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Things really are bad everywhere

by Thom Yee

10-cloverfield-lane-one

10 Cloverfield Lane images courtesy of Paramount Pictures

It’s a strange feeling watching the sequel to a movie you’ve never seen and probably never will see.

The original Cloverfield was a movie that I was extremely excited about, mostly because of its great marketing campaign. Remember, this was arguably the point in Internet history just before it would become such a significant part of our daily lives, only months before the iPhone would be connected to high-speed mobile networks, but there were still hints all over the Internet of what Cloverfield was, with cryptic websites about the odd novelties and [evil?] corporations in and around the movie, and even social media pages of people who lived inside of the Cloverfield universe. It was a movie you could pick apart and explore at an extreme level well before it ever came out, but even more than that, it just looked really good, with massive scenes of widescreen destruction, giant monsters, and people exploding, and maybe best of all, despite all of these things, you still didn’t really know what was going on.  Cloverfield went on to make a modest $80 million at the North American Box Office in 2008, just behind a movie called Jumper (Remember that movie? Remember when Hayden Christensen still thought he could be an actor?), and though it wasn’t a huge success, it did well enough in its own right to stay somewhere in the broader entertainment consciousness as a movie that was probably at least a little better than most gave it credit for at the time.

So a decent movie then. But I never saw it.  And I’m certain I never will. Because of the shaky cam.

While I’ll acknowledge that an intentionally unsteady point of view has validity as a filming style and that it’s reductive to throw all instances of shaky cam (shaky, hand-held, free) into the same box, when I’m forced to look away from the screen while watching a movie about economic housing models (The Big Short), when I can’t quite place why a movie is making me feel physically ill (Hancock), and when I have to stay away from a movie after it becomes famous for making people sick (Cloverfield) that’s a problem. I don’t think you came here to listen to me go on (and on) about shaky cam, it’s just that there’s no way to talk about Cloverfield without talking about it.

Luckily, you won’t have to worry about shaky cam in 10 Cloverfield Lane. Even more luckily, you also don’t have to have seen the original Cloverfield at all.

What’s it about?

After waking from a car crash, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds herself patched up and treated for her wounds but also chained to a wall in a locked concrete room with no indication of what’s happening outside. She’s soon approached by Howard (John Goodman) who takes credit for saving her life but also won’t let her leave. Later meeting Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr.), who claims to have voluntarily joined Howard in this underground bunker after a catastrophic attack, Michelle, despite evidence to support their story, isn’t sure whether she should believe the two men or if she should escape.

For most of us, 10 Cloverfield Lane came out of nowhere. Well, for most of you, most movies probably seem to come out of nowhere, but even for those of us who pay attention to these things, the first time we heard about 10 Cloverfield Lane was only two months before its opening, back in January when the first trailer (see above) dropped. Considering that movie nerds like me usually hear about these things well in advance, months and even years in advance, many with a multitude of teasers and trailers released over the course of the year before opening (i.e., Star Wars: The Force Awakens), it was a surprise to see a movie with such nerd hooks take us all by surprise.

And without a doubt, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a nerd movie. Accompanied with a series of viral marketing initiatives built on the foundations of the original Cloverfield, notably the Tagruato, T.I.D.O. Wave, and Slusho websites from the original, Swamp Pop, FunAndPrettyThings.com, and even items found by real people like survival gear dug up in a field or voicemails left by main characters in the movie. It’s all enough to build a backstory for our characters well before seeing the movie, and though none of these things are essential to enjoying the movie, they add depth and a level of fan interaction that’s rare and memorable.

Is it any good?

It’s really good. It’s provocative, scary, and riveting. From the outset, 10 Cloverfield Lane excels in not only building tension, but then diffusing that tension before pivoting, repositioning, and then amplifying itself to another level. Its tension fills the air like the radiation we’re led to believe is poisoning the landscape outside the bunker, and there are several times you won’t want to look at the screen for fear of the consequences of what these people are doing.

The premise alone is enough to tell you that this is a movie about captivity, but there are times when it doesn’t feel like that at all. Everything moves forward in a very natural way and, though there is a protagonist and an antagonist, sometimes you’ll root for the protagonist and fear the antagonist, sometimes you’ll do the opposite as you question which is which, and sometimes there is no protagonist or antagonist or any real call for there to be one (of either) at all.

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Yeah.  Yeah, I like the way you sit there, girl.

As the savior/captor in our story, John Goodman’s Howard obviously makes a very bad first impression, leaning much more toward the captor side of the equation. Initially he does little to make Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle believe in their stated situation — that there’s been an unknown attack, most of the outside world is dead, and the remaining are dying from the residual radioactive fallout — and he does almost nothing to gain her trust other than insisting that he saved her life. He’s openly hostile in a way that suggests classic male dominance moreso than outright villainy, but you come to genuinely trust him when he tells Michelle about his former family, and he even entrusts Michelle with a needle and thread to stitch the wound she gave him when she first tried to escape. He’s a man clearly on his own survivalist track, which he would have to be to build such an elaborate doomsday bunker, but he’s not necessarily a bad guy.

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“Come out to the doomsday bunker, we’ll get together, have a few laughs.”

For me, that first escape attempt is actually probably the scariest scene of the whole movie because it gives a face to the devastation of the outside and gives a very real, very specific reason to not want to leave the bunker. But then there are questions all around about what’s really going on inside. Was it Howard himself that ran Michelle off the road? How could Howard’s stories about the attack be real? Who is it really in his family photographs? In fact, by the end of the movie, the most compelling evidence that Howard had a family at all is the voicemail messages from the viral marketing more than anything in the movie.

The thing that makes 10 Cloverfield Lane really work is that everything you need is there, properly developed, and ready for your inspection should you so choose to inspect. Most of the details are covered, whether it’s a proper sense of time’s passage by the way the wound on Howard’s forehead heals or Emmett’s innocent confirmations of what’s outside and why he chose to be inside, the scenario we’re presented with feels real and every problem Michelle encounters is answered and solved from something that was presented before. Despite the character’s apparent deficiencies (when the movie opens she appears to be running away from her fiancé after a fight), she’s a natural problem solver, able to overcome all of the obstacles put in front of her through ingenuity and paying attention to what little she’s able to see.

Eventually it becomes clear that both Michelle and Emmett aren’t really safe with Howard no matter what’s happening outside, and it’s done in a subtle enough, deliberate enough way that you understand that there was only ever one way things were going to go down. Despite his good intentions, and it feels like his intentions really were good, Howard is a ticking time bomb who’s more than willing to force Michelle and Emmett into fiting his idea of a surrogate family, and there’s a scene with a barrel of perchloric acid, one that’s so disturbing if only for the suggestion of the possible horror, that hits with such a sudden shock that it’s clear the two were always in danger.

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Please don’t be a decomposing body in the barrel, please don’t be a decomposing body in the barrel, please don’t be a decomposing body in the barrel, please…

So should I see it?

As a story about captivity, 10 Cloverfield Lane is ultimately a movie about self- determination, and it plays out in a way that’s not unlike an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. Until the final act, and we see the truth for our own eyes, there’s no way to know anything we’ve seen, no matter what we’ve come to believe, is true or not, and it turns out this movie isn’t really even about its first two acts.  And then you realize that you don’t know much of anything that was going on to set up this story but none of that backstory matters more than what we do get to see. The choice that Michelle makes at the end, to run for cover like she usually does or give everything she has to fight back, is basically the same choice we all have at our darkest hours, and when she makes that choice, literally to turn one way or the other, you realize there was an arc in the movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane did tell a complete story, and though we were here for just a part of it, it was the most important part.

If you were expecting a direct sequel to the original Cloverfield, frankly, you’re dumb, nobody ever said it was and everybody involved specifically said it wasn’t.  And if your main criticism of the movie is that it wasn’t, if you’re hanging your critical hat on that fact, then you’re totally missing the point of the movie and I sincerely doubt that that’s the only thing of which you’re missing the point (in this movie or in life). The truth is that movies like 10 Cloverfield Lane need that extra push, that dash of intrigue, to get most people to even consider seeing it. It’s name serves only as a point of intrigue, as a way to pique your curiosity and make it expressly clear that there’s something more than what’s on the surface of this movie. I can’t say with certainty whether you’ll walk out of the theatre loving 10 Cloverfield Lane or cursing its name for wasting your time, that’s mostly on you.  I do think I can say that you’ll walk out thinking something about it, you’ll care about it, and that’s a hell of a lot more than I can say about a lot of other movies. And best of all, I still don’t have to watch the original.

Because f*ck shaky cam.

Thom’s 10 Cloverfield Lane final score

4heart


On the Edge

  • You can roughly place the movie’s timeline by observing Michelle’s iPhone, but I can’t tell if it was an iPhone 5 (or 5s) or an iPhone 6 (or 6s). The sharp lines made me think it was one of the 5’s.
  • What was in that letter in the air filtration room?  Was there a reason the camera zoomed in on it?
    • And I guess Howard and Emmett would have just suffocated to death if Michelle hadn’t come along to fit through the vent to the air filtration room when it broke down?
  • Wouldn’t it have been a great ending if Michelle had finally escaped only to be suddenly stepped on by the Cloverfield monster? I’m sure that ending would’ve made all the haters happy. There’s your tie in, you idiots!

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