When the surprise trailer was released a mere two months before the film itself, savvy internet users regarded 10 Cloverfield Lane as another welcome hug from the franchise that birthed the cult found footage hit set in New York. At the same time, it’s both amazing and perplexing to think of how the thriller managed to get filmed under everyone’s proverbial noses. Just how did the internet collective of film aficionados miss the figurative cookie crumbs of the movie’s creation?
Well, for starters, it was the minds behind Super 8 and Cloverfield that led the production for 10 Cloverfield Lane. Bad Robot Productions, headed by auteur J.J. Abrams, produced what is called a “blood relative” to the 2008 monster smash. Secrecy is a piece of cake for Abrams, whose production pool is referred to as a “mystery box”; for a long time, the film went under the working title Valencia, which was purposely vague and misleading. What isn’t a secret, though, is that with a story conceived by Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken, and the added delivery of Damien Chazelle who shepherded Whiplash, 10 Cloverfield Lane is being hailed as a refreshing and surprising take on its genre.
The story, which is told in a third person narrative unlike the first film, follows a distraught woman named Michelle who leaves her fiancé after a bad argument. On the way to Louisiana, she gets into an accident and is sheltered in an underground bunker by Howard Stambler, a doomsday prepper who apparently saved her from a mysterious attack after seeing her unconscious on the highway. Though cautious at first, Michelle finds that Howard has taken in another survivor, Emmett DeWitt, who fled to the bunker after also witnessing the attack.
In the hands of an incapable filmmaker, 10 Cloverfield Lane would have easily faltered and failed. Fortunately, Dan Trachtenberg, on his first feature film, manages to pull off a legitimately breathtaking and an eerily excellent thriller. Through his deft execution and curious examination of the source material, the motion picture becomes a claustrophobic thrill ride that doesn’t let up.
By sticking to the strengths of the script, 10 Cloverfield Lane resembles an 80s thriller typically seen on cable movie channels, then quickly turns those preconceptions and stereotypes on their heads. With the aid of Bear McCreary’s haunting and very chilling score, the film transcends its trappings and becomes its own monster of a thriller. Perhaps the best parts of the film is when it juxtaposes itself against the original 2008 film and comes out superior and more streamlined.
While most horror films today tell the ill-fated stories of attractive twenty-somethings running away from either a supernatural, a deranged, or a gigantic threat, the thriller zeroes in on a doomsday prepper and his co-survivors in the wake of an unknown attack on American soil. The contrast is clear between Cloverfield, which plays with New York’s skyscrapers, and this confined thriller. The nearness and cabin fever that ensues in the movie is a clear example of how domestic thrillers studying human interactions and relationships make for interesting stories.
John Goodman, most famous for voicing the lovable Sully of Monsters, Inc., shines as Howard Stambler. As a prepper for the apocalypse, we see a character that is rarely portrayed on-screen, that of the hero (or villain) who is prepared for every entity or threat on a path of destruction. What sets Stambler apart, however, are the little tics and habits that become commonplace but somewhat telling for Michelle and Emmett. Goodman’s grip of his Midwestern character is evident; his quips and actions prove how he transforms into a role audiences rarely see him do. The Goodman everyone has come to know from Monsters, Inc. is gone, and the only evidence of that are the reassuring but sketchy smiles he gives to his bunkmates.
In contrast, Mary Elizabeth Winstead proves once again how proficient she is at carrying a horror-thriller. One of the most reliable scream queens of her generation, Winstead pulls double duty in 10 Cloverfield Lane as she goes toe to toe with Goodman while serving as the avatar of audiences in a world that’s gone haywire. Michelle is always observant, plucky, and intelligent; she’s worth rooting for, something to be attributed to Winstead’s portrayal of a heroine who will stop at nothing to survive the bunker and the world beyond.
John Gallagher Jr., best known for HBO’s The Newsroom, rounds out the ensemble as the comic relief of the film. Emmett DeWitt serves as the middle man who breaks the tension between Michelle and Howard with his slightly deadpan jokes and boyish smirks. However, as the film examines the dynamics between strangers and the repercussions of a catastrophe on interpersonal relationships, the humor only adds to the tension of the film and helps wind the survivors up more. Combine all three and the film comes out as both a well-oiled machine and a distressing Rubik’s cube, one that unfolds slowly but unravels quickly.
The surprise element of both the first film and this excellent thriller can be chalked up to the marketing campaign ramped up for both, making use of an alternative reality game (ARG). The ARG is a type of narrative builder mostly seen in video games and other pop culture relics like Lost. What it refers to is the “viral” aspect of the film’s marketing; when Cloverfield was released in 2008, aspects like the release date and obscuring of the title led to curious moviegoers searching the web for clues on the film. Interesting tidbits like videos and MySpace profiles for the film’s characters were available to tie up the narrative of the film with the real world.
In the case of 10 Cloverfield Lane, a franchise was born in the form of an anthology, something akin to The Twilight Zone, where concepts harken back to the main idea of the franchise. Clues were called back from the first film to reveal a rejuvenated ARG that ties Howard Stambler and his story to a bigger scheme that makes for a very intriguing franchise proposition. It’s clear that the decision to sew this thriller into the mythology of Cloverfield is a clever and very Hollywood-y move for Abrams—however, the film does slack off in a few parts, particularly due to a jarring tone change, because of these callbacks.
Nevertheless, it’s worth mentioning that the effort to have Lane come as a sequel to Cloverfield is admirable. After all, both films came from a background of indie beginnings and sensibilities, concepts that are often drowned by superhero franchises and other existing property. To watch 10 Cloverfield Lane is to see a psychological thriller that is wholly original and very breathtaking. Catch it for the captivating and sometimes disturbing characters that are fully fleshed out and truly well-written. See it without watching any more promos or reading theories about the universe. It’s better to come in unprepared.