10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Following a car crash a young woman finds herself trapped in a bunker with two others, told she cannot leave because of a cataclysmic attack on the United States.
March 11th 2016
Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle
John Goodman as Howard
John Gallagher Jr. as Emmett
10 Cloverfield Lane is either exactly what you’re expecting or not at all. An extremely well-made, entertaining thriller with enough Spielbergian touches to make you feel right at home while at the same time itching to see what cards this movie is going to play.
Welcome to The Mystery Box. The term and concept for it comes from JJ Abrams, co-founder of Bad Robot. The man has been involved in so many projects that have shaped popular culture in the last decade or so it’s ridiculous. He helped create, produce and write Alias and Lost and directed both the reboot of Star Trek and the new Star Wars sequel The Force Awakens. He is a hugely influential figure and if something is shipped with the Big Robot name at the beginning or end then his fingerprints will be in it somewhere.
So The Mystery Box is essentially JJ Abrams’ term for the creating a huge amount of intrigue and curiosity around around a project so that rampant fan speculation will add hugely to the film’s promotion. It’s a trumped up term for a pretty simple marketing tool and Moviebob did a great video explaining it that I highly recommend. When used for evil it gave Star Trek Into Darkness tons of free press as people around the world tried to figure out who Benedict Cumberbatch’s character could be. This is a horror site so I will save you my rant about him being Khan BUT, when used for good a film can truly capture the interest of an audience and make a film a way bigger deal that it would have been otherwise.
This was the case for Cloverfield which was surrounded in viral marketing and deliberately vague hints given from Abrams and others so that some of the audience was just there to see what the hell the thing actually was. The fact it ended up being a damn good found footage movie about being on the ground in New York during a Godzilla-style giant monster attack almost didn’t matter, it was such a triumph of marketing it would have been memorable for that alone. Thankfully it was a great movie and it has been a long 8 years waiting for a sequel of some kind. So when a month or so ago a trailer showed up called 10 Cloverfield Lane and it showed something seemingly completely different from Cloverfield, The Mystery Box triumphs again. This was different however, the use of Cloverfield in the name IS the mystery and it’s one that plenty would like to solve.
Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead – Final Destination 3, The Thing) is hurriedly packing, tears in her eyes she leaves keys and an engagement ring behind. As she drives into the night her phone rings, it’s Ben, the man she is running away from. He pleads with her to come home and talk to him but she hangs up on him. Out of nowhere on dark road she is suddenly hit by something that sends her car spinning out of control. It smashes through a barrier and does several rolls down a slope before coming to a stop. Michelle awakens in a bare room with an IV in her arm and a brace on her right leg which in turn is chained to the wall. Blood has clotted on the side of her head and stained the pillow. Frantically she pulls the IV out of her arm and tries to use the IV stand to reach her possessions on the other side of the room. Eventually getting her phone she is disappointed to discover that the screen is badly cracked and there’s no reception. Michelle is soon introduced to her host, a doomsday prepper named Howard (John ‘effin’ Goodman!) and his other guest Emmett (John Gallagher Jr. – The Newsroom) whose arm is in a sling. They are in Howard’s fallout bunker and he tells Michelle that some sort of cataclysmic event has occurred and that he saved her life when he saw her car accident on the way to his bunker. He says that whatever the attack has done is poison the air and that opening the door to the outside would kill all three of them. Placed in an enclosed space with two men, Howard being especially eccentric, Michelle must learn who she can trust and what she can do to survive whatever is happening both inside and outside this bunker.
I would be doing you a disservice by telling you more about the story as we the audience get to learn and discover right along with Michelle, who is rarely not on-screen. Depending on how many times you scrutinized the trailers or read and watched others breaking down every second of footage, you may have some different expectations going into the film. Indeed, many thought Cloverfield was secretly a Voltron movie but that is the beauty, or villainy, of JJ Abrams and his Mystery Box. Everybody interested in seeing this film has the right to discover everything on their own terms so let’s take a look at everything that makes this movie great without spoiling anything.
This is the directorial debut of Dan Trachtenberg and he’s one of us. Or he used to be. Beginning as a writer and vidcast host he made a couple of short films, totally blowing everybody away with his video game fan film Portal: No Escape. It was clear he was destined for big things and does an admirable job with 10 Cloverfield Lane. Though a lot of the film is confined to the cramped spaces of the fallout shelter the film is crisp, well-paced and engagingly shot. Sadly I cannot speak more on his great work in this film without getting into spoiler territory (damn you Mystery Box!!!) but rest assured, this is a great feature debut and this guy deserves your admiration and money. Praise must also be heaped on screenwriters Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle for crafting a tight script that clings to its secrets while still remaining compelling and fun. In fact the script is at times playful, easing the tension with well-placed moments of humor before ratcheting things back up. It’s certainly not a spoiler to emphasize just how incredibly tense this film is and the ability to keep it so high without wearing out the viewer is no mean feat.
Elsewhere we are absolutely spoiled with our small but absolutely excellent cast. Seriously, this case is phenomenal. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a treasure and we are so lucky to have someone of her talent working in genre film. Whatever the film she brings something special if it’s just her small role in Death Proof or she’s breaking hearts in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World she has great screen presence. As the resourceful and spirited Michelle Winstead is an extremely appealing protagonist and as we learn the secrets of the film along with her it’s hard not to root for her. The fact that her character has a lot of agency and is not afraid to do what she has to protect herself, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the total package of the sympathetic hero. Then we have the amazing John Goodman himself. His character of Howard almost feels like he could have been Walter from The Big Lebowski if he had made a few different life choices. An actor of his level and experience could easy hit cruise control on a genre film like many have in the past but he brings so much to the role. Harmless eccentric conspiracy theorist or dangerous wingnut? Goodman is a joy to watch in both the comedic and darker moments of the film. Then we have John Gallagher Jr. and it’s almost a shame that he is second fiddle to two such great performers but he deserves props nevertheless. Gallagher is just so damn likable and as the story unfolds we learn more about him and his past and it only makes him even more damn likable.
But The Mystery Box still looms large over this whole endeavor and there are certainly going to be some viewers who leave the movie disappointed or confused. Not entirely unlike the anticipation that started to surround M. Night Shyamalan’s movies as to what the “big twist” is going to be, some might feel misled by the promotion of 10 Cloverfield Lane. Obviously this particular scribe really enjoyed the film but even leaving the screening there were comments such as “I don’t know what he was going for.” To be fair, however, movie trailers are frequently misleading and emphasize certain aspects of a film to appeal to the target audience. So really, everybody uses The Mystery Box in one way or another, they just don’t have a goofy name for it.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a really great piece of genre film in its own right. Will it endure the same way Cloverfield did? Unlikely. However the tension, the performances, the Spielbergian touches, this is a great little movie and a great prelude to the summer movie season.