Geek overlord J.J. Abrams (shepherd of both the recent Star Trek and Star Wars revivals) gave a famous Ted Talk a few years ago which laid bare his storytelling ethos. Abrams asserts that a movie theatre is a “mystery box” where the infinite promise and hope of storytelling live, and the best way to experience that magic is to go in cold knowing as little as possible.That approach to marketing worked like gangbusters for the Abrams-produced 2008 film Cloverfield when a random teaser was dropped onto an unsuspecting public who quickly started speculating it was about everything from a new Godzilla to a Voltron reboot. Curious audiences turned out in droves to see the found footage monster movie, one that turned out to be an original concept that was well-executed and thrilling (featuring some of the most shrill characters ever).
Cut to 8 years later and Abrams’ relentless secrecy (which has included lying to the press about Star Trek‘s villain and keeping a lid on the biggest movie ever with The Force Awakens) has led many to question the efficacy of the mystery box. Sure, it’s neat to discover the details of a movie as it unfolds, but wouldn’t it have been okay to know just a little bit before walking into the theatre? In the case of Star Trek Into Darkness I think it actively hurt the film (along with a wonky script that indulged in all the worst modern blockbuster tendencies). But with 10 Cloverfield Lane, a movie that was announced with a brief trailer a mere two months before its release, the mystery box seems redeemed in service of a movie that benefits from knowing as little about it as possible before being seen.
Billed as a “blood relative” to Cloverfield with the express caveat that the previous film’s monster won’t be appearing, 10 Cloverfield Lane is only loosely connected to the previous entry in this Abrams-produced series (mostly through thematic elements) and stands alone as an effective psychological thriller. I get why the filmmakers (including first-time director Dan Trachtenberg and a co-writer credit from Whiplash‘s Damien Chazelle) might want that hook to draw in audiences, but I suspect the movie would’ve done just fine under any other name.
Like Abrams’ marketing techniques, 10 Cloverfield Lane traffics a lot in slowly parceled out mysteries and various reveals, while still allowing audiences to connect the dots on the more ambiguous elements. The story begins with main character Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) making a hasty exit from her home and driving upstate, spurred on by some unknown motive. She’s in a violent car crash and wakes up chained to a bed (but given medical treatment) in the underground bunker of a hulking man by the name of Howard (John Goodman).
Howard proceeds to explain to Michelle that some unknown catastrophe (likely a chemical attack) has befallen America and that they – along with a hapless third inhabitant named Emmet (John Gallagher Jr.) – will have to ride out the nuclear (or whatever) fallout for a year or more in Howard’s well-stocked apocalyptic bachelor pad. Thankfully Howard has plenty of puzzles, non-perishable food and VHS tapes to pass the time, but all three will have to abide by the strict rules of this off-kilter former military man.
Goodman is great as Howard, giving one of the best performances of an already distinguished career. Howard’s true nature is kept a secret for much of the movie, and it’s hard to discern if he’s simply a stickler for order amidst chaos or if his outbursts hide darker intent. He’s often menacing Michelle (whether intentionally or not) and Goodman’s large frame and penchant for playing genial characters that can harbour a mean temper suit the character well. There’s even some gallows humour amidst the rising tension of the claustrophobic bunker, especially when Howard “accepts” an apology from the stereotypically beta male Emmet.
As there’s really only three characters, it’s important that Winstead and Gallagher rise to Goodman’s level in order to sell the reality of the movie. For the most part they do, with Winstead selling the frightened and resilient nature of her character and Gallagher lending a tragic air to his small-town boy who never went beyond the 40-mile radius he grew up in. The three together form a twisted pseudo family brought together by both fate and the end of the world, but as suspicions bubble up it’s clear that there’s rot in their family tree and all may not be who they seem.
10 Cloverfield Lane owes a big debt to the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” which, depending on your knowledge of 60’s scifi TV, could be considered a spoiler. Both deal with the possible reality of an outside threat as scared residents turn on one another amidst paranoia and panic. It’s a commonly used genre tactic, one which basically every zombie movie ever has relied on too (humans are the real monsters!). It also reminded me a lot of the excellent scifi novel Wool, as both deal with the mysteries of a toxic outside environment and warring forces trapped in underground bunkers.
10 Cloverfield Lane does eventually provide some answers in its final act, but it’s the human interplay leading up to that point that’s most effective and not the final bombast. I suspect mileage will vary for 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s ending, but while I don’t think it totally works I admire the balls-out chutzpah needed to take the movie in the direction it does. To say any more would be spoiling those that haven’t seen it, but I will say this – if you have any interest in the movie, check it out before the internet does its thing and ruins its secrets.
The movie’s worthwhile alone for the great performance that John Goodman gives, one that makes you think the Academy should be more willing to recognize genre actors for their work (and who knows? maybe they will). 10 Cloverfield Lane may be the 2nd in a series that promises a baseline level of J.J. Abrams-approved entertainment, and its ability to play on apocalyptic fears while threatening to validate that paranoia should strike a chord with those obsessed with the end of days, a group that seems to include everyone these days.
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg
Runtime: 103 minutes