10 Cloverfield Lane is another product straight out of J J Abrams’ dream factory, Bad Robot Productions. Like its previous offerings, 10 Cloverfield Lane is shrouded in mystery up to its release, what we do know is, it is a ‘blood relative’ of the original Cloverfield film, whatever that is.
The film starts with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), waking up in an underground bunker after a car accident. The bunker is inhabited by two other people, the owner, Howard (John Goodman) a paranoid survivalist and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr), another survivor. Howard warns them that the air outside the bunker is polluted due to a chemical attack and is unbreathable, insisting they stay in the bunker, both Michelle and Emmett complies. Until Howard’s controlling and abusive personality starts to reveal itself, along with his past activities in the bunker, forcing Michelle and Emmett to plan their escape and find out what really happened outside.
10 Cloverfield Lane does not waste any time on anything that you do not need to know, every frame, every dialogue, every piece of music is there for a reason, to highlight a plot point, to accentuate a mood. The screenplay is razor sharp and taut; its only function is to tell a story. This narrative coherence and tonal consistency allows the film the ability to gradually build the narrative tension to its climax, like a domino effect, every piece of the film is set to bring the conflict between the characters to a head.
This does not mean the film is predictable, there is a sense of inevitability but at the same time, the screenplay is layered with enough twists and turns that you never exactly know what is going to happen next. Dan Trachtenberg direction is admirable, it is laser guided, totally focused on the film’s most important element, its suspenseful storytelling. The film works like clockwork at setting up narrative suspense before knocking it down, every piece of narrative information gives an answer but raises two more questions in its stead, so it gives you enough to go on in every scene but only barely enough so that it keeps you on the edge of your seat. It is suspense building 101, Hitchcockian in its execution.
The screenplay is excellent in its storytelling and build-up, yet this would not have the ‘Cloverfield’ name unless there are monsters to do with. As a consequence, the final 10 minutes clashes with the rest of the film, as the narrative wills itself into jumping the proverbial shark and switches genres from a taut thriller to a sci fi monster movie. It does weigh down heavily on your suspension of disbelief and a better job could have been done easing the audience into another genre territory. Even a character yells out in disbelief ‘Oh come on!’, at the said character’s preposterous predicament.
Yet, while the change of genres could have been better, the film does add a lot more intriguingly cosmic ideas to the larger Cloverfield mythology in its last 10 minutes. One can argue that while the film itself is well constructed, it is these final 10 minutes that takes the film out of its genre constraints and make the film a memorable viewing experience. It is a big budget Twilight Zone episode where its ambiguity and suddenly genre swerves actually leaves a stronger impression on the viewer.
Unlike the original Cloverfield’s use of shaky cam, the cinematography for 10 Clovefield Lane contrasts greatly with the original’s frenetic camera. It is minimalist and measured, generating a simmering, claustrophobic ambiance, fitting the film’s overall thematic elements and setting. There is rarely any dynamic camera movement until moments of turmoil in the story, the lack of camera movement is actually terrifying, as if restricting what you can or cannot see. The stillness is scary.
There are also several novel uses of framing and production design that enhances the claustrophobic nature of the cinematography, the bunker’s recreation room is always cluttered with books, DVDs, a jukebox and other objects, forcing the illusion that room is smaller than it really is. Another instance would be the scenes in Michelle’s room, or one could argue, cell. It is bare, desolate and utterly depressing to look at, the clever manipulation of negative space makes Michelle look insignificant, giving off a sense of hopelessness that makes us root for her efforts to escape even more. In addition to expanding on the characters, the cinematography also adds personality to the bunker itself, which despite its homely décor, looks like an unforgiving and sinister environment.
Bear McCreary’s soundtrack is sparse, relying on distortions or staccato notes to build an eerie, hair prickling aural world. But it is the amazing use of sound that brings out the tension and drama in the film, through the use of silence and fade outs in pivotal scenes, it maximises the effect of what is going on, it forces you to feel every harrowing second of the scene and forces an emotional understanding on why it is absolutely necessary for Michelle and Emmett to escape the bunker.
The performances are terrific, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is phenomenal as Michelle, whose indomitable resourcefulness and wide-eyed edginess shows shades of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien (1979), battling the monsters at her door. Like Ripley, Michelle is put in a terrifying situation and left to fend for herself, and Winstead’s performance successful runs the gauntlet of emotions her character has to endure, she allows us to root for her not out of pity but because we genuinely care for the character, giving us an emotional anchor to gravitate to.
While some may argue about Michelle’s over-resourcefulness bordering on Macgyver-esque cliché, I do not feel that cheapens her as a character in anyway. If anything, it makes her more interesting. In a film where the storytelling is so immediately straight and narrow in focus, we need a protagonist who is similarly clear cut without being one dimensional. Michelle works as a protagonist due to her dogged determination and intelligence when faced of overwhelming odds, her actions in bad situations are her opportunities at character development. She is a character that reacts to the narrative, not act on it.
There may not be a city wrecking monster this time around but there is at least monster in the film, in the form of John Goodman. Goodman puts in a career best performance as the domineering and psychologically disturbed Howard, his portrayal lends Howard an unpredictable and sociopathic edge, you never know if he is going to kill you or offer you ice cream and you probably want neither of those options. Despite saving Michelle, he has his own dark motivations for doing so and by the third act, Howard’s true face is revealed and Goodman’s performance becomes utterly horrifying to behold.
Assisting Goodman in his performance is the cinematography, which frequently frames and enhances Goodman’s size and stature, thus transforming Howard into a frightening, monolithic man-mountain that is constantly standing in the way (sometimes literally) of Michelle and Emmett’s plans of escape.
John Gallagher Jr rounds up the cast and he makes most of his minor role, only serving to function as character interaction for the other two characters, in order to develop both Michelle and Howard and create stronger emotional and dramatic conflict. He does not get to do anything in particular that stands out, but he doesn’t do anything wrong either and works well enough as the middle man in the emotional and narrative tug of war between Michelle and Howard.
At the end of the day, there is no larger philosophical theme or idea this film is aiming for, it only seeks to serves as a piece of captivating storytelling and if judged by that, everyone is a winner on this one. Dan Trachtenberg hits a home run on his feature film debut, J J Abrams pulls out another brilliant yarn out of his mystery box and the audience gets a film that is purely here to entertain and nothing else.
With heavy emphasis on storytelling, great use of music and sound and claustrophobic cinematography, 10 Cloverfield Lane is an entertaining thrill ride. This is the better Cloverfield film.
Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of the documentary short film BLACK RAT has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas. https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/