It’s through an ingenious trick of marketing that 10 Cloverfield Lane, the debut film of commercial director Dan Trachtenberg, became a must-see film. Starting its life as a spec script called The Cellar, it got a rewrite from Whiplash director Damian Chazelle (who was first attached to direct this, but alas) and the production codename “Valencia” before being sprinkled with the magical promotional dust of the Cloverfield brand. That the alteration was kept from cast members long after filming had ceased is fairly indicative of the cynical nature of the film’s re-branding. There’s a vaguely tangible relationship between Trachtenberg’s film and Matt Reeves’ 2008 surprise hit in terms of plot (which I’ll avoid discussing further), but even taking “Cloverfield” as a stock phrase, a way to indicate a scrappy studio-backed genre film from Bad Robot, 10 Cloverfield Lane falls far short of its namesake. Trachtenberg’s film still feels like the spec script it spawned from, trying vainly to pack tense set pieces and striking moments of violence into its simplistic chamber play without any sense of tonal cohesion or visual interest; on screen are three distinct genre pieces (neatly partitioned at the act breaks), all blandly shot, poorly performed and lazily written.
Take the film’s pre-credits sequence, for starters. We open on a shot of the Mississippi River, seen from the Louisiana apartment of Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a would-be clothing designer. She’s rushing to pack up a box of her belongings and trying to call someone on her mobile phone. The sequence cuts awkwardly between shots of her talking and packing, reaching its banal zenith with her leaving the room; the camera moves in on what she left behind: her keys and an engagement ring. Cut to a string of God’s eye view shots of her car (presumably taken from the cutting room floor of Xavier Dolan’s Tom at the Farm) and close-ups on her ringing phone, where a man named Ben tells her that one fight shouldn’t end a relationship. Throughout this sequence the film’s overbearing musical score by Bear McCreary drowns out any sense of nuance.1 The scene’s purpose—ostensibly to inform us about Michelle whilst also delaying the gratification that comes with watching a mysterious thriller—makes logical sense but in its execution the sequence comes across as both amateurish and uninvolving. It’s as if the screenwriters saw the awkward and wholly effective opening to The Strangers (a rejected marriage proposal as lead-up to home invasion film) and decided they’d remake it as a one-hander without any definite sense of character or tension.
Luckily things pick up when Michelle ends up at the titular address – not the house but in the property’s fallout shelter. In there we find Howard (John Goodman), a survivalist who spent years preparing the bunker for a world-ending disaster and Emmet (John Gallagher Jr.), a young local who fought his way in. Michelle, on account of waking up in the bunker with no idea how she got there, is understandably suspicious of Howard’s motives.2 He claims that the outside world is uninhabitable, most likely caused by a chemical attack or nuclear fallout. The tonal shifts and fake outs that follow, with Michelle and Emmet testing the validity of Howard’s story, are less playful than plodding; a string of escape attempts sandwiched around blurted out clues and knowingly saccharine montages of puzzle solving (with some pieces missing, in case you needed some help reading this film) scored to ’60s pop music courtesy of a Fallout-esque jukebox.
The tension isn’t so much ever-present as it is irregularly successful, each attempt at pulse-raising signaled by the loud clanging sound design. The neat and locked off framing of Jeff Cutter’s cinematography feels appropriate but the set design and colour palette feel less cinematic than made-for-Netflix. Goodman’s phoned in performance doesn’t help, particularly when the film relies upon his initial moral ambiguity. Gallagher Jr., whilst effortlessly charming here and in almost every role he takes, is little more than a cardboard cutout, reacting to plot beats when necessary. Winstead is somehow wasted despite being the protagonist of the film. Like Gallagher Jr., this has got a lot to do with the fact that the script gives her so very little to work with; there is a clunky scene where the two trade anecdotes through their shared wall but it’s so blunt in its aim to provide depth of character in one neat parcel that it achieves the very opposite.
The film’s final section, which stands out as a tacked on rewrite, contains some of its most engaging moments. Trachtenberg finds his sea legs here and the kinetic rhythm of the cutting by editor Stefan Grube makes it feel like a different film entirely (partially in that the moments of terror feel earned). For a film that relies on its twists and turns the final one lands the best and cements the film’s greatest virtue as being its visual effects by the in-house Bad Robot team. The imagination packed into this section is testament to what you can create on a small budget. It’s a pity that the rest of the film is so rote and underwhelming, both visually and conceptually.
Whilst Reeves’ Cloverfield managed to be more than just a creature feature through its playful take on the found footage genre and government surveillance, 10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t move beyond its genre boundaries, lacking any real bite and without contemporary relevance.3 It exists, then, as a perfunctory piece of escapism which never feels the need to reinvent the mystery box.
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