2008 is one of the most influential years in movies within the modern era, and that started right away with the release of J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield. A found footage-style monster movie that was promoted through an ingenious viral marketing campaign, Cloverfield defied its January release to become one of the year’s best dark horse hits. Despite constant musing about a follow-up by Abrams however, who would next become very busy working on the Star Trek and Mission: Impossible franchises for Paramount as either a director or producer afterward, let alone his recent record-shattering mega-hit, Star Wars: The Force Awakens from last year, a sequel to Cloverfield never ultimately materialized.
It might make sense, since Cloverfield’s detailed and highly creative viral marketing campaign is extremely difficult to replicate for a sequel. Instead, Abrams tried something entirely different, after Paramount bought a spec script called The Cellar for Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions outfit, which was marketed as such for most of its lifetime. It wasn’t until a few months before release that The Cellar was unmasked to the moviegoing public as a spiritual follow-up to the Cloverfield experiment, with its final official title being ‘10 Cloverfield Lane‘, a twist that blew audiences away before the movie even hit theatres!
Rather than be a sequel, 10 Cloverfield Lane is instead sold as the next chapter of a loose anthology of stories, which don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other. Even the found footage style is gone in 10 Cloverfield Lane, which, frankly, doesn’t truly have anything in common with its predecessor from 2008. As long as you can get past the expectations that may come with the Cloverfield name however, 10 Cloverfield Lane is another highly successful cinematic experiment, one that will keep you on the edge of your seat right through to the end credits, without even breaking a sweat!
Being a claustrophobic thriller with an uncomfortably small scale, 10 Cloverfield Lane has only three principal actors in it. These include Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s core protagonist, Michelle, John Goodman’s Howard, and John Gallagher Jr.’s Emmett. All three exist together in an underground shelter that was built by Howard, as a means of protecting the trio from an apparently devastating attack on humanity, which has left the world above irradiated by fallout for at least a year or two.
… Or so Howard claims. One of the biggest strengths of 10 Cloverfield Lane is how you’re not entirely sure whether the ‘villain’ is even a villain at all. It’s never certain until the very end if Howard is telling the truth about having to forcibly kidnap Michelle and force her into the shelter, with no means of escape. At times, Howard seems very good-natured, welcoming and even sympathetic, but right when you think that he’s on the level, he tends to do or say something that throws his mental state into question. This is of course further helped by the brilliantly unhinged performance of John Goodman, who skillfully straddles the line between being hospitable and being creepy.
Thankfully, the other two performances in the movie are also excellent. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is fantastic in the lead role of Michelle, a woman who has just broken up with her boyfriend, and ends up run off the road and seemingly rescued by Howard, right before the apparent attacks. The great thing about Michelle is, unlike protagonists in a lot of horror/thriller movies of this nature, Michelle isn’t a moron. In fact, she’s a very smart, shrewd and independent woman who isn’t above even viciously trying to escape Howard’s captivity at times. This is another reason why Howard is such a scary and effective antagonist, because as smart as Michelle is, Howard is always smarter, and even when audiences are inclined to think that Michelle may finally get away, Howard is nonetheless prepared for her.
Rounding things off is John Gallagher, Jr., whose Emmett is a charming and easygoing country boy that seems entirely alright with what Howard is doing. Even when Howard does things to Emmett that are pretty questionable, and sometimes even harmful, Emmett never really seems bothered. He’s the main source of human connection that Michelle has to work with, and Gallagher, Jr. is the main presence in the movie that prevents it from ever becoming too uncomfortable. He’s the final part in a trinity of ingredients that keeps 10 Cloverfield Lane tight and focused with its personalities, making excellent use of even a very tiny cast!
The concept of 10 Cloverfield Lane is very simple, and even without the Cloverfield name attached to it, the movie is very easy to explain. The entire affair deals with the abduction of a woman, who may or may not have narrowly survived an apocalyptic event, and can choose whether to stay and go along with the vaguely disturbed owner of the cellar that she’s trapped in, or could try to escape, even if it means risking a horrible death by being exposed to whatever nasty stuff is in the air outside.
Even with its simple setup, and the fact that almost the entire movie takes place in one singular location, it’s no exaggeration to say that there is never a dull moment in 10 Cloverfield Lane. You’ll constantly be engrossed in what’s going on, since the story is very good at maintaining twists and turns, yet not to the point that it destroys the question of whether Michelle is right to even bother attempting to escape. The pacing comes to a steady, but consistently reliable sense of tension, and this masterfully pulls audiences into the plight of Michelle, since even the viewer won’t be sure what the right move is until the credits are rolling, and even then, there might be some questions left over that really work.
I must however stress that 10 Cloverfield Lane is an extremely different movie from its predecessor. The difference between 10 Cloverfield Lane and Cloverfield is night and day. It’s not even made explicitly clear that the movies even share a universe, so if you’re expecting a true follow-up to Cloverfield, you might be disappointed, since that movie’s ambiguous conclusion remains ambiguous. With that said though, the same small-scale blend of mystery and horror/thriller feels very true to the spirit of the former Cloverfield movie, even if its potential ‘monster’ is a regular human being this time.
As for whether there are sci-fi elements in 10 Cloverfield Lane that are eventually revealed, to also tie in with the budget sci-fi/horror flavouring of the original Cloverfield, well, yes, but not until the climax. In the end, Howard is only revealed to be half-correct about the attacks, and he was indeed being truthful, despite meeting a gory end when Michelle burns him with a barrel of acid and later blows up the shelter as he melts inside. This has the somewhat disconnected climax have Michelle realizing that aliens were responsible for the attacks that Howard mentioned, though he was actually wrong about there being a deadly fallout or pathogen that lingered around the area, which is how Michelle can ultimately do battle with the aliens. It’s a fair climax, though it is a pretty hard left turn from the rest of the movie, with the finale being just as likely to disappoint some viewers as it is to thrill others.
10 Cloverfield Lane may have been produced by J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot Productions, but it was directed by Dan Trachtenberg, a first-time feature film director with no Hollywood credits to his name. That’s actually legitimately amazing, since 10 Cloverfield Lane is an excellent thriller that even puts quite a few veteran Hollywood directors to shame!
If this is an indication of Trachtenberg’s directing talents, then he’s definitely got a bright filmmaking future ahead of him! Trachtenberg effortlessly captures the constant feeling of unsettling tension that would come from a situation like Michelle’s. He deftly moves between conveying eccentric humour, unforeseen scares and thrilling discomfort, without ever missing a beat. Trachtenberg is also never shackled by the movie’s small scale, and in fact seems to benefit from it, encouraging the actors to embrace the feeling of being caged up, and in Michelle’s case particularly, not really understanding why, and debating whether to make the best of it, or take one’s chances in an attempt to flee.
Trachtenberg does amazing things with even this tiny budget, and this lone setting. With the movie unable to rely on special effects and other such elements to distract audiences, 10 Cloverfield Lane fosters the creativity of its helmer to great effect, allowing him to realize a movie that is equally eerily relatable and seemingly inconceivable. There’s many added dimensions of humanity in 10 Cloverfield Lane in contrast to its predecessor, now that we’re entirely dealing with a very human story, and Trachtenberg seems to somehow balance both the best and the worst of humanity in one uncomfortable, but wholly unforgettable struggle.
As much as 10 Cloverfield Lane is a masterwork in terms of its direction and atmosphere, one of the main reasons why both of these work very well is how effectively the movie uses audio. There isn’t much in the way of music in the normally quiet 10 Cloverfield Lane, with the handful of musical work done by Bear McCreary, best known for composing the music for AMC’s The Walking Dead series. With that said, there’s clever uses of licensed oldies tunes that give the movie sort of a quaint, making-the-best-of-it feel whenever it wants to calm audiences, just as more traditional horror chords effectively create both potent discomfort, and surprisingly enjoyable jump scares.
The real star of the audio behind 10 Cloverfield Lane however is the general sound design, which is just excellent! This is one of the best uses of audio that any theatrical movie has featured in quite a while, which continues to have 10 Cloverfield Lane easily immersing audiences in the experience throughout the entire runtime. Things like the constant creaking never truly have viewers feeling safe, just as Michelle never truly feels safe. The groans, rumbles and shudders create an equally uncertain picture of what may be outside the shelter, and whether or not humanity was indeed decimated, or Howard is simply lying to Michelle and Emmett in order to keep them captive. There’s a lot of character to the shelter itself, which feels like an engrossing prison that you won’t exactly want to stay in, but you’ll never actively be hoping to leave either, and that’s largely thanks to the sublime audio work!
Being a movie with a rather miniscule $15 million budget, and taking place almost entirely in an emergency shelter, you can imagine that 10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t have much in the way of visual effects. There are some practical effects here and there however, and the rare moments of violence can actually be pretty intense. For the most part though, 10 Cloverfield Lane is pretty effects-free.
Interestingly though, 10 Cloverfield Lane was released with an IMAX cut, though honestly, the IMAX cut really isn’t worth it. While it enhances some of the stellar audio pretty nicely, and can make some of the jump scares even more accentuated, the IMAX screen is predictably not really used in any noteworthy fashion. It feels like an oxymoron to even consider putting a small-scale movie like 10 Cloverfield Lane in an IMAX theatre, so honestly, you’re better off just sticking with a standard digital screening. That’s all you need to get the proper sense of atmosphere, without really feeling like the experience is compromised.
10 Cloverfield Lane is pretty much a Cloverfield successor in name only, and might as well have been sold under its original title, The Cellar. That said, even if it has very little to do with its 2008 predecessor, this is an excellently made small-scale thriller, one that is written, directed and performed to outstanding effect.
If you enjoy movies that keep you guessing and constantly have you on the edge of your seat, then 10 Cloverfield Lane is a must-see movie, whether or not you saw or even enjoyed the original Cloverfield. This is a standout example of how to do lots with little on the big screen, with the smaller budget and scale allowing for maximum creativity and courage behind realizing the movie’s vision, which makes it one of the most satisfying and taut thrillers to hit the big screen in quite some time.
This could have been a very straightforward horror/thriller experience, but it’s not until the credit crawl that 10 Cloverfield Lane will lay at least some of its mysteries bare, and in many respects, truly bring home its sheer level of uncomfortable brilliance. It’s a fantastic testament of wonderfully creative people really going the extra mile with their vision, elevating a small, seemingly simple concept to what will no doubt be one of 2016’s most memorable movies, just as Cloverfield was in 2008. There’s no gargantuan monster this time, but 10 Cloverfield Lane proves that great monsters can still be realized in the most vulnerable and human of spaces.
- Excellent performances from all leads
- Claustrophobic, unsettling direction is very thrilling
- Outstanding use of audio and atmosphere
- Has no real connection to its predecessor