a typical damsel in distress. Michelle is willing to do the dirty work and has the guts to do what needs doing. But highlight of the evening is definitely John Gallagher, Jr. as Emmet, and it’s not just because I loved him in Short Term 12. Gallagher’s Emmet is given the emotional centerpiece of the narrative, building up an astounding thorough character backstory in a quarter of the time Winstead and Goodman have for their own bits, and he absolutely pushes through it like a pro, adding another painful what-if to the already complex narrative. By the time his moment in the film’s spotlight is over, my heart was weeping for him more than anything else in the film.
All of that aside, though, I just can’t help but feel like Josh Campbell’s original script The Cellar would have made for a better movie. In fact, if the projector had just exploded, destroying the print and producing toxic flames that forced the audience out of the auditorium after the conclusion of the second act, I would have still given it five stars. Instead, though, we got a decent movie with a disgusting, dangling gangrene-addled extra limb hanging off the side of it. It seems, in retrospect, that all of the Cloverfield teasing was just another massive smokescreen erected by Abrams, who is notorious for loving his secrets and going to ridiculous lengths to keep them concealed. A lot like the viral marketing campaign and fake websites used to market the original Cloverfield, the film’s name and all of these numerous references serve more to mislead and confuse us than they do to actually get us excited.