(dir. Dan Trachtenberg)
“It’s not safe out there.”
There are few aspects of storytelling more compelling than a genuinely surprising narrative twist. And if that twist can be built upon a strong foundation of characterization and logical plot points, then chances are high that this story is going to have a lasting impact, one that lingers long after the last page is turned or the credits roll. The Twilight Zone was founded upon this notion, so much so that decades later those brief episodes still rustle around in our minds. It’s proven nearly impossible to replicate the genuine thrill of that level of creative storytelling. In our current cinema landscape, driven by scoops, announcements, set photos, and spoiled endings, surprises are hard to come by, which is why the announcement of 10 Cloverfield Lane felt like such a gift. The idea that we could be taken completely unaware by a movie announcement, eight years after Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield challenged everything we thought we knew about pre-release build-up, was presumably a lost art form. And yet, thanks to producer J.J. Abrams’ commitment to Mystery Box filmmaking, here we are with another film that proves cinematic surprises are not just something we crave, but something we need. And make no mistake, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a necessity for the future of filmmaking.
After waking up from a car accident, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds herself in an underground bunker with two men, Howard (John Goodman) and Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr.), who tell her that the world outside the bunker has become contaminated from a chemical attack…and everyone she knows is dead. But life inside the bunker may be far more dangerous than what lies outside, unless of course it’s not. 10 Cloverfield Lane is carefully built upon the audiences’ expectations and subsequent subversion of those expectations. While elements of the plot may be familiar, this familiarity is only used to challenge both characters and audience members’ presumed knowledge of genre tropes. Just when everything seems to come together, a new piece of information is tossed in, creating an ever-growing threat of possibility.
While 2008’s found-footage film Cloverfield managed to create a sprawling and cataclysmic sense of horror as New York fell under attack from a giant monster, its spiritual successor takes a different approach. 10 Cloverfield Lane is contained within the walls of the bunker, and while the space is much smaller than that of its predecessor, this film still feels big. This is partly because of first-time filmmaker Dan Trachtenberg’s keen eye for spatial relations. When Michelle first wakes up in the bunker, she’s on a bed and chained to a wall. Her phone lies several feet away from her, out of arms’ reach. Trachtenberg frames the scene in such a way that the room seems cavernous, impossibly threatening in its emptiness and lack of resources. Michelle is confined to this wall, and made small by the room and her mounting anxiety. We return to this room throughout the film, and as Michelle’s situation changes and she grows more comfortable with her surroundings, we see the room for how it really is, small and harmless. The rest of the bunker is given the same treatment, with a twist of course. Most of the space feels large and open when the characters are at peace, and yet seems to shrink in upon themselves as Goodman’s Howard takes up the room, not only with his impressive size, but also his personality, which induces nothing but the essence of paranoia. This film’s script may work under the rules of a bottle-drama, but its direction feels just as a big and impressive as any sweeping journey through a haunted mansion, or harrowing run through a ruined city.
Coupled with the direction is the mounting sense of tension that’s carefully nurtured by the three performances. If Cloverfield was sheer panic in the face of a massive attack, then 10 Cloverfield Lane is the fear that another attack will happen. 10 Cloverfield Lane offers numerous jump scares, not born out of cheap fake-outs, but because the film spends its time convincing us that danger is not only real but that it’s everywhere. Even in light of all of its twists, this film makes an early promise not to trick its audience, and the experience is made all the more anxious because of that. Born of a Cold War fear of “others” from “outside,” and a modern fear of the people who live next door or with us, Trachtenberg’s film further establishes Cloverfield as a franchise that explores modern anxieties through the lens of the monster movie. But the monsters aren’t simply what roam outside, or even the ones we share a space with. Monsters are also our inner-most fears that lead us to act against our best interests. Michelle and Emmett define the millennial generation in their fear of their own future, fear of commitment, and regrets about a life not lived to its fullest potential. They’re both runners, who in the midst of this experience are forced to stand still. Howard, on the other hand, has no regrets and is deeply committed to being prepared in every way. He fears the future because he knows the past, yet we and the characters fear him because we do not know or believe that past. This film not only about pitting beings against each other, but also pitting ideologies against one another and seeing what shakes loose.
Given this film’s namesake, it’s going to be impossible not to compare this film to 2008’s. Is 10 Cloverfield Lane as good as Cloverfield? No, it isn’t, but it never needed to be. This film is different from the first, and yet acts as the next logical step in the most unexpected way. Those expecting to see a direct continuation of the events of Cloverfield may find themselves disappointed, but those willing will find connections far more satisfying. J.J. Abrams has suggested that for now we can consider both this film and 2008’s film as an anthology series, until future installments. An anthology is good way of looking at these films, as one does not necessitate the viewing of the other, but the more I contemplate these two seemingly separate films, the more connections begin to arise. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a puzzle with missing pieces (something the film heavily alludes to indirectly) but if we’re patient and smart enough to follow along, the Cloverfield films could end up being the most innovative cinematic universe we’ve seen.
We need films like 10 Cloverfield Lane, not simply because it’s original, but because it finds original ways to discuss us in the here and now, much in the way that Rod Serling did for the us of the 50s and 60s. By giving us characters who are delicately human and smartly capable, 10 Cloverfield Lane not only exposes our fear but also our hope, and manages to cherish both attributes. This is a film that allows us to be surprised at the very components that make up ourselves, and uses its twists not as a shock-factor but to remind us of the communal experience of being human and surviving that. In its careful balancing act of tone, genre, and characterization, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a reminder of why we go to the movies.