✦ ✦ ✦ ✦ ½ of five
Cloverfield is perhaps the ur-example of a wonderful idea executed in disappointing fashion. There have been few movie concepts as immediately compelling as “Blair Witch during a kaiju attack”, and the movie gets a lot of mileage from that phrase, but in the end its characters and acting fall short, and both its beginning and ending shouldn’t be part of the story it’s telling. Couple this with the fact that we’re never given a proper justification for why the hell the cameraman is lugging around a heavy rig to film the chaos surrounding him and it’s a movie that, while effective, is ultimately unsuccessful.
The out-of-nowhere spin-off (or not) 10 Cloverfield Lane, by contrast, presents us with nearly no expectations—no buildup, no gripping high concept pitch, no real information apart from its title—and excels at what it does. Its ending has the same problems as that of its predecessor, but on the whole it’s a better movie than anyone had any right to expect from a loose Cloverfield sequel, and indeed one of the best movies of the year so far.
The biggest of Cloverfield‘s flaws that 10 Cloverfield Lane corrects is its characters. The fresh-faced yuppies that populate the former film are shallow and poorly acted, and unlike the trio of The Blair Witch Project, who are helpless and ineffectual but very much real people, we never get the sense that these characters had lives of their own before the events of the movie destroyed them. 10 Cloverfield Lane, on the other hand, runs on its players. All three are performed impressively, but John Goodman’s Howard, a paranoid survivalist who drags the other two down into his bunker due to what he claims is a biological attack up above, is far and away the reason to see the film. The plot revolves around him—is he crazy? Is he right about what’s happened? Or even worse, is he both? The depths Goodman imbues the character with render it nail-bitingly hard to tell—he’s sweet one minute, terrifying the next, and it grows increasingly difficult to determine if he’s simply emotionally unstable or genuinely unhinged. It’s unlikely he’ll be recognized at the Oscars once they roll around, but the performance more than merits a nomination, and is yet another reminder that Goodman is one of our finest character actors.
Howard’s possible abductee and definite obsession, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle follows Mad Max‘s Furiosa and Star Wars‘ Rey as yet another excellent female protagonist in recent genre filmmaking. She’s terrified, paranoid, and out of her depth, but incredibly resourceful and intelligent despite her circumstances. The film is intensely aware of her femininity—she is the only woman in a small space otherwise populated by Howard and his young assistant Emmett, and this dynamic quickly becomes unsettling. Howard vacillates between understanding and tenderness and a frightening possessiveness and desire for power, while Emmett finds himself falling for this beautiful newcomer. The clashes that inevitably result from this are deeply disquieting, taking an already latent fear of being watched to new heights. Michelle attempts to turn this tension to her advantage, and never becomes an object in the eyes of the film despite the male gaze that surrounds her. While the film’s scenario doesn’t allow it to pass the Bechdel test with particular flair, its protagonist is the latest in a string of strong feminist heroes, and it’s beautiful to behold.
There’s political subtext hard at work throughout the first Cloverfield—it’s basically 9/11: The Movie with an amphibious monster thrown in, and as a look at Ground Zero from an on-the-scene perspective it’s undeniably powerful. 10 Cloverfield Lane follows up on that taking of the nation’s pulse in as nuanced a look at conspiracy culture as is reasonable in a franchise that opens with said amphibious monster attacking New York. Howard, with all his X-Files rambling about government conspiracies and possible alien invasions, could easily be seen as a broad critique of Glenn Beck and his survivalist ilk, but the film refuses to allow us to take a smug moral or intellectual high ground over its most interesting character. After all, something is out there, and whether or not Howard is crazy doesn’t particularly alter that. The film’s final ten minutes, which show us more of the outside than I’m very happy with, puncture this ambiguity, but the political zeitgeist of today’s paranoiac society is still excellently captured in Howard and his bunker. Which is scarier, ultimately: the fact that fascists like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz are running for office, or the possibility that their insane screeds are in fact correct? And can we really blame those who don’t trust the government when it’s now common knowledge that the NSA has run roughshod over America’s civil liberties? As a fan of Occam’s Razor and an opponent of bigotry, I don’t particularly entertain the latter possibility in most cases, but the fact is that distrust of the government simply can’t be written off as the clearer absurdity that it once was.
In the moment, though, 10 Cloverfield Lane never feels political. It’s a tightly written, excellently directed character-based suspense potboiler, one that improves on its predecessor in nearly every area while maintaining its overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. I’d rather see a dozen more small-budget, well-crafted flicks like this than another tentpole in the same vein, and hopefully Bad Robot will ensure that we get them in the years to come. Its tenuous franchise ties notwithstanding (it was an original script that got the Cloverfield label slapped onto it), the film is a highly impressive work of science fiction, especially as Dan Trachtenberg’s directorial debut. If this is any indication, Bad Robot’s future Portal movie is in good hands.