10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Monsters come in many forms.
In an era of over-saturated movie marketing 10 Cloverfield Lane has got to be one of the most enigmatic Hollywood pictures of late. Sure, the J.J. Abrams directed Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) kept its plot details hidden, safely concealed under lock and key, but the Abrams produced 10 Cloverfield Lane has gone that one step further by dishing out very little pre-release material altogether. Unlike The Force Awakens, which was being advertised way before its December opening, many didn’t even know that 10 Cloverfield Lane existed prior to January 14th, when its first trailer dropped, its connection to the equally secret 2008 hand-held monster movie Cloverfield unclear — bar the fact that both films had the ‘C-word’ in their title. While everyone has been tight-lipped about the new flick’s story, Abrams has gone on record to describe the picture as a ‘blood relative’ to the Matt Reeves directed Cloverfield; just how loose of a blood relative, well we’re about to find out.
Perhaps the burning question surrounding 10 Cloverfield Lane’s entire production has been its connection to the 2008 film. Without spoiling anything (I’m not planning on giving important plot points away) I can confirm that 10 Cloverfield Lane does take place in the same fictional universe as its found-footage precursor (but come on people, do we really want a Cloververse?), however, its entire connection is rather vague, the only real link being that of the Tagruato Corporation (the organization that played a role in the Cloverfield monster’s discovery) which was probably inserted at the last minute. In any case, this is not Cloverfield part 2, far from it to be precise. To go that one step further, I’d pretty much call this one a stand-alone effort with the cheeky guys from Bad Robot productions slipping ‘Cloverfield’ into the title for branding reasons — and to potentially boost box-office revenue. While cheated fanboys might write this semi-sequel off as a simple cash grab, I’d go so far as to say that this ‘spiritual ancestor’ is smarter, tighter and possibly better than its predecessor. Regardless of its DNA, this is what I’d call one heck of a follow-up.
The picture opens with a Hitchcockian type montage of a distressed Louisiana woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who packs her bags and drives out of town to flee a bad relationship. Along the way she receives a phone call from her angry beau Ben (yep, that’s Bradley Cooper’s voice on the phone), the frenzied Michelle eventually losing control of her vehicle and skidding off the road. After narrowly avoiding death, Michelle awakens in the care of a grizzled man named Howard (John Goodman), a paranoid survivalist who’s built a well-furnished bunker under his farmhouse (complete with running water and electricity), which is located 40 miles from Lake Charles in Louisiana. Sharing the breezeblock walls with shelter buddy Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), Howard informs Michelle that he’d ‘rescued’ her from a catastrophic attack, one that had left the surrounding area uninhabitable. Sealed off from the outside world, thanks to an airtight door and no cell phone reception, Michelle is forced to cope with her new surroundings as the trio attempt to wait out the ‘apparent’ apocalypse. But as Howard begins to show alarming possessive tendencies towards Michelle, the horrors from above start to seem less frightening. Although Emmett vouches for the hothead Howard and his crazy story, claiming to have witnessed the Southern Seaboard assaulted first hand, Michelle is still far from convinced, her suspicions leading her to concoct an escape plan in order to see the outside world for herself, regardless of the dangers that may or may not lurk on the surface.
Based on an ultra-low budget spec script penned by Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken (the guys who also wrote the feature script along with Whiplash (2014) writer-director Damien Chazelle) and shot under the guise of Valencia and The Cellar, 10 Cloverfield Lane works best as a razor sharp mystery/thriller — essentially, the less one knows, the better. What’s outside the shelter? Is it a gas? Is it nuclear? Is it an alien? Or is it nothing at all? Reducing the ‘puke-factor’ of the shaky cam aesthetic used in 2008’s monster mash, this second ‘Cloverfield’ entry has been shot the traditional old-fashioned way, with first-time feature director Dan Trachtenberg piling on the genre troops whilst putting more of a focus on mood, stillness and a deep-rooted story opposed to a whole lot of running and screaming — he also finds precisely the right moment to drop a fun PG-13 f-bomb. Throwing in a number of nostalgic gags such as a VHS tape of a fictional movie titled Cannibal Airlines, 10 Cloverfield Lane is peppered with small details that enrich its three-location environment. It’s quite impressive really, how Trachtenberg makes a lot out of a little, seeing as the majority of the action takes place in a few rooms, an air duct and a small number of open spaces. Cinematographer Jeff Cutter, Orphan (2009), navigates said areas with ease, crafting moments of relentless claustrophobic tension and doomsday hysteria, these cramped locations never feeling dull or repetitive while the score by Bear McCreary, The Boy (2016), keeps the pressure rising. What’s more, regardless of the revelations that allude to a bona fide cataclysmic attack up above, Trachtenberg never lets viewers forget that Howard might in fact be a deranged lunatic, one who just so happens to have built a shelter in order to satisfy his own sinister agenda.
10 Cloverfield Lane is intensified further thanks to three terrific multilayered performances. John Goodman, Argo (2012), delivers a richly fleshed-out turn as the complicated Howard Stambler, a resourceful nut who walks a fine line between savior and psycho, Goodman effortlessly switching between menacing to apathetic (this hulking host is even scary when playing charades), sometimes dropping his own guard to reveal a more reasonable, even likable persona beneath his rough exterior — a subplot revolving around someone who Howard calls Megan is both heart-warming and heart-stopping. Burgeoning scream queen Mary Elizabeth Winstead, The Thing (2011), has to be one of the most underrated leading ladies around, the striking 31-year-old emphasizing Michelle’s intellect, aptitude and resourcefulness (she’s often got one eye on the exit and the other on the keys swinging from Howard’s hip), Winstead fashioning a character that’s more charismatic than any of the cardboard cut-outs that occupied the original first-person feature. Last but not least John Gallagher Jr., Short Term 12 (2013), does a lot with the eager-to-please Emmett, an amiable guy who’s voluntarily allied himself with the intimidating Howard, Gallagher providing the picture with it’s biggest laughs.
Following the paranoia fallout, this slow-burning chamber piece finishes with an excellent big reveal; a crackers third act payoff that someone like M. Night Shyamalan, Signs (2002), wishes he could muster, Trachtenberg plopping viewers headfirst into a freaky frenzy of inspired visuals that’s hard to define. While some could argue that this first-rate genre film plays out like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone (1959), it’s a darn great entertainer, one with twists and turns galore, proving once again that the ‘mystery box’ approach to filmmaking can still work wonders if handled properly. With assured direction by Trachtenberg, a top-notch cast (including an ass-kicking Winstead) and a snap-tight script, 10 Cloverfield Lane deserves to be a monster sized hit for all those involved.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
10 Cloverfield Lane is released through Paramount Pictures Australia