Skip to main content

It's not safe out there.

10 Cloverfield Lane
(2016)

(SPOILERS) JJ Abrams lets fly a little Tommy Squeaker from his celebrated – or vilified – mystery box, and – waddaya know? – he has another hit on his hands. 10 Cloverfield Lane was on no one’s radar until a trail unfurled in the middle of January, and since then its behind-the-scenes moviemaking mythology has quickly snowballed into a discussion of cynical marketing that one might believe has eclipsed the movie itself. If one hadn’t actually seen the movie.


Originally known as The Cellar, then Valencia, it was rejigged during production when the Bad Robot team recognised thematic ties with 2008’s Cloverfield, leading to what has variously airily been described by Abrams as a “blood relative” and “spiritual cousin”. That’s still a tad misleading, in the way anyone expecting Halloween III to feature Donald Pleasance muttering darkly to himself would have been disconcerted at his complete absence, and evidences the kind of selling savvy at which Bad Robot are highly adept (or at times not so much, see the Khan-age that ensued from Mystery Box-ing Star Trek Into Darkness’ villain), but the result is undeniably a first rate, creepy, edge-of-the-seat thriller, expertly performed by its small cast and confidently delivered by debut feature director Dan Trachtenberg. About the only unearned aspect is linking it to Cloverfield.


Of which, Trachtenberg has said it doesn’t take place in the same fictional universe, which is a relief, as I was trying to figure out how these aliens matched the monster from the original in any way, shape or form. Fortunately, this element comes right at the end, so you’re hopefully not left too distracted during the really good stuff, but it’s a bit of an incontinent mix’n’match all the same. Messing with expectations in a way that ultimately doesn’t ultimately enhance the viewing experience. And I say that as someone who really liked Cloverfield, notwithstanding I’m not a huge fan of found-footage (I was slightly mystified by the backlash to the movie, as if people had been cheated).


I’ll discuss that ending first, since it really functions as an inessential coda. It’s fun, breathless and tense, but it pushes the picture from the skilfully depicted and immediate character-based threat and (relatively) plausible motivation of its protagonist into the low budget equivalent of blockbuster acrobatics. Heroine Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) had been fully summoning her repressed MacGyver tendencies hitherto, but now, as she is dragged up towards the maw of a semi-organic spaceship, she has the resourcefulness to fashion a Molotov cocktail and stick it up the ship’s stove pipe/arse/mush, before deciding she can’t get enough of that good action and resolutely heading off to fight the good fight. It’s more in keeping with the extravagance of Roland Emmerich than the oppressiveness of the preceding 90 minutes, so you can either see it as a much-needed release from that closed-in world or just plain frivolous and daft. I’m a tad torn.


The best of moment with regard to the unknown “Is it/isn’t it?” threat out there comes significantly earlier as Michelle escapes the clutches of saviour/captor/predator Howard Stambler (John Goodman). She reaches the outer airlock of his underground shelter, only to come face-to-face through with someone (Suzanne Cryer) who entirely meets the content of Howard’s dread admonitions of what lies beyond. It’s a stunning leveller, particularly as it was shrewdly teased in the first trailer, and impresses upon us how masterfully the Abrams box of tricks factory can pull the rug from under us when firing on all cylinders (admittedly, the lure of the title somewhat dictates expectations, but there’s the rub; you never really know with this kind of thing). Likewise, there isn’t much doubt that, when Howard begins waxing lyrical about his lost daughter, some ugly Josef Fritzl truth lies beneath (so making 10 Cloverfield Road a rather more sensationalist accompaniment to Room), but the exact course is no less impactful for all that.


This is, after all, a familiar milieu in the Abrams oeuvre. A large part of the first season of Lost was taken up with the mysterious hatch on the island, and the second season opened with its solitary sentinel Desmond, guarding vigil against the apocalypse (and convinced the outside was toxic) while accompanied by that very Abrams/Lindelof device of a classic song used to unsettling effect (there Make Your Own Kind of Music by Mama Cass); here we have I Think We’re Alone Now (not the Tiffany cover, which is some kind of unsettling all on its own). But where predecessor Cloverfield was a big monster movie shot intimately, 10 Cloverfield Lane is the reverse; classically but inventively shot (Trachtenberg made his mark with an unauthorised short film version of the Portal video game), it could work as easily as a play with the odd tweak.


Credited to Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and Damien Chazelle (the latter was attached to direct until Whiplash became a go project), the plot’s twists and turns wouldn’t land if the characters weren’t solid, and the characters wouldn’t gell if the casting wasn’t firmly in place. Michelle understandably wants to get the hell out of her confined setting, having been side-swiped by Howard in his frenzied attempt to get home before the invasion begins. She’s just left unseen boyfriend Bradley Cooper (that must be where she learnt all her A-Team shit, making hazmat suits, gasmasks and freezing through locks). Winstead’s onscreen career has unfairly not yielded a breakout success, since she was unfortunate enough to appear in Tarantino’s worst film by a grindhouse-ing mile and Edgar Wright’s flop Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but through no fault of her own.


John Gallagher Jr is local boy Emmett who, in stark contrast to Michelle, fought to get into the bunker. He’s very much the third wheel in the battle of wills between Howard and Michelle, but Gallagher nevertheless manages to carve out a memorable place (I half-expected to discover he was in on Howard’s game, but that might have been a twist too far for Michelle to extricate herself from).


It’s that powerhouse John Goodman, as his best onscreen psycho since the much more endearing Hitler-heiling Charlie Meadows in Barton Fink, who really provides the fireworks, though, and Winstead holds her own against him. Howard’s an anti-Dan Conner, ever-slightly on-edge and not quite right, incapable of not rattling his guests when at his most genteel (they may as well be dirty birdies). There’s the dinner table scene, preceding Michelle’s attempted breakout and meeting with an infected, where he passes from studied calm to undisguised rage over Emmett’s gabbing, and then comes to within a hair’s breadth of assaulting Michelle. Later, when they play Who am I? and Emmett hears it as Howard’s admission that he knows just what they are up to, it essentially is that, and from there it isn’t any great distance to a bullet in the scruffy interloper’s head and a beckoning vat of perchloric acid (the better to have Michelle all to himself). Howard’s most unnerving moment, however, simply involves having a shave and offering an ice cream.


Amusingly, this is also the movie where the crazy guy in the basement is on-the-money. Pretty much everything Howard says about the alien menace up above turns out to be correct. I’m not sure if it’s designed as a shot in the arm for lunatic conspiracy theorists (probably not, since in a single character they’re also burdened with being basement dwelling psychopathic, murderous abductors of teenage girls), but I rather like the conceit.


Admittedly, 10 Cloverfield Lane lurches into the unlikely even before Michelle regains her freedom, when Howard survives taking a bath in said acid and becomes an archetypal horror movie monster-pursuer, and earlier still there’s a rather rote making-domestic montage that suggest more time has passed than it actually can have done, but these can’t detract from the core strength of the button-pushing here. Accompanied by a sterling score from The Walking Dead’s Bear McCreary, Trachtenberg has made a first class little B-movie, one that very nearly justifies Abrams slightly eccentric obsession with secrecy by paying off in spades.


I’m not quite sure how much long-term potential there is in alien invasion-fringed movies with Cloverfield in the title, but if future encounters are as effective and unnerving as the first two (and yes, this “sequel” is the superior of the two), we could be seeing that impossible dream, a successful anthology franchise.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like.

Body of Lies (2008)
(SPOILERS) Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar in the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies' one saving grace is that it wasn't a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the "just fight" (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced at a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.

Well, who’s going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?

Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State is something of an anomaly; a quality conspiracy thriller borne not from any distinct political sensibility on the part of its makers but simple commercial instincts. Of course, the genre has proved highly successful over the years so it's easy to see why big name producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would have chased that particular gravy boat. Yet they did so for some time without success; by the time the movie was made, Simpson had passed away and Bruckheimer was flying solo. It might be the only major film in the latter's career that, despite the prerequisite gloss and stylish packaging, has something to say. More significant still, 15 years too late, the film's warnings are finally receiving recognition in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations.

In a piece for The Guardian earlier this year, John Patterson levelled the charge that Enemy was one of a number of Hollywood movies that have “been softening us up f…

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.