Warning: spoilers are sprinkled abundantly throughout this review.
After the original Cloverfield was released back in 2008, mutterings of potential sequels begun emerging pretty fast . Many years passed since those claims were made, however, and nothing ventured forth from the woodwork.
If truth be told, I was never a massive fan of the first film, so when no follow ups emerged, I thought nothing of it. Despite finding the 2008 J.J Abrams produced flick to be a mildly interesting approach to the now abundant found footage genre, it was largely forgettable in the grand scheme of contemporary cinema.
Nonetheless, on March 11 2016, I was surprised to see a trailer for a J.J. Abrams produced feature that appeared to indeed be a follow up (of sorts) to the eight-year-old first person blockbuster. Gone were the handheld cameras and instead we were treated to what appeared to be a psychological thriller focusing on three individuals living in a bunker after some sort of fallout (originally presumed to be taking place during the events of Cloverfield). Come 18th March, to the amazement of many, the film premiered in the UK.
The surprise unexpected release, attention-grabbing trailer, and switch in genre/style, made this a must see. The final film, however, was something of a mixed bag.
Before going on to moan about the problems this film suffered from, we might as well look at some of the more positive aspects, because they do deserve a mention. Firstly, the acting is first class. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman and John Gallagher Jr bounce well of one another. The bulk of the film takes place in a confined space; meaning the three leading cast members have the task of moving the plot forward from start to finish with little to no support from a larger surrounding environment. It also means they have a limited number of performances to react to. Nonetheless, all three possess a chemistry and timing that makes the evolution of their relationships feel interesting, natural and at times, terrifying.
Hats off in particular to John Goodman, who delivers a performance which could arguable be seen as a career highlight for him. Goodman plays Howard, a conspiracy theory obsessed, estranged father who’s so convinced that a fallout of sorts will take place within his lifetime, that he’s constructed an entire underground bunker beneath his farmhouse in the event of such an apocalypse.
Goodman saves (kidnaps) Winstead’s character Michelle and tolerates the presence of John Gallagher’s Emmett during an actual Armageddon; managing to jump between protective father figure and psychotic killer with outstanding efficiency throughout. Howard is terrifying, the real monster of this flick, keeping the audience guessing from start to finish about what his real intentions are. The micro expressions, ticks and delivery of Goodman’s lines make the presence of Howard on the whole a terrifying experience. At times, Goodman makes Howard so unpredictable that it can be hard to even look at the screen; unsure and scared to death as to what his next move might be.
Another aspect which could be considered positive about this film is its use of setting a majority of it within an enclosed space. As mentioned, most of the movie takes place in an underground bunker; resembling that of the hatch from Lost (also a J.J Abrams produced series). Telling a story in such a cordoned off environment imposes limits upon the filmmakers and more often than not forces them to be creative and innovative.
Whether it’s financial, budget, writing, or set restrictions; interesting results are often born out of not having every resource at hand to play with. 10 Cloverfield Lane is no exception; presenting a film that tackles the limited-set dilemma by providing a tense pace, intimately intense character interactions and imaginative action sequences littered throughout (watching the character of Michelle come up with quick-witted ways to overcome whatever obstacles stand in her way at any given moment are extraordinarily entertaining to watch from start to finish).
With similar regards to the limited set, it also means the film takes an approach which has often been intriguing when it comes to science fiction or fantasy stories. The film is essentially an invasion movie, taking place during a grandiose global alien takeover. Yet instead of spending $200 million on glossy visuals and epic city destruction sequences, the narrative instead focuses its lens on just three people living in isolation during these earth-shattering events.
A similar approach was tackled in the 2010 movie Monsters; which decided to push the out-of-this-world creatures to the background of the story, focusing all its attention on two characters. It’s a fresh take on an often-clichéd genre; allowing a story to venture down alternative roots and find unique ways of telling a story.
Unfortunately here, the film’s negative aspects inevitably end up overshadowing what could have been a truly great movie. 10 Cloverfield Lane may have marvelous performances, innovative execution and an interesting choice of where the story chooses to prioritize its narrative lens; however after a solid first two acts, the film falls to pieces.
By the time the film reaches its climax, Michelle finds herself free from the hands of the dangerously deranged Howard, but stranded in the outside world, which even though isn’t infected entirely by a killer airborne virus, is indeed far from safe. It becomes clear that the world has been invaded by hostile extraterrestrials, and Michelle spends the final scenes of the movie attempting to escape an alien ship and a rather vicious creature hunting her on the ground. By the time she manages to flee in an abandoned vehicle, we see our hero driving off into the night to join a group of possible human rebels fighting the conquering E.Ts.
It’s a lightning paced final sequence which wouldn’t feel out of place in most action based science fiction blockbusters, however here, it’s an utter disaster. The issue is we’ve just gone from a film which at its heart was a thriller about two people trapped in an underground bunker with someone who’s possibly a psychopath intent on butchering them, to a special effects laden action flick in which aliens have descended from the skies intent of destroying mankind.
Such a sudden transition in pacing and execution feels not like a twist (which is how some have described it), but as if the filmmakers have made two completely separate science fiction films and shoddily stuck them together. It’d be a bit like if during the climactic scene of Alien, Ridley Scott decided to randomly strap the final moments of James Cameron’s Aliens onto the back end of the feature.
The entire story is flipped on its head, delivering a bizarre switch in style that makes the whole first chunk of the film feel somewhat pointless. One minute we’ve got a tense thriller – full of interesting character moments – replaced instead with a film that wouldn’t look out of place in a Roland Emmerich film.
What makes such an abrupt and unstable transition even more frustrating is the fact that it could have worked if only they’d ended things sooner. When Michelle first flees the bunker, she looks into the distance to see what could possibly be a helicopter gliding in the background. After a few seconds, it becomes apparent that what we are seeing is not a helicopter at all, but an extraterrestrial vessel scouting the area. Now if they’d cut the scene here and gone to the end credits, maybe they could have finished off by establishing an ambiguity surrounding the story’s larger context.
In relation to the first portion of the film, even though it’s clear something outside is going on – largely established when Michelle and Howard encounter a woman with infected skin trying to get inside the bunker – the narrative’s sudden jumps between Howard talking about an “attack” to Howard being a dangerous individual arguably gives off an enigmatic uncertainty to the larger events taking place in the outside world. This was a nice touch, so to suddenly go to a film about an absolute definite alien invasion that takes away the story’s vagueness really does steal that initial intrigue of what’s really happening above and beyond the bunker.
On the whole, it’s a frustrating jump that ruins what was for a majority of its run time a great piece of cinema. The idea of taking the Cloverfield name and transforming it into a Twilight Zone type anthology piece about monster stories told from alternative angles sounds like an excellent idea – and still could be with future attempts – however here, we have something good that loses its way spectacularly.
As much as I want to love 10 Cloverfield Lane for its positive characteristics, it’s considerably difficult to get over this dramatic plunge in quality and shift in tone. It’s a frustrating and poorly judged move on the filmmakers’ behalves, and even though I’ve encountered several reviews hailing the final act as a clever twist, to me it’s the total opposite.
Let’s hope future movies donning the Cloverfield brand name can get it right, but this time round, things sadly went from exceedingly good to profoundly bad.
It’s astonishing how an ending can make or break a film.