Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Monstrously Good: A '10 Cloverfield Lane' Review

Warning
This review contains massive SPOILERS!

Let me start by saying that I'm a massive fan of Cloverfield... Oh, and that there are massive spoilers in this review.

Yes, the Matt Reeves-directed, JJ Abrams-produced found footage monster movie from eight years ago. One that critics gave good marks to, but audiences pretty much hated. Cloverfield was backed by a very interesting marketing campaign, one that certainly got then 15-year-old me hooked. It was a July night, I was ready to see Transformers, I heard nothing about this trailer, and I believe this was a day into the movie's release. Of course, 15-year-old me wanted action and action and action, so Transformers was satisfying for me back then. Haven't seen it since...

I remember roughly eight trailers being attached to that thing, the majority of them being ones I've already seen before 2007 blockbuster releases. I was a bit impatient, I was wondering when the movie would start, so I drifted when the teaser for Cloverfield cued up... But then the title wasn't shown, and I thought I had blinked or something. "What was that again?" After seeing Baysplosions, and remembering that very trailer, I looked it up. Back then we all saw it as "1-18-08" or "Untitled JJ Abrams Film". The teaser showed a party, then an attack, and we heard a roar, then the Statue of Liberty's head rolled down the street... "What the heck was that?" Many audiences asked...

Up until the film's first full trailer - which showed a faint glimpse of the creature's leg - appeared in November 2007, we had no idea what it was called or why there was a monster attack, who this Rob guy was... But we did have websites, like the film's official website, which had photos of things and it would be updated from time to time with new photos and other things. There were sites like Slusho, things that somehow related to the events of the movie. I was hooked! The Mystery Box was at play here, and I wanted in. I saw the film opening night and adored it.

While its found footage approach to a giant monster attack story that parallels the original Godzilla, and how it tied into post-9/11 fears, wasn't anything groundbreaking, it was fresh. Each action scene was a real adrenaline rush, and there was build-up, little hints at things here and there, then set-pieces that dive deeper into the attack as the main characters go into the middle of the city. It was a relentless, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride with a suitable ending. Most people I knew at the time hated the film and the ending, and that only shows why it had such awful legs at the box office, making a scant 2x its opening weekend gross. I guess people went in expecting a run-of-the-mill giant monster movie? It didn't matter, the microbudget movie was a very profitable success.

Of course, we all asked... Sequel?


JJ talked about it for years and years, but it seemed unlikely as he got wrapped up in Star Trek, and now Star Wars. JJ, in-between both Treks, directed a brilliant Spielberg homage with Super 8. Super 8, with its alien premise, made people immediately ask "Is it Cloverfield 2?!" JJ was quick to say no. I assumed a sequel wouldn't happen for a while... Lo and behold, it was secretly filmed last year while JJ's juggernaut Star Wars: The Force Awakens was rolling into theaters. When the teaser out-of-nowhere popped up before this year's Paramount-distributed Michael Bay movie, I was shocked and energetic.

10 Cloverfield Lane, as clarified by JJ as soon as the trailer dropped, is not a sequel to Cloverfield. Blood relative, the label he used to describe it, fits it perfectly. 10 Cloverfield Lane is Cloverfield's slow-burn brother, as it's much more intimate, much quieter, and is a boiling pot that bursts in its final ten-or-so minutes. Cloverfield by contrast is loud, chaotic, and has few moments of much-needed rest.

Directed so masterfully by first-timer Dan Trachtenberg (the guy is going places), we spend roughly an hour in a bunker... It's a tense and compelling hour, too. We only have three characters, all of which are developed with aplomb, thanks to Damien Chazelle's script (modified from a spec script by Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken). You know how they say less is more? This film completely works off of that template with flying colors. The intimacy of the picture makes the threat outside the underground setting bigger, and much more intimidating. Not knowing what's going on or if John Goodman's nutty doomsdayer Howard Stambler is telling the truth makes for real stakes. Produced for $15 million, you wouldn't get that out of a big action movie.

We learn more about Stambler, and at times we really get to enjoy this guy's presence on screen. We kind of see him in a sympathetic light in some ways, but then we start getting to the core, and we might think that he's been deceptive all along. It's very on and off, he's shady at first, then he seems logical and genuinely likable, then he seems insane. Most of the film's middle focuses on his character, and how lead Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead absolutely nails the role) and another "survivor" (Emmett Dewitt, played by an equally impressive John Gallagher, Jr.) discover the layers of him.

That alone keeps you on your toes, by that point everything's complemented by the premise. The suspense is genuinely great, there's probably no better word than tense to describe it. When you're in such a confined setting, the little set-pieces become more thrilling than you could imagine. Whenever the film has to talk, you're never bored. By the middle of the film, when we see who Stambler could really be, that's when things start to boil. The first act simmers, the second act boils, the third act... The third act explodes. Again, the tiny scale amplifies the thrills.


After Michelle and Dewitt work together to build means of getting out and surviving the toxic air, but Stambler finds out about a quarter of the plan and assumes Dewitt is actually a danger to his and Michelle's survival. Our final third is triggered by Stambler killing Dewitt. In another bigger scale action film, someone getting shot onscreen elicits a reaction, but not the kind Dewitt's death gets, not to mention it's so sudden. Such a death is jarring with everything that has been built up in the calm albeit unsettling environment. Kicking the lid off of everything, that's when the explosive third act begins.

Michelle's calculated escape from Stambler's bunker in her homemade hazmat suit (the film's frequent quirkiness is at play here, as the bulk of it is made from a cute ducky shower curtain) is absolutely nerve-wracking, and that's a lot coming from me. Every time it seems Michelle has outwitted Stambler, he keeps coming back, and things just get bonkers by the time she's in the ducts. Upon Michelle's escape and her discovery that the air outside isn't toxic, things get turned up to eleven when she sees an alien ship...

What follows is already, and unsurprisingly, divisive.

From here on out, 10 Cloverfield Lane turns into a loud and intense alien story, though Trachtenburg makes sure to keep the alien(s) creepy by not really showing them much. In a day and age where aliens have been done to death, this was an incredibly refreshing climax. When it ends, it's more of bang than a gradual fade-out, no different from its predecessor. You could perhaps argue that they should've gone with the original ending (when the script was simply known as The Cellar) where Michelle escapes and sees that a distant city has been wiped out, and just ditched the action altogether, but with everything that was going on beforehand and the possibility of an alien attack lingering throughout, it worked for me.

Ending with Michelle taking off when learning that there's still life out there and that there's help needed at a Houston hospital, you get a real Twilight Zone vibe. A complete 180 from Cloverfield's ending, where a pleasant scene on the Coney Island Ferris wheel is made unsettling considering everything it comes after. 10 Cloverfield Lane is more conventional in terms of how it's presented to us, but both endings have a real punch to them.

2008 me probably would've balked at the idea of a Cloverfield follow-up being about something else entirely, and not the giant monster attack on New York City. (Though I hope we can revisit that in some form down the line.) But it truly is a brilliant way to continue something... As others have noted, this movie series could be an anthology series, a breakway from the tradition mode of making sequels or spin-offs to movies. I love the idea of a bunch of weird or twisted tales that are all connected by just the name, as it's possible that these two films are not set in the same timeline. Others have also pointed out that the series could be a launchpad for promising, up-and-coming directors like Trachtenberg and (at the time) Matt Reeves.

As a standalone film, 10 Cloverfield Lane is just the right combination of things. The atmosphere is impeccable, the film has an identity that keeps it from being a run-of-the-mill thriller, such as its classic soundtrack (thanks to Stambler's jukebox) and more offbeat elements (again, the makeshift hazmat suit and other things), three very well-developed characters, and relentless suspense lurking in every corner. A fantastic showcase of what you can do with such a small setting and scope, and then some.

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