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

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.

The Sound of Music (1965) (SPOILERS) One of the most successful movies ever made – and the most successful musical – The Sound of Music has earned probably quite enough unfiltered adulation over the years to drown out the dissenting voices, those that denounce it as an inveterately saccharine, hollow confection warranting no truck. It’s certainly true that there are impossibly nice and wholesome elements here, from Julie Andrews’ career-dooming stereotype governess to the seven sonorous children more than willing to dress up in old curtains and join her gallivanting troupe. Whether the consequence is something insidious in its infectious spirit is debatable, but I’ll admit that it manages to ensnare me. I don’t think I’d seen the movie in its entirety since I was a kid, and maybe that formativeness is a key brainwashing facet of its appeal, but it retains its essential lustre just the same.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.