J.J. Abrams seems to have his hands in every proverbial cookie jar these days. Whether he’s producing a show for Hulu (such as “11.22.63”), rebooting “Star Trek” or directing box office busters like “The Force Awakens,” his name is everywhere in the entertainment world in just about every medium. And while he’s a marketing genius with a flair for the enigmatic, it was still a huge shock that he was able to keep “10 Cloverfield Lane” a secret from us for so long (the movie’s title and trailer were only revealed a mere two months before its release). It’s quite hard to wrap your mind around it in today’s omnipresent spoiler culture.
For some context, “Cloverfield” (2008) was a genuinely terrifying and game-changing monster movie. Its use of the found footage method of storytelling was used not as a cliche, but as a way of keeping the mystery and terror alive, not to mention giving some people serious motion sickness. Questions like “Where did the creature come from and, more importantly, what the hell is it?” are still being asked today. We’ll never know. That’s the simplistic beauty of it all – we saw the attack on New York City through the eyes of regular people like ourselves. Grappling with the unknown and the world’s uncontrollable forces evokes true fright from an audience.
Now, almost a decade later, Abrams is curiously trying to create a cinematic universe around the brand name of “Cloverfield,” an anthology of scary stories filled with twists and turns that would bring a tear to the eyes of Rod Serling and Stephen King. But “10 Cloverfield Lane” is more “Outer Limits” than it is “Twilight Zone.” Its intentions are good, but its payoff is lousy.
Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a pretty young thirty-something driving away from her impending nuptials to Ben (Bradley Cooper–only heard in cell phone calls). Where she’s driving, we can only guess – but that’s not the point. The opening is totally silent except for the ominous soundtrack of Bear McCreary as Michelle travels through Louisiana, only stopping for gas at a Kelvin station that advertises Slusho!, the mysterious drink company that started the mess in the first movie and has shown up in Abrams productions since then.
Michelle never makes it to her destination, however, as she’s run off the road and wakes up in a well-equipped bomb shelter built by Howard Stambler, an uber creepy dude with an affinity for Martian conspiracy theories and the hits of Tommy James and the Shondells. This is John Goodman’s greatest performance in a long time. He plays Howard as a truly unnerving, menacing, paranoid, bipolar wacko who will make you pasta one minute then dissolve you in industrial-grade acid the next depending on whether or not you’re grateful to him. Think of him as Ogilvy from “War of the Worlds” with more VHS cassettes on hand for the end of the world.
Howard refuses to let his bunker guests leave, claiming that the outside world is contaminated with fallout. Michelle and Emmett DeWitt (John Gallagher Jr.) are skeptical at first, but then trust his judgment – after foreboding tremors and an infected woman begging to be let in – but then become skeptical again when arising tidbits of information begin to hint that Howard is not all he professes to be. The message of man being just as monstrous as any supernatural entity out there is the most powerful theme the movie has to offer.
Most of the action takes place inside the underground bomb shelter where first-time director Dan Trachtenberg makes things as tense and claustrophobic as possible for the three characters. The way the scenes are shot makes the audience mistrust everything they see and hear. It’s the movie’s best and only strength. How do you wait out the apocalypse when you’re cooped up underground? Well, you make fluffer-nutter sandwiches, play an ironic (yet rousing) game of Life, crawl through uncomfortably tight air ducts and watch “Pretty in Pink” to kill the time. It’s a slow and controlled burn that you would think leads up to a big reveal.
You couldn’t be more wrong in your assumption. But hey, you know what they say about assuming. The film’s ending just doesn’t mesh with the scenes before it and feels like a cop-out for the viewer who invested an hour and a half of their time waiting for that mind-blowing WTF moment. It’s an anticlimactic climax that even a script co-written by Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) cannot save.
Like the first “Cloverfield,” we don’t get all the facts, but since “Lane” is shot and edited like any other movie, this withholding of information makes the film feel incomplete. It also could have benefited from an R-rating to up the scare/shock factor.
But overall, it’s just not as memorable or satisfying as its cousin. Those indelible images of the military fighting the monster on the streets of Manhattan and Marlena exploding from the parasite’s bite still give me goosebumps to this day.
I get that they’re meant to be related only in name and idea, but as a huge fan of the original, I see “10 Cloverfield Lane” as nothing more than an interesting marketing miracle and an experiment of the ‘less-is-more’ filmmaking so often seen in the horror films of the 1970s. Nevertheless, let’s see how the upcoming sequels turn out. For now, let’s file it under ‘C’ for Cloverfield.