Number Of The Beast: 10 Cloverfield Lane
I have a problem with 10 Cloverfield Lane.
Well, I have many problems with 10 Cloverfield Lane. But I have a big problem with that name.
This is a marketing tease of the highest order: those of us who remember Cloverfield from 2008 remember it more for the hype and the marketing than the movie itself. Yeah, there was a pseudo-political tone that brought back memories of an attack on New York (only this time, it was a monster. Like, a real monster, rather than an ideological one); yeah, there was an attempt at a romantic story about a man desperately trying to reconnect with the love of his life. But my main memory of this is the surprise trailer that sprung upon and flung the head of the Statue of Liberty into the streets of Manhattan.
Even the posters for Cloverfield flirted with that memorable imagery. This was a disaster movie that threatened to terrify and astonish us in equal parts.
A couple hundred words into a review of 10 Cloverfield Lane and I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Cloverfield here.
You’re getting that this is wherein the problem lies, right?
Because you can’t name a film 10 Cloverfield Lane without bringing attention to all of that first film, from the marketing to the story itself. The trailer for 10 Cloverfield Lane dropped unceremoniously a few months ago, a tense thriller of people hiding in a bunker, keeping themselves safe from whatever threat lay outside. We know it was tense because they were shouting at each other, and they were chained up.
I like tension.
I like thrillers.
But there’s only so far that tension and thrillers will bring you.
When your trailer drops the Cloverfield name alongside a production credit for JJ Abrams, then you’re setting expectations pretty high. So high, in fact, that those expectations are bound to be dashed.
10 Cloverfield Lane begins with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) packing up her things and leaving an apartment, taking that extra few minutes to leave her engagement ring as well. As she drives through the country, she gets a call from her fiance Ben asking for an explanation: her explanation is shitty as hell and it certainly doesn’t seem like infidelity or incompatibility. It appears that Michelle is just a flaky flake.
After a car accident, Michelle awakens with a broken leg, chained to a camp-bed in an emergency bunker that has been built by Howard (John Goodman.) Howard claims that the outside world has been subject to an attack, that he saved Michelle from her wreck and took her to his bunker to keep her safe. Given that Michelle has awoken in her underwear, this explanation is in danger of turning super-uncomfortable. Except for the fact that Howard’s story is corroborated by Emmett (John Gallagher Jr) the neighbour who helped Howard to build the shelter.
The film courts a frustrating pattern between both possibilities, giving hints and options for both, and verifying neither. Like Michelle, the audience are forced to trust Howard, to piece together half-truths and give themselves over to it. Like Michelle, we’re curious about what’s going on in the world outside.
Unlike Michelle, we’re fairly consistent in our thoughts, behaviours and actions.
Like Michelle herself, 10 Cloverfield Lane likes to flirt with what it wants to be, but when offering the opportunity for commitment, the film turns through 180 degrees and goes in the entirely opposite direction.
As Michelle discovers more about the world outside (and the men with whom she’s trapped), the film never truly embraces its promise as a tense thriller, which proves all the more disappointing. Goodman’s turn as a potentially-murderous survivalist should be chillingly memorable, but as the film struggles to keep its cards close to its chest, he and Winstead are left playing partial characters, neither of whom are realised for anything more than the most cursory of stories that consists of a beat, a response and a move onto the next beat.
Winstead’s Michelle is particularly hard to watch: she turns from flaky into a woman determined to survive whatever life throws at her numerous times. Such a change feels unnaturally huge in such small beats, and the inclusion of the Emmett character just serves to dilute any tensions that could have posed between Michelle and Howard.
Like Michelle, the film turns too much, and too often, changing from tense thriller to cozy mystery and back without really letting the two genres, ultimately so similar anyway, sit comfortably together: the film’s characters become too familiar and homely with each other, never truly having opportunities to fully dislike each other until the script calls for it.
When the time comes to give us all some answers, the film rushes to a conclusion that it doesn’t truly deserve, a conclusion that puts too much emphasis on CGI and forgets the story beats its been so careful to build. We’re given a ten-minute finale that lingers with its revelations, hammering them home with not an ounce of finesse.
10 Cloverfield Lane wants to dress as a captive thriller (and we’ve seen quite a few of those recently), but then drops the Cloverfield name, warning us to expect more. This leads to a film that is never entirely sure about what it wants to be, and certainly doesn’t deliver any true sense of closure to either path. This film doesn’t give us more, and any connections to Cloverfield are the thinnest of webs, like a distant cousin-of-a-cousin you see at family occasions, but would never bother with a Christmas card.
As a take on an end-of-the-world scenario, the film shies away from the reactions and the behaviours of that motif; and as a tense thriller, the film turns its back on that potential to tie itself to the Cloverfield brand to find a bigger market.
I wanted to like this film, and I still do. Even when I started writing this review, I expected to have more positive things to say (I walked out of the film giving it a solid 7/10, with a lot of points for effort.) When it’s on TV, I’ll watch it again. After four days in cinemas, I’ll encourage people to watch, to judge and decide for themselves.
But until then, let’s agree to just call this The Cellar like the original script suggests.
And not to get too excited next time we see JJ Abrams’ name on a movie trailer.