Expectations are a weird thing, aren’t they? In a day-and-age where we feel entitled to know absolutely everything before we really know anything at all, it’s really hard these days for Hollywood to stay ahead of the game in any way, shape or form. And so, much like the first Cloverfield film eight years ago (?!), the announcement of 10 Cloverfield Lane was as much of a surprise as a major motion picture business can create these days. Diverting the attention of the public-at-large through the production codename Valencia, the unanticipated first trailer for what looked to be the much-desired, if largely-unexpected, sequel to the original monster hit (in more ways than one) came like a bombshell before Michael Bay’s 13 Hours this January, similar to the one Paramount also sprung for Cloverfield (back in the good old 1-18-08 days) before Bay’s first Transformers movie in summer 2007.
Like any production from J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot banner, it was another genius slice of marketing. Here comes this movie that literally had no buzz whatsoever, which is now among the most anticipated of the early new year. And we only have to wait another two-or-so months! It’s another testament to Abrams’ infamous mystery box. But if 10 Cloverfield Lane — the “blood relative” to the found footage film that shares its name, as producer Abrams has called it of late — proves anything, it’s that maybe the mystery box wasn’t shut tight enough. Even though the trailers almost gave away almost nothing, I couldn’t help but feel as though I knew exactly what I was getting with this one. My mind went in open, but I still had a pretty good idea of what giddiness I was getting into.
With his first feature film, director Dan Trachtenberg — whom many on the web may know best from his days co-hosting The Totally Rad Show — rattles us up with a taunt little jack-in-the-box of a movie, one that leaves up cringing, squirming and cavorting with delight in our seats waiting for the big, expected reveal to finally pop out. It’s a highly suspenseful thriller, not unlike the other film that shares 1/3rd of its title, but having lead us to believe the jack inside the box was going to appear one way, it’s hard not to get just a little disappointed when the doll that springs out the box is not quite the jester you were kinda hoping would appear. I guess I should explain a little more.
Don’t get me wrong: what you get here is well worth the time invested and spent. I doubt many will walk away thinking they were robbed a good movie. You get a wonderfully wrapped package, but what’s inside the gift box may not be the dollhouse you thought you put on your list. Enough with the toy metaphors, you say? Fair enough. I guess what I’m saying here is: there might be such a thing as promoting a movie too well. Because, sometimes, the clover you turn over may not have as many leafs as you thought.
So let’s get to the nitty-gritty, shall we? Alright first off, is 10 Cloverfield Lane a sequel to 2008’s Cloverfield? Well I’m not sure, really. After mulling it over for a bit, I think it’s safe to say the answer is: no. At least, that’s my answer. Abrams could prove me wrong. He’s done it before. Does it have similar themes and consistencies? Absolutely. Are the thrills and jump-scares effective, especially when surrounded by the booming intensity of IMAX speakers? Totally. Do they have some tie-ins with one another? They do, actually. I advise you to be on the lookout for the Slusho logo. That’s a key one I notice, even if it’s a little obvious. But of course, the characters are now completely different, the actors are recognizable, the setting is elsewhere, the camera is actually holstered by a tripod, related destruction doesn’t happen on-screen and, in fact, none of the events of the original film are mentioned, shown or addressed. Not even a little bit. I think this is as good a point as any to mention that, if you don’t want to know anything about this one, I would suggest not reading too much further. In short, it’s a good movie. But it has some problems.
Without getting into too many details, there are some monsters — just maybe not the ones you were initially expecting. This is at the heart of where I feel the promotional materials misdirected people, if even just a little bit here. I think it was a dirty trick on somebody’s part to include the Cloverfield monster’s semi-iconic roar in the promos. That’s a petty thing, I’m know. And it doesn’t relate to the actual movie at hand, I’m aware. But it’s deliberate and, quite frankly, kinda wrong choice. And a damn sneaky one too.
Nevertheless, it’s important to note, once again, that Trachtenberg shouldn’t be blamed. Far from it, I would say. Objectively, his debut is —at its absolute best — a shockingly confident tour-de-force, an impeccably well-crafted filmmaking grand entrance aided well by an equally smart, often self-aware screenplay and boosted by layered and deeply-felt performances from the three leads. It’s a supremely well-oiled machine of a bunker pulse-pumper, which makes the fact that I can’t say I completely loved it all-the-more frustrating. But that’s the case here, and I don’t want to lie to you fine folks. After all, you guys seem like nice enough people. I don’t want to stray you wrong.
Again, was I going in with too many preconceptions? Perhaps. But at its heart, I think 10 Cloverfield Lane is merely a very well-groomed B-movie — although one acting chiefly as a chamber drama piece, not unlike recent Best Picture nominee Room. But, you know, minus some of the whole childlike wonder found in the first half and all. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr. and especially John Goodman are all aces in their parts, committed to the intensity with full convictions and never blinking at the chance to travel down the dark, twisted, occasionally haunting road this tight-quartered picture goes down through Josh Campbell & Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle’s (Whiplash) warped little screenplay. It’s an absorbing, affectively unsettling little isolated mystery, and playing it in an enlarged format like IMAX actually adds to its engulfing sense of enclosure. You only think you know where it’s going to go, and don’t really know which way it’ll turn at any moment. But at the same time, you kinda, sorta do in many ways. And this gets to the heart of my biggest gripe.
As stressed before, expectations are everything, and I wish Abrams and his team — including executive producers Drew Goddard and Matt Reeves, the writer and director behind the initial Cloverfield, respectively — were just a little clearer about their intentions, and less murky with themselves about what they wanted to do here. Because I feel such wishy-washy attitudes is what keeps 10 Cloverfield Lane from being the great movie it should very well be. It’s among the few movies where having a monster pop out at the end actually makes things worse, and knowing these monsters are coming googat all hurts some of the morally ambiguity, and questions about whether or not there’s such a threat outside, that’s created inside the confined bottle where most of Trachtenberg’s film is hosted. As weird as I feel saying it, I kinda wish this wasn’t a Cloverfield movie. I wish it was just its own, self-contained little thing. It wouldn’t nearly have gotten the widespread attention it has now — which, admittedly, it does deserve, in many respects —but it would have been much more satisfying as a whole.
I spent way too much of this review focusing on what bothered me here, and I shouldn’t have. Because 10 Cloverfield Lane is, indeed, a good film all-around. The performances, as mentioned before, are absolutely excellent, including one A-list cameo I wouldn’t dare spoil. And I genuinely think Goodman’s chilling, versatile against-type role (you could say he’s not playing a very… good man, hehe) would be considered prime Oscar-material, if it wasn’t a genre film, not to mention one that came out in early March. Also, the sound design and the score constantly keep your ears glued for clues and your heart in your stomach, and it comes across so vividly through the louder-than-normal speakers available here that you’re always on edge.
And the attention-to-details on set is both impeccable and very considerate; I can’t wait to see where Trachtenberg’s career takes off after this debut. The use of silence and not throughout alone, namely in the wordless opening five minutes and one restless dinner session, proves he’s learned well from the filmmaking etiquettes of Alfred Hitchcock. And a nice weaving of comedy between beats of suspense (namely towards the middle and end) shows he knows the importance of balancing tones, and does so in a fluid manner. Plus, the tight editing proves there’s still a place in Hollywood for a fraught, well-clipped high-budget film. It’s nice to know not everything needs to be pushing the two-hour mark to be considered a good film. Good pacing is key to making a solid, worthwhile film.
And that, on the whole, sums 10 Cloverfield Lane up pretty well: solid and worthwhile. I don’t like that the promotional materials make you think you’re going one way when it’s ultimately just short of the ride there, but the trip down the rabbit hole isn’t unrewarding. This is an unnerving, tight-gripped film, and one that effectively peels away the details like an onion and knows a thing-or-two about holding the attention of its audience. In the future, though, I hope Abrams and the folks over at Bad Robot make it a little more straightforward with their brand.
10 Cloverfield Lane proves the Cloverfield name should be treated as various chapters in an ongoing, freestanding sci-fi anthology franchise, not unlike Tales from the Crypt, The Twilight Zone or, more appropriately, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It should stay the course of reintroduced itself once throughout each decade or so. Skewing fans to think it’s otherwise feels like a petty cash grab, in some respects. And I don’t think that was everyone’s intentions here. Much like Reeves’ original film, this new Cloverfield doesn’t completely live up to the hype, but it nevertheless captivates you all-the-same. As masters of promotion, however, I think it’s more appropriate for Bad Robot to wiggle the collar than to tug at it sharply. We’ll follow you either way at this point, Abrams. His company may know what they’re doing, but it perhaps should reconsider what mysteries are best left unhidden.