NOTE I: This review is made possible through the generosity of donors to The MovieBob Patreon. If you’d like to see more like it, please consider becoming a Patron.
NOTE II: See post-script for important information.
Here’s a perfectly good (excellent, in fact) little movie that’s probably going to piss people off because of its title – or, more specifically, its title’s part in the twee, self-satisfied meta promotional games of producer JJ Abrams. That’s a pity, because once you understand that this really isn’t a “sequel” to CLOVERFIELD (thank God…) but rather an attempt to turn CLOVERFIELD’s more-memorable-than-the-film marketing campaign into a kind of anthology-branding; there’s a genuinely ingenious production under here (it was originally filmmed as it’s own movie under “THE CELLAR,” with the decision to retitle it coming post-production) doomed to be obscured by how annoyed lay moviegoers are likely to be that its not a “real” sequel and how annoying people like me find the idea of CLOVERFIELD as branding to begin with: Sorry kids, I’ve done more with my life than obsess over the minutiae of everything the tenaciously-middlebrow Abrams/Bad Robot have produced since ALIAS, and as such I don’t find insider-references to Los Angeles freeway exits to be the cleverest thing ever.
But, hey! The movie is good – really good, in fact. You should go see it. And then afterwards, hit the jump for a review which, by necessity, features SPOILERS.
10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is essentially a really good TWILIGHT ZONE episode with the character-interplay drama stretched out to a feature-length second act and a more expensive than typical finale, and engaged on those merits it’s one of the better films of the year so far in terms of acting and building genuine suspense. The script works, the direction is old-fashioned slow-burn solid , but what drives it home is some terrific acting – particularly from John Goodman (who we should really figure out a way to give an Oscar at some point.)
Goodman is a rural weirdo named Howard, who has built a fully-functioning long-term livable fallout shelter with all the amenities under his farmhouse and is pretty much exactly the guy you expect to have built a fully-functioning long-term livable fallout shelter in 2016. We first meet him through Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead,) who wakes up chained to a pipe in the shelter after getting run off the road in a car crash after fleeing an unseen argument with her fiancee.
Understandably, she’s terrified; but while Howard is absolutely the living embodiment of the obsessively-paranoid “prepper,” he’s (apparently) not some kind of serial killer who’s abducted her: At some point shortly after her accident, some sort of unnamed chemical/biological/nuclear attack struck the region, and Howard found her and brought her down to the shelter just in time. There’s another guy down there with them, a contractor who helped build the place (John Gallagher Jr) – though Howard is visibly irritated by having him around.
Once the innevitable Act I business is cleared up (i.e. our skeptical heroine discovers that Howard is seemingly telling the truth about the outside world having become uninhabitable) the film settles into cozy slow-burn thriller mode, as the time in between meals, puzzles and board games gives way to understanding the characters and (subtly) familiarizing the audience with the core geography of the bunker itself. All of this is good, meaty, dramatic stuff; but again it’s Goodman who makes it all sing. His Howard is a brilliantly observed antagonist – we get very little in the way of (reliable) background on him, but his unsure speech, palpable difficulty speaking to people, petulant boundary-issues and “lonely self-involved child” personality create a lived-in character and a harrowing sense of familiarity: You’ve met this guy, and being near him bothered you, and maybe you felt bad about that because its hard to pin down exactly what feel so “off” about him and you don’t want to be a dick in case it’s… but he still creeped you out.
It’s all going more-or-less where you think it is (1 bunker, 1 woman, 2 men, one of said men is alternately regressive/paternal and practically oozing mother-issues, it’s not complicated) but the reveals of various secrets and half-truths are so skillfully executed you hardly notice. The director is Dan Trachtenberg, a commercial vet whose biggest exposure before this was a PORTAL fan-film, and if you were worried about suffering through any washed-out shakycam you can relax – his approach here is extremely locked-down and deliberately-composed, befitting the setting and the story. He’s the real deal if this is any indication, so we’ll probably hear about him getting scooped up for a Marvel movie or a 20-years-later sequel to a 90s blockbuster within the next week.
Of course, it goes without saying that there IS something wrong (as in seriously wrong) with Howard, but if you know your TWILIGHT ZONE riffs you also know that’s unlikely to be the final “gotcha.” Unfortunately, that’s where the titling issue probably hurts it most.
(YOU WERE WARNED ABOUT SPOILERS)
Let’s be real: To Bad Robot and super dialed-in longtime Abrams fans, “Cloverfield” concievably could translate to “Oh, that means low-budget/high-polish genre exercise!,” but to most moviegoers it means “That handicam Godzilla movie you kind of remember.” And with both the advertising campaign and even a cursory knowledge of the genre both telling you in advance that you’re in for a double-gotcha ending (i.e. if you’ve seen one other movie with this structure you know the twist isn’t “obvious psycho is more psycho than you thought,” it’s “obvious psycho was actually right, it really is The End of The World out there”) it’s more than reasonable that most of the audience is probably expecting “The Cloverfield Monster” to be waiting when Michelle finally gets out of the bunker… and it’s not, so it’s not unreasonable that some of the audience is going to walk away annoyed.
I certainly wasn’t. Quite the opposite, in fact, since I’ve seriously soured on CLOVERFIELD and its underwhelming monster. So that it turns out that the “attack” was an alien invasion a’la War of The Worlds (allowing Michelle to complete her “learn to not run away from your problems” arc by making a cartoonishly contrived decision whether to head for safety or join the human resistance) is perfectly fine on my end. Also, aliens are probably still “close enough” to off-brand kaiju to at least “feel” related (I’m sure there are already tiresome fan-theories about the monster being the first wave of the attack and that it’ll totally be back for Part 3); but you have to imagine the reception is going to be effected by it.
Still, as it’s own thing, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is a slick, super-watchable thriller that deserves the attention it’s getting – title or no. Absolutely worth a look.
P.S. I know it’s been too long between reviews and people are hungry for new content. Obviously, most of my recent slowdown has been due to getting my new book launch underway and several other factors, but I’m working to get more reviews up now as we head into Spring and the next Really That Good as well. So please stay tuned for that.
P.P.S. The plain fact of it is, the more non-blog/non-video work I have to do to pay my bills on this end, the less time I actually get to devote to those things. So, basically, the more frequently the Patreon get’s back up above it’s target goal and the more people visit my new gig at Screen Rant, the more original content I can produce for you. Case in point, if you’d like to read/share the latest pieces, here’s some links: