10 Cloverfield Way(3/12/2016)

In 1982 John Carpenter engaged in a strange little experiment that’s still debated in genre circles.  Having already produced one sequel to his 1979 classic Halloween in which he definitively killed off the Michael Myers character, Carpenter needed to find a way to please producers who were demanding a third film for the franchise.  His solution was to convert the Halloween brand into a sort of anthology series in which each installment would be a standalone horror film dealing in some way with the titular holiday and the movie he delivered, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, was about a cult selling possessed Halloween masks rather than a knife wielding killer.  Long story short, that movie left fans expecting a more conventional sequel confused and the movie did poorly as a result.  That movie has amassed something of a cult following and many have argued that if it had simply been released without the Halloween branding it would have done better.  I’m not so sure about that.  I’d argue that the movie is more flawed then some of its defenders suggest and that few people would be talking about it today were it not a distant cousin of a more famous horror movie.  Either way the experiment didn’t work out.  The next Halloween movie brought back Michael Myers (as did the next six sequels/remakes) and no other franchises tried to do the anthology thing… until now.  Thirty-four years after Halloween III J.J. Abrams has seemingly decided to have another go at making an established horror franchise into an anthology series with the “sequel” to the 2008 monster film Cloverfield entitled 10 Cloverfield Lane.

This spiritual successor to Cloverfield is seemingly set in a different continuity from the original film and doesn’t use any kind of found footage conceit.  Instead it focuses on a woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who has just left her boyfriend moments before the film begins and is driving off to some other location when her car is seemingly struck and run off the road.  Moments later she wakes up in a small room in what appears to be an underground bunker.  This bunker is being run by a man named Howard Stambler (John Goodman), a doomsday prepper and conspiracy theorist who tells her that there’s been an attack of some kind and that if either of them try to leave they’ll be killed by the radiated air outside.  Michelle is obviously suspicious of this and thinks she’s been kidnapped, but we did hear just before her accident that there had been some kind of blackout across the Southeast and the one other inhabitant named Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr.) also claims to have seen a flash in the distance before fleeing to the bunker.

In interviews producer J.J. Abrams has described this and the original Cloverfield as “two different rides at the same amusement park.”  In other words he’s using the “Cloverfield” brand in order to help market stand-alone science fiction films produced by his production company that happen to share a certain Twilight Zone sensibility.  It’s a move that anthology TV series like “American Horror Story” and “True Detective” may have prepared the public for and is basically a smart way to give a leg up to movies that would have lacked name recognition otherwise.  I’m not sure how well this will work exactly.  I like the original Cloverfield a lot but it was a divisive film and it’s also been a while since it came out, I’m not sure how much hunger there is out there for something similar and I’m also not sure how many people are exactly going to understand what they’re going for, but if this is what has to be done to get original IPs out there I’m not going to complain.

A secondary objective of the newly christened Cloverfield franchise seems to be that the films will act as launching pads for young “Bad Robot” affiliated directors who want to work from the jump in a commercial space rather than toil in the indie world.  The original Cloverfield was (sort of) the debut feature for Matt Reeves, who previously had TV credits but is now the inheritor of the newly revived Planet of the Apes franchise.  This time Abrams has tapped a guy named Dan Trachtenberg who previously mostly made commercials and made something of a splash with a short film based on the “Portal” video game.  He was also something of an internet personality and hosted a couple of podcasts that I used to listen to from time to time back when he was a nobody.  Those podcasts, which I tended to listen to more for his co-hosts than for him gave me the impression that he was very amiable personality whose taste in film runs on the geekier rather than auteurist end of the spectrum.  Also I gathered that he was rather obsessed with the 80s and nostalgia thereof.  He’s the kind of guy who would cite The Karate Kid as a “classic” and that perhaps makes him a natural collaborator with the director of Super 8.

The direction here is mostly slick and professional if not terribly distinguished.  It certainly doesn’t have the experimental edge of the original Cloverfield which was a film that was almost entirely defined by its technique rather than its story.  This one is more traditional.  There’s no found footage conceit or any other particular gimmick aside from the fact that it’s this sort of confined chamber drama with only three real characters.    The film’s real weakness probably stems from the film’s script, which was written by a couple of guys named Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken and which was also apparently worked on by Damien Chazelle (director of Whiplash).  The screenplay does a decent job of setting things in motion and does seem to have a handful of good ideas, but there are some shaky elements as well like sub-plots in it that go nowhere (hint: earrings) and there’s also a pretty major scene in the film that is resolved through some really coincidental timing (hint: escape attempt).

Of course the element of the film that will probably generate the most discussion are the developments in the last fifteen or twenty minutes (and we’re diving headfirst into spoiler territory here) in which it’s revealed that Howard is not crazy and that there was a damn alien invasion going on while our three characters were hunkered down in their bomb shelter.  This isn’t a complete shock twist of the Sixth Sense variety as it was pretty clearly foreshadowed that science fiction things are a possibility in the movie, but the way that the film shifts from Ex Machina into War of the Worlds is still pretty leftfield and it also reveals the main commonality between it and the original Cloverfield: both are film that depict people who have limited and unconventional perspectives on an apocalyptic situation.   The difference is that I found the way the original film cockteased its audience by giving bits and pieces of “the goods” before retreating to be rather invigorating where a conventional take would have been boring, but I’m not sure I feel the same way about this approach.  If anything, I kind of left the film feeling like the alien invasion movie that we only got a taste of would have made for a more exciting film than the somewhat interesting bit of theatrical drama that we got.

I will give them this though: the twist ending wasn’t a pure gimmick and did play into the film’s wider story.  It is was almost certainly a deliberate choice to make the last spoken words in the film something along the lines of “we need people with combat and medical skills.”  Howard had both of those things but rather than use them to help humanity he used them to keep himself safe to no real end.  As such, the twist with the aliens vindicates his paranoia while condemning his tactics.  It’s that kind of trickery that ultimately keeps me on board with 10 Cloverfield Lane and J.J. Abrams’ “mystery box” philosophy.  However, there is probably a reason why I’ve spent almost as much time discussing the ways that this film would be marketed and branded rather than its actual content.  The first Cloverfield was something special, something I’ll be talking about for a while and this wasn’t really.  We’ve seen thrillers like this with minimal casts and a single location before; they’re really not as rare as you’d think and I don’t know that this one really added a whole lot to the equation, but it’s certainly a good movie, probably the best one you’re likely to find in wide release right now but I can’t really call it a homerun.

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