It’s been eight years since Bad Robot’s unorthodox kaiju (giant monster) film Cloverfield was released. Now a “sequel” has slipped in under the radar with 10 Cloverfield Lane. Is it just as terrifying, or does it succumb to the monstrous tropes that plague most horror movies?
Having just survived a car accident, a young woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes to find herself held in a bunker by a paranoid man (John Goodman) who claims the world has ended and the surface is uninhabitable. But after talking with another bunker dweller (John Gallagher, Jr), she wonders if everything is as it seems.
A large part of Cloverfield’s success was its brilliantly enigmatic viral marketing campaign. The creature was never shown in any of the promotional materials, leaving it ambiguous as to what it was about. The mystery spawned theories all over the internet (some even going so far as to say it was a secret Godzilla movie), creating a surprising amount of hype. While it technically wasn’t the first “found footage” film ever produced, I’d argue it started the current trend for that style, particularly in horror (although it was amplified by Paranormal Activity). Say what you want about the finished product—whether it was terrifying or nausea-inducing—but it’s impact is indelible.
I say all that because the complete opposite was done with this “blood relative” or “spiritual successor,” as producer J.J. Abrams calls it. I somehow didn’t know about it until January because the promotion was surprisingly sparse. Plus, the film isn’t done in the found footage style. Indeed, it seemed to have little in common with the original aside from a commonality with the title. I didn’t know if it’d be a creature feature, let alone a kaiju movie, aside from a recent trailer that hinted at something huge threatening the characters.
The truth is this is a sequel devoid of “sequel-itis,” as one of my writer friends once said. It has none of the characters from the original, a completely different style and a different setting (Louisiana instead of New York) . There are references to events happening in the world at large, but they aren’t necessarily direct ties to preceding film. Honestly, it’s a stand-alone story someone who’s never seen Cloverfield could watch and not be lost. That isn’t to say that fans of the original, like myself, won’t be rewarded. (More on that in my spoiler section).
10 Cloverfield Lane is a refreshingly old-fashioned horror film. Absent are the cheap gimmicks of excessive gore and stupid characters. If I had to describe it in one word, I’d say, “Tense.” As soon as Michelle, the heroine, awakens after her car accident, there’s almost no respite from the suspense. The filmmakers create fear through setting and character. The bunker is claustrophobic and isolated. Howard, the conspiracy theorist who built it, seems at once to be well-meaning and insane. His claims that the world has ended never seem to be quite accurate. His social awkwardness and temper only inhibits his ability to communicate. As the film progresses and more clues are uncovered, the tension only continues to mount until it reaches a boiling point the last 15 minutes. Bad Robot is to be commended for taking advantage of these and keeping it classy in a genre replete with trash.
Horror stories are often only as good as their antagonists, and 10 Cloverfield Lane is no exception. John Goodman is yet another comedic actor who’s proven he has a wide range. He is simply terrifying in this film. But his character is at once likable and pitiable. He rescues Michelle after her accident. His family, he says, left him years before. He truly believes he’s protecting those in the bunker from mysterious dangers topside. The problem is he’s paranoid and possibly delusional. He has little tolerance for having his authority questioned or his rules broken. While he doesn’t get violent, a threatening aura emanates from him. Only in a few scenes does that let up, and even then it was simply a respite for the audience to relieve tension.
While Goodman is certainly the best actor, his co-stars aren’t lightweights. Winstead plays a resourceful and smart heroine. She’s not easily persuaded by Howard’s claims of the apocalypse. She uses her skills as a fashion designer—seriously—and limited resources to overcome obstacles. But more than that, she’s a young woman who runs from everything whenever it gets tough. She leaves her fiancé—voiced by Bradley Cooper over a cell phone, by the way—at the beginning of the film because they had an argument. Now she’s being forced to face fear. In a genre where women are usually helpless victims or top-heavy eye candy or both, it’s great to see a character in the vein of Nancy from the late Wes Craven’s classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. Gallagher plays Emmitt, a fellow “prisoner” in the bunker. He may be dumb, but he’s loyal and fun-loving. He doesn’t turn into comic relief, though, at least not in the traditional sense. He cracks a few jokes and tries to lighten the mood, but that only happens a few times. He becomes Michelle’s friend and ally in trying to escape the bunker.
The script itself is tightly written. Every line and scene has meaning, whether it’s an insight into the characters or a foreshadowing of things to come. Each question is answered; every mystery explained (the ones raised within this film, at least). The pacing is just right, never moving too slow or at breakneck speed.
Is this a kaiju movie? No, it isn’t. It is a creature feature, though. When Michelle escapes to the surface at the end, she discovers that aliens have invaded and are now scouring the countryside for survivors.
So, how does this connect to Cloverfield?
My theory is the monster in the previous film was a bio-weapon used as part of what Howard called “the first wave” of the extraterrestrial attack. This is also implied because the one alien seen in 10 Cloverfield Lane—which was essentially an attack dog that is sure to be someone’s nightmare fuel—had a similar physiology to the Cloverfield monster. Since the creature’s origin was never revealed and only theorized upon by the characters, that gap could easily be filled by a film like this. Also, keep in mind that both films have focused stories with isolated characters. They’re cut off from the rest of the world right as a crisis erupts. This ambiguity gives the filmmakers at Bad Robot enough leeway to expand on what was happening. Admittedly, these connections are implied and not stated, but I think that’s part of the fun of this, well, franchise.
10 Cloverfield Lane is not only a remarkable horror movie but an excellent film. In an era that sees the horror genre inundated with schlock, a film like this are a breath of fresh air. It shows that horror is best done when it includes good stories and characters.
Final Grade: A-