Back in 1999 following the immense success of The Blair Witch Project (the first ‘viral’ word-of-mouth film?) there was a notable rise in the number of found footage films being made. Dramas disguised as documentaries. They were cheap, they drew crowds, they made money. They were, with one or two exceptions, awful. But they were starting to become less frequent by 2008. The well was running dry.
Then Cloverfield happened, and back they came. Like a virus. Like a plague. And with more or less the same hit to miss ratio as ever.
I’m not going to sit on the fence on this one, I hated Cloverfield; a genuine example of the emperor’s new clothes, but not so much for its idea but for its execution. Whatever. It came, it went, people largely forgot about it. If anything is remembered of it, it’s the secrecy and surprise of its release. A film famous for its marketing. Great.
Cut to 2016. In a somewhat similar fashion 10 Cloverfield Lane has appeared, seemingly from nowhere. Produced as before by J.J. Abrams and his Bad Robot buddies, we’re once again thrown an apocalyptic yarn that allows an unknown director the opportunity to make a name for himself; in this case Dan Trachtenberg. It’s announcement came with, of course, a trailer, and a rather superb one at that. Apart from anything else one thing was clear; mercifully the found footage angle has been dropped.
A number of other things have been dropped for this superior spiritual sequel. For one thing, CG monsters are scarce in 10 Cloverfield Lane. Better still, acting and characterisation have been prioritised. If the first film was a shitstorm of that’ll-do casting choices, could’ve-give-a-toss dialogue and outright painful performances, Trachtenberg’s film seems to deliberately address the areas in which Cloverfield fell flat.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle, leaving the city – and her boyfriend – to start a new life somewhere. There’s paranoia already here, and 10 Cloverfield Lane opens with a masterful sequence of intrigue and suspicion as we wordlessly watch Michelle make furtive glances at a filling station etc. Bear McCreary’s music is stirring during this opening gambit especially, recalling the melodrama of 40’s film noir, setting up a movie which owes loving debts to classic genres.
An accident jolts us into production credits and the title card with genuine surprise and Michelle wakes in a bunker, wounded and imprisoned by former navy man and über paranoiac Howard (John Goodman, putting in the kind of hefty, menacing turn he’s always been capable of – there’s a reason he’s my fantasy pick to play The Judge if Blood Meridian ever makes it to screen). Howard informs Michelle that there has been ‘an attack’, and she cannot leave his shelter because the air outside is poisonous. Estimating the half-life of the weapons “we know of”, Howard intends to keep her there for two years at a minimum, or until someone starts talking on his little radio.
Completing the set-up is John Gallagher Jr. as Emmett, a man who has lived his life “in a 40 mile radius” seemingly out of a lack of self-belief. He helped Howard build the shelter and fought his way into it. These three are set to become a family, whether Michelle likes it or not.
Michelle doesn’t like it. Through a series of lean, wordless scenes early on we are informed that she is a strong, resourceful woman. These scenes are some of the movie’s best and Winstead’s casting proves wise from the get-go. An underrated actress, she brought a lot to roles in indie movies like Smashed or Faults. In another era she’d have made a fine silent movie star. She’s all eyes and actions. Because of the genre 10 Cloverfield Lane plays in – kooky Twilight Zone science fiction – comparisons to Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley will be inevitable, but Winstead makes Michelle her own, and the script (which received some love from Damien Chazelle of Whiplash fame) makes personal scenes count. Again, character over sensationalism.
Not to belay the efforts of Gallagher Jr. (he’s also great), but Goodman is every bit Winstead’s equal. A seasoned character actor, he is Howard, filling his role here not just with menace, but with sadness. He’s rounded and multi-dimensional, and, as the movie progresses, the real monster of this piece.
Going further into plot details would spoil a ride I’d encourage you to take. Trachtenberg has himself a great calling card with this movie, one that outstripped my admittedly low expectations following Cloverfield. Regardless of that, this movie is a hoot. One of the most consistently entertaining pieces of pop cinema to have appeared in years. A genuine thriller that satisfies while only lightly prodding at the extremes of its 12A rating (nevertheless, things do on occasion evoke a wince and the one ‘F-bomb’ is ridiculously well-earned).
I’ve used the word ‘throwback’ already, and there really is love for a bygone era on the screen. Not just in the immaculate production design of Ramsey Avery (the details in Howard’s shelter are terrific), but in the script’s fondness for Hitchcockian suspense, all the while evoking the feel of the best of 1950’s short-story sci-fi. There’s a heavy dose of Cold War paranoia to 10 Cloverfield Lane. It makes for an immensely enjoyable and immersive experience, anchored by a trio of committed performers. It looks beautiful too. Cinematographer Jeff Cutter doesn’t showboat, but frequently the aesthetic simplicity of his work reaps marvellous results. Framing and lighting are perfect.
For the experience of watching, this was a clear 10/10, yet the devil’s in the details and a number of those nagged a little loudly once the credits rolled. There are plot holes, not to mentioned a couple of “well that wouldn’t work” moments. Michelle’s faith in duct tape far outstrips mine, for instance. And then there’s the film’s last 15 minutes, which will certainly polarise responses. From my perspective, it works fine. The whole movie’s been telling you what type of yarn this is, as with those moments you could nitpick, my best advice is to shut up and go with it.
Because if you do, you’ll have a brilliant time. Surprisingly and oh-so-pleasingly, 10 Cloverfield Lane is the populist thriller to beat this year. Cloverfield inspired a resurgence of found footage. Here’s hoping that Trachtenberg’s film inspires quality work in thrills, suspense, character and production. You never know, maybe they do still make ’em like they used to.