When the movie Cloverfield premiered in 2008, I brought two good friends and my then girlfriend (now wife) along with me to see it. I was so excited for them to experience a film that I’d been tracking with religious fervor since its mysterious, untitled trailer debuted that summer. I knew they hadn’t been following the concurrent Alternate Reality Game (which I had–obsessively), but that was okay. We’d just have different experiences. That turned out to be quite the understatement.
They all hated it.
I, on the other hand, absolutely loved the movie. Despite the found footage conceit causing me to become physically ill, I was enamored with the unique perspective that Cloverfield brought to the old ‘Kaiju Destroys A Big City’ narrative. There weren’t any scientists standing around to explain everything while a square-jawed hero swooped in to save the day. This was just regular (and kind of douchey) people reacting to an unfathomable attack the way everyone else would…sort of. Hud’s dedication to filming everything was insane even by most found footage film standards. But it was still cool to see what an average, terrified resident would do while their city was leveled by an extraordinary threat.
Many of the complaints I heard about the film (where did the monster come from, why didn’t we see the monster more, etc) didn’t bother me, primarily due to the aforementioned perspective and how well it was executed. This wasn’t Giant Monster versus a fighter pilot/mech/the military. It was Giant Monster versus the people in the city he just happened to be destroying. I also loved the creature’s design–so much so that I shelled out way too much money for the limited release toy version of it.
The argument could be made (and was by my friends) that the combination of anticipation and a personal investment in the ARG set me up to like this movie no matter how good it really was. Years later, however, Cloverfield remains one of my favorite movies. It also still makes me queasy, but I still can’t keep myself from rewatching it every once in a while. Its uniquely fantastic take on a film genre I love is always worth the stomach ache.
And despite my friends’ (and wife’s) inability to enjoy things that are awesome, I was far from the only person who felt this strongly about the film. So when the trailer for 10 Cloverfield Lane dropped out of nowhere earlier this year, me and my fellow Cloverheads about lost our damn minds.
Was this the sequel we’d been waiting for? Would it expand on the sinister Tagruato Coporation from the ARG? Would we find out what happened to Lilly Ford? Or Teddy Hansen? Was Clovie (the monster) really dead like JJ Abrams said, or was it “still alive?” And most importantly, did my crazy theory that Marlena Diamond had ties to the eco-terrorist organization T.I.D.O. Wave have any credence?
Welp, turns out that despite some incredibly deceptive/shady/OUTRIGHT FALSE advertising, 10 Cloverfield Lane didn’t connect with or provide any answers about Cloverfield whatsoever. What we got instead was a plain old excellent movie. But that doesn’t excuse the former. At all.
Today’s task will be to review 10 Cloverfield Lane the movie and 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s marketing strategy as entirely separate entities. Part of the reason for doing this is the bizarre rift I’ve observed within the Cloverfield fan community about this film. It would have been much easier if 10 Cloverfield Lane was mediocre or completely sucked…or if they’d just thrown a few tenuous threads back to the first movie. (And I can I already hear some of you starting to mention the Cloverfield easter eggs, which totally don’t count. I’ll explain why later). Instead, there seems to be an all or nothing expectation for which ‘side’ of Cloverfield fandom you’re currently on. I could be wrong, but I think it’s a lot more complicated than that–hence the warning to my editors that I was “fixing to go ham” on this review/analysis/opinion piece.
Since I’m assuming you’re reading this review post-viewing, there will be MAJOR SPOILERS all over the page like parasites falling off Clovie’s backside. If you don’t want spoilers, then…uh…go see 10 Cloverfield Lane. It’s all types of good–except for one giant plot hole. It’s really big, too. Like, distractingly big. Bigger than Clovie on a Seabed’s Nectar bender big. Otherwise, the movie’s great–and I say that as someone who went into the movie pissed off about how the film was presented beforehand.
For the rest of you, let’s dig in:
That definitely wasn’t a problem with 10 Cloverfield Lane. Trachtenberg gives us a ton of information and atmosphere right out of the gate. By the time Bradley Cooper’s voice is begging Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to come back home, the film’s energy has reached a fever pitch. That tension beautifully explodes when she’s involved in a horrific accident. The spinning and screeching that occurs as her car flies off the road is deftly cut against the silent opening credits.
One we get into the actual bunker, the movie actually managed to surprise me. Not because it deviated from its transparent tagline (Monsters Come in Many Forms = John Goodman’s Character) or because the plot went in a different direction than I expected (I’d thoroughly spoiled myself on the plot beforehand), but because of how great these characters and their interactions with each other are.
I wasn’t familiar with John Gallagher Jr. before this, but he does a good job making Emmett into a moderately lunk-headed foil to Michelle’s hyper awareness and active energy. While her reactions to everything play off what the audience feels, he carries a believably cautious aura, born of equal parts measured concern and underestimating their adversary. When Emmett is shot and killed, it’s been set up to be a genuinely tragic and shocking moment.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead is perfect as Michelle. It would have been easy to play her as having over the top badassery or in a state of perpetual panic. Instead, Winstead injects her character with a palpable (and believable) terror that organically evolves into real courage. By the end of the movie, we’re connected to Michelle because we could actually be her. She’s incredibly resourceful and smart, but that doesn’t stop how afraid and confused she is from negatively affecting her actions.
And then we come to John Goodman. Good lord. I knew the guy could be imposing from his time on The West Wing, but his portrayal of Howard was genuinely unsettling (in a good way). I’ve always wondered how extreme conspiracy theorists and doomsday preppers would behave if their fears/fantasies were proven true. Goodman has likely given us the horrifying blueprint. Always a hair’s breadth away from coming unhinged, Howard isn’t your typical antagonist. He’s a dangerous person who not only thinks that he’s good, but has actually done some good, too, exponentially fueling his destructive delusions of grandeur.
He’s not all hard edges and emotions, though. When Howard admits that it was him who hit Michelle’s car, there’s real humility in his words and demeanor. The fact that his apology comes right after a moment when he could have gloated (due to the contaminated woman outside proving him right) makes it even more apparent that Howard has some good in him. It may be wrapped up in a psychotic ball of existence that balances upon a hair-triggered source of homicidal rage, but it’s still there.
Much like Cloverfield, the script for 10 Cloverfield Lane infuses the high stakes drama with occasional moments of humor–and much as it pains me to say it, 10CL does it much better. Howard has some great lines (like where he talks about how sensible he is), all of which also serve to ratchet up the tension, as well. Remember that scene where they were all playing Catch Phrase? Howard’s funniest moments were also arguably his scariest… before things got all murdery, anyway.
Speaking of that, one of the best aspects of the movie’s progression was the condensed nature of its slow burn. They cheat a bit with some montages, but still manage to convey the group moving from adversaries to an uncomfortable stasis, lulling even a jaded (and pre-spoiled) curmudgeon like me into feeling comfortable. Unfortunately, the event that puts things back on track for chaos is kind of awful (we’ll get to that in a bit).
I’ve seen a few people say that the score by Bear McCreary (who has one of the greatest names ever) was overbearing. The only time that felt like the case to me was in the film’s opening. After that, I thought it did a great job accentuating the fear and paranoia percolating inside the bunker.
It would have been easy (and terrible) to cue all of Howard’s entrances and speeches with a villainous theme. Instead, McCreary leads us along with Trachtenberg’s direction down a dark and scary path that is also completely unclear. We know something bad is going to happen–we just don’t know when.
The cinematography by Jeff Cutter is great, too, particularly when we go from the confines of the bunker to the wide screen fear and insanity of the post-invasion farmhouse.
The visual effects team makes the most of their time to shine, creating two creatures that looked like nothing I’d ever seen before–which is saying something considering how much kaiju/monster media I consume.
10 Cloverfield Lane began as a spec script by Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken called The Cellar. It’s easy enough to find if you dig around online a bit–and it’s really good. It also doesn’t have any overt science fiction elements tagged onto it, which were added (at the request of JJ Abrams/Bad Robot) by Damien Chazelle.
I’ve seen quite a few people say that they should have stuck with The Cellar‘s grounded/believable ending, but I disagree. I love the fact that once Michelle escapes from Howard, she’s pursued outside by his craziness in the form of his most outlandish theories being 100% true. Imagine thinking you’ve escaped an underground bunker with the most insane person you’ve ever met only to discover that they were right! Well, about the aliens, at least. Not the kidnapping and murdering innocent children thing. But you get what I’m saying.
And even though the monster Michelle encountered wasn’t Clover (we’ll get to that soon), I totally dug the creature/living ship designs. Like I said earlier, the two entities’ unique designs were a treat to watch on screen. The metal carnivorous worm/leopard-looking thing (it’s a good sign that I can’t describe it well) was like something out a Lovecraftian fever dream. The ship was a cool and grotesque combination of machine and beast. It also helps to explain one of the many complaints I’ve seen about the film’s third act–that there’s no way Michelle should have been able to take one of those ship monsters down with single Molotov cocktail. But when you take into consideration that it’s an animal that spews toxic gas (which we saw have an explosive reaction with something just moments before), then it makes a lot more sense. I was a lot more bothered by the fact that the maggot/dog/rhino thing peaced out once Michelle and the truck started levitating–and never showed up again.
But that’s a forgivable narrative error, especially when you compare it to the really big one from halfway through the movie.
The Plot Hole
So let me get this straight.
Howard, who is super paranoid, obsessively careful, and hyper observant, was totally fine sending Michelle alone to his old ‘Megan in Training’ holding cell? And then you’re also going to tell me that Mr. ‘Dissolve Everything in Acid’ left a bloody earring up there from the girl he killed? This guy can tell when a pair of scissors are missing, but he overlooks something like that?
And speaking of the girl, why would he show Michelle a picture of the one he kidnapped when he likely had plenty of pictures of the real Megan sitting around the bunker? That alone made it a dumb risk, but it’s even worse when you consider that Emmett knew the kidnapped girl, which means she was definitely local. Maybe Howard didn’t know that Emmett knew her, but he surely would have considered the possibility.
And no, Howard wouldn’t have overlooked those things because he’s crazy. Don’t get me wrong–the dude was a nut case. But he was also highly intelligent and obsessive. Everything we learn about him and how he operates doesn’t jibe with a guy who’d miss the things that ultimately caused Michelle and Emmett to plot against him.
Take out the above-mentioned narrative implosion, and you’ve got yourself a gem of a movie. But even with that giant misstep, this is still a fantastic film. The acting, script (except that one thing), and production values are all top notch. They’re so good, in fact, that it’s enough for me to consider 10 Cloverfield Lane a must see–and that’s coming from someone who went into the movie pissed off about it. Now I’m asking friends of mine who haven’t seen it if they want to go just so I can watch it again.
So even though I’m still livid over how the movie was marketed, I’m gracious enough to admit that the final product rocked my socks off. 8.5 out of 10 Twerking Goodmans.
The Cloverfield Kahn Job
So why am I still mad? Shouldn’t the fact that I enjoyed the final product assuage my anger over how it was present to me?
Nope. I don’t appreciate being lied to, especially by a director/producer (no matter how talented he is) with a habit of being dishonest…and especially when the deception involves one of my favorite films.
And this isn’t about being entitled. ‘Entitlement’ would be demanding that JJ Abrams make a direct Cloverfield sequel whether he wanted to or not. The genesis of 10 Cloverfield Lane–and its subsequent marketing–was willful deception.
Since I can already hear the protests being shouted from your monitors, I’ll handle the most often repeated defenses of Abrams I see. If I miss any, please leave an irate note about it in the comments section.
He never said it was going to be a Cloverfield sequel!
Actually, he kind of did.
Oh sure, he never made that direct quote, but I’m guessing that many of you defending Abrams also hate when politicians (or people in your day-to-day interactions) make purposefully misleading statements to you.
Remember this image from the first trailer?
Yeah. That was a pretty blatant attempt at getting people to link the two films together. They also made the new ARG campaign (which was very good) directly linked to the old one via the fictional Tagruato Corporation, which is prominently featured in both. While there are certainly people who don’t remember/care about the original Cloverfield (and exponentially more who don’t know a thing about the ARG), this helped to build the all-important ‘buzz’ that is the lifeblood of genre films looking to get noticed.
When it came to deceiving the masses, however, Abrams took care of that with his comment about 10 Cloverfield Lane being a ‘blood relative‘ to Cloverfield.
But it was! Didn’t you see the envelope with Bold Futura/Tagruato on it?
Really? One tiny easter egg? That’s enough to connect the movies together? Because if it is, then JJ’s got a lot of threads going:
- Tagruato shows up in Cloverfield, Star Trek, and 10 Cloverfield Lane
- A Darhma Initiative logo (from Lost) shows up in Cloverfield
- Slusho shows up in Alias, Fringe, Cloverfield, Star Trek, and Super 8
- A Kelvin Gas station shows up in Super 8 and 10 Cloverfield Lane (along with what I’m pretty sure is a Slusho sign near the end).
- R2-freaking-D2 shows up in Star Trek!
…and probably many more that I’m missing. And you know what? These are all totally fine EASTER EGGS. I always thought it was kind of cool seeing Slusho pop up on Fringe. But to call two similarly named movies ‘blood relatives’ and relate their ARGs implies a much bigger connection. The one we got in 10 Cloverfield Lane was barely even noticeable compared to most of the others listed above.
Whatever. Abrams meant the ‘blood relative’ thing about the movie’s content and tone, not a specific universe.
Setting aside all the specific hints (like that the trailer used a monster roar that sounded very much like Clovie’s), this idea still doesn’t make any sense.
Are you saying that any film involving an unknown or unexplained alien/monster attack and how it affects regular(ish) people shares enough similarities to be considered ‘blood relatives?’ Should we put movies like Signs or the 2005 War of the Worlds remake in the same category?
I guess not, but who cares? Is it really so terrible that J.J. Abrams wants to make an anthology of really good genre films under the Cloverfield banner?
Not at all! In fact, I think that’s a fantastic idea.
But I also think it should have been stated up front that this was an anthology and not a shared universe movie. Instead, 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s marketing strongly suggested a direct link to the first Cloverfield movie, all in the name of building its profile and increasing its opening.
But it worked. You can’t deny that using the ‘Cloverfield’ brand (even if it was deceptive) substantially increased your interest in the film.
You could argue that it was effective, but that doesn’t mean it was right.
*Hot Take Alert* Donald Trump is running an effective presidential campaign, but I’m fairly certain there are quite a few people who find his methods and ethics in doing so to be a bit problematic. *Hot Take Alert*
Obviously, there’s very wide moral chasm between tricking people into seeing your movie and causing civil unrest throughout the nation. But you get my point (I hope).
Okay Mr. Snarky Pants, then what would you have done differently?
I’m going to go out a limb and say that award winning writer/director Damien Chazelle (who punched up the original screen play to fit with JJ Abrams vision) can write a better script than me. That said, I have to think that he was given specific instructions not to link 10 Cloverfield Lane to Cloverfield. Otherwise, I don’t see why a line here or there couldn’t have been added to make it happen.
Right after Howard tells Michelle there’s been an attack:
Michelle: You mean like what happened in New York?
Howard: No. This is different. This was an army.
Boom. Problem solved. It leaves out any overt references to Cloverfield, allowing the audience to infer that Michelle was possibly referencing a real world terrorist attack…or she could be talking about Clovie. I can’t speak for everyone else, but that’s honestly all I would have needed. From there, my imagination could have run wild about what went on in the ‘Cloververse’ from 2008 until 2016.
If you want more, then Howard could throw in a line about how this wasn’t an LSA (large scale aggressor) or “not something that crawled out of the ocean.”
Considering that Emmett and Michelle never questioned his two references to the possibility of a Martian invasion (which I believe was deliberate), then much of the audience would (rightly) assume that he was referring to backstory material they weren’t going to see on screen.
My second thought was that they could have made the ground creature at the end into one of the parasites, which would have still been terrifying and a REAL connective easter egg for fans of the first film. This might not jive with the beast’s aquatic origins, but I’m sure the behind the scenes narrative could be explained/molded into the creatures having both terrestrial and extraterrestrial origins. After all, Abrams’ first Star Trek movie featured a monster that looked like a direct relative of Cloverfield…a blood relative, you might even say… *smug grin*
Mystery Box No More
I still believe that JJ Abrams is an exceptionally talented director and producer, but when it comes to marketing, he’s lost any right to be trusted or taken seriously.
That arguably should have already happened when he admitted to lying about Kahn’s role in Star Trek: Into Darkness, but we all make mistakes. I figured he’d learned from the experience and wouldn’t do something like a second time. Instead, he waved his beloved Mystery Box in our faces, used much more carefully worded phrasing, and lied to us again. Just because the movie was excellent doesn’t change or excuse that. (And can you imagine the backlash we’d been seeing right now if 10 Cloverfield Lane had sucked?).
I vote that from now on, the Abrams’ ‘Mystery Box’ conceit be officially renamed to the ‘Bag o’ Bullshit.’ The guy can be counted on to make great movies and television, but I personally will never believe or listen to a word he says about them before their release…which honestly might be what he truly wanted all along.