10 Cloverfield Lane
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg
(11th March 2016 US / 18th March 2016 UK – Paramount Pictures, Bad Robot, Spectrum Effects)
Written by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken & Damian Chazelle
Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr. & Bradley Cooper
Synopsis: After getting in a car accident, a woman is held in a shelter with two men, who claim the outside world is affected by a widespread chemical attack.
10 Cloverfield Lane is the latest example of J.J. Abrams‘ fascination with the mystery box concept, in a career that has spanned television, and movies, most of which are tinged with a varying degree of science fiction. Beginning life as a spec script from Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken titled The Cellar, Abrams snapped it up for his Bad Robot production company and hired Damian Chazelle to re-purpose it for his grand idea of a “Cloververse”. Chazelle rewrote the script to embrace these ideas, but left the project before he had a chance to direct, thanks to his passion project, Whiplash finally receiving funding. Abrams then turned to passionate commercials director Dan Trachtenberg, who after his Portal: Still Alive short film blew up the internet back in 2011, was hired by Universal Studios to make a mid sized budget action heist sci-fi written by Chris Morgan (Fast Five, 47 Ronin, Wanted) that unfortunately fell through.
And so Trachtenberg made 10 Cloverfield Lane in secret, with a paltry $5 million budget and under the codename Valencia. The production was so secretive that when the first trailer “leaked” online ahead of its premier in front of Michael Bay‘s war propaganda blunder 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of
Something Something Darkside Benghazi, the internet predictably exploded, Even Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the star of 10 Cloverfield Lane, wasn’t told that the film she shot in secret a while back was linked in any way to the Cloverfield brand.
Which brings us to the most contentious issue surrounding this film – just how linked to the 2008 found footage monster movie, is it? The answer, is perhaps a little disappointing – not at all, at least in terms of narrative continuity. Unfortunately, for those that haven’t caught a recent interview with Abrams, they may have been misled by the title, and end up feeling cheated once the credits roll. Abrams has been clear to call the movies “blood relatives”; his idea is that the Cloverfield name, can be his version of The Twilight Zone – a brand name that connotes that the projects are linked by theme and style i.e. tightly wound sci-fi tinged thrillers of varying different flavours. The Cloverfield brand is meant to be one of quality, not necessarily narrative continuity. Of course, the biggest failing tied to this film is that Abrams and Bad Robot have been less than clear on this to the overwhelming masses, leading to much confusion. But how does the film, in isolation, fare?
In true Abrams mystery box fashion, much of the power of 10 Cloverfield Lane is derived from the audience knowing very little about it, so you won’t find any spoilers here. The film opens with an extremely impressive sequence, communicated solely by visuals and the prominent, pounding score of Bear McCreary. Trachtenberg immediately marks himself as an immensely talented and economical filmmaker, carefully selecting shots that drip feed relevant information and character moments, without relying on dialogue. This is the number one rule of cinema, “show, don’t tell” and Trachtenberg flexes his impressive directorial muscles straight out of the gate.
Even before the bunker, 10 Cloverfield Lane is shot in an acutely claustrophobic style. The camera lingers on important details, and filters out the superfluous minutiae of the background, creating a creeping, but poignant intensity that continually, and subtlely increases throughout the film. The superbly orchestrated car crash that leads to the central conundrum of the plot is executed with a startling, but slightly tongue in cheek crash cut of opening credits, and phenomenal sound design. Then, our heroine Michelle (Winstead) wakes up in a small concrete room, chained to the wall. And this is where this review will become narratively non-specific.
Michelle finds herself trapped in a bunker with Howard Stambler (a superlative John Goodman), an intimidating and volatile man, who claims that the world up above is all dead and he has altruistically saved her, and another man named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). From here, the film plays like a psychological thriller, with Howard gravitating between sympathetic, to terrifying, sometimes in a mere instant; Michelle on the other hand is a survivor, strong, but afraid and self-doubting. 10 Cloverfield Lane is about her growth and overcoming her fears. She is essentially playing the role of the “final girl” in a horror film, except unlike many examples from that genre, you’ll never be frustrated with one of her decisions. All of the characters make consistent and intelligent choices in this game of wits and life, and that’s what makes 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s central premise so fascinating and compelling.
Winstead is on top form here, handling a number of complex issues and themes with ease and delivering a performance that is both empathetic and fierce. Goodman has always been a great character actor with a long and illustrious career, but Howard may be his most complicated and best character yet. The grizzly bear of a man has a complex pathology, communicated in a number of subtle and significant moments. There are times when he seems reasonable, perhaps even kind, but those are buried deep underneath a simmering, barely-controlled rage, combined with intense paranoia and jealousy – making him a very dangerous combination. He consistently tries to change the narrative of events, explaining away his less magnanimous moments as the fault of others, all while he barely keeps his own mind in one, albeit unstable piece. Frankly, Goodman is astonishing here, and if 10 Cloverfield Lane wasn’t a small budget sci-fi tinged thriller he would have a good chance of netting his first Academy Award nomination.
As vital as the great performances are, a film such as 10 Cloverfield Lane lives and dies on the technical level. After all, most of the film takes place within just a few rooms, so it is to the testament of Trachtenberg and cinematographer Jeff Cutter‘s eyes that the film always looks incredible. The camera glides through the bunker with relative ease, even squeezing inside the confining spaces of air vents and foreboding garbage chutes, all in the service of maintaining the permeable layer of dread and tension that threatens to suffocate the audience. Chazelle’s radically rewritten script is fantastically efficient, and massively effective, creating a core narrative that is deceptively stronger and smarter than the original treatment. McCreary’s aforementioned score is another highlight, a sensational mixture of pulsing electronic and magnificent strings – it feels both classical in approach and deceptively modern, and it enhances the film’s already indelible aesthetic.
Sadly, 10 Cloverfield Lane may divide audiences because of its name relation to Cloverfield, but that shouldn’t detract from what is otherwise an incredibly well made film, that squeezes every dollar out of that small budget, that on a dramatic, and thematic level is both superior, and more accomplished than its chaotic forebear. While there has been much made of a tonal shift in the final moments, 10 Cloverfield Lane pulls it off because it remains consistent on a deeper level, thus pulling the train back onto the rails instead of having it fly off at the corner. It may veer dangerously close to coming undone, but 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s willingness to experiment is one that should be heralded, not admonished.
Ultimately, Trachtenberg and co. have created a marvellous sci-fi tinged psychological thriller, one that challenges, entertains, and frankly, horrifies due to sublime sound design and an uncompromising vision. If anything, 10 Cloverfield Lane proves that Trachtenberg is going to be a fascinating filmmaker to watch as his career develops; as his long awaited debut is one of the most impacting and interesting films of the year so far. To those that suggest titling it 10 Cloverfield Lane is nothing more than a cynical cash grab, one would humbly hope that all ‘cynical cash grabs’ were this excellent. See it on the biggest, loudest screen you can.