“Cloverfield” was a 2008 monster movie that wanted to be part “Blair Witch Project”, part “Independence Day”, and part “Godzilla”. For me, the film failed to even be close to any of those in quality and in execution. The characters were at best boring, at worst irritating; and the film’s guerrilla-style camerawork was either dizzying or too unfocused and felt forced as “amateurish”. Every actor was too good looking to be considered realistic, and some were even recognized actors, which completely betrayed the “found footage” number one rule: you should be thinking you’re watching real people, not actors. Years later I saw the film again and it dulled into a watchable, somewhat amiable B-movie. Maybe that’s what it was actually intended to be–but whenever J.J. Abrams is involved, you know it’s going to aim higher. So for that, I gave it very bad marks.
In “10 Cloverfield Lane”, it seems that only part of the title is used to connect the two films together. We get the feeling that there will be a giant monster at some point. However, we’re introduced to a more intriguing, and unsettling story when we’re introduced to a boorish but somewhat likable hero/villain, Howard, played wonderfully by John Goodman in one of his best roles in his colorful career.
A young woman, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), leaves her fiance after a fight, and heads into the abyss of Louisiana, only to be forced off the road and losing consciousness at the end of the car wreck. She finds herself cuffed to the wall of a small basement room attached to an IV. Howard comes in and introduces himself, feeds her, and tells her he saved her life. After she attempts to escape, Howard realizes he should level with her and tell her that he’s brought her to his bunker because of an attack. He’s not sure what the attack was, except that toxic air has been released into the atmosphere and it’s no longer breathable. They are seemingly the only survivors, save for one other person–Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), who is around her age. Emmett knows Howard, and worked for him. He believes everything Howard says, to the dismay of Michelle, but there’s a hint of doubt coming from him as well. She can tell he doesn’t want to believe Howard.
Howard eventually introduces Michelle to his entire bunker, complete with kitchen and living room, board games and a TV with a VHS/DVD player. He believes they may have to stay down there for years, which Michelle also has a hard time swallowing. It’s hard to tell if Howard is telling any sort of truth, because he has some logic to his theories about what has happened. Then he mentions aliens, and she really loses her faith in him.
As time goes on, they learn to accept each other in some ways. No one truly trusts the other, except perhaps Emmett begins trusting Michelle more than Howard, and begins to hear her out in her plans to escape. She attempts to leave the bunker at one point, only to be confronted by a hysterical woman seemingly afflicted with burn marks all over her face. The woman is at first seen as a victim of some sort, but then becomes aggressive and starts screaming at Michelle to the point where Michelle really can be the only one seen as a victim in all of this.
This incident, however, allows Michelle to finally believe Howard. But then, things start to fall apart again when she starts to learn about his past, especially involving his daughter Megan. As the story unravels, a very creepy question emerges: What if you were stuck in a bunker following an apocalypse, and your only company was a psychopath?
It’s at this point where the film really begins to crackle and pop, and there are many surprises as the mystery unfolds. The film has plenty of jump-scares, and even becomes a full on thriller towards its climax.
The climax is where the film may divide audiences. This film was not originally conceived as a “Cloverfield” sequel, spiritual or not. It does have some elements that will remind you of that film. However, it becomes something entirely different toward the end. Howard morphs into something utterly monstrous, lumbering and menacing, and though he is still a human being, we see less of one as the film reaches its surprising and audacious conclusion.
Goodman’s performance isn’t the only one to point out, though; Winstead is steady and balanced as Michelle. She reveals to Emmett in an emotional scene that she may have been abused in the past, but always runs away from everything instead of confronts it. She tells him a story about a young girl being publicly assaulted by her own father, and even if it’s not serious or life threatening, Michelle’s resolve is simply to leave the scene rather than help the little girl. This gives insight into her leaving her fiance, who may also have been abusive (voiced briefly by Bradley Cooper, as Ben, who tries calling Michelle after she’s left).
The three characters are engaging and their chemistry is very good, keeping us interested not only in the unfolding of the story, but in their lives as well. We want to see what happens to them, as much as we want to see what happens in the plot.
As stated before, the ending shifts everything to another level, and you either accept it or you don’t. But by that time, I believe the film has achieved something the original “Cloverfield” never did–a believable cast, a credible and appealing story, and a satisfying journey. Whether you like how it ends up or not, to me, isn’t as important as being completely enthralled by the events leading up to the conclusion. It is, essentially, a great ride.
J.J. Abrams has recently become a mini-Spielberg, a guy he unabashedly worships as a hero and influence for his own films. But there’s something that Spielberg has had for a long time that Abrams lacks, and that’s vision. Nothing is more apparent in that criticism of Abrams than his new film in which he wrote and directed, called “Super 8′. He can basically thank screenwriters like Chris Columbus for a lot of the film’s first act, as he took most of it from movies like “The Goonies” or “Explorers” or any kids movie from the 80’s. The film centers around a group of kids led by Joe Lamb (played very well by newcomer Joel Courtney) who are trying to make a movie for an amateur film festival. There are some nice set ups for this premise as the director, Charles (Riley Griffiths) barks orders to everyone and takes immense joy in reading about film and storytelling, and wants to flesh out his characters and scenes, and loves saying the word “mint” and “production value”. Joe is the make-up artist and he’s overjoyed to know that they’ve cast a girl, Alice (Elle Fanning), that he likes. She starts to like him as well, and the two form a bond. All of this sounds like it’s going to be a fun little summer movie about kids wanting to make a movie. But there’s a caveat.
While they’re shooting a scene in front of a train, a pick up truck suddenly runs right into the train, and causes a massive wreck. The kids are okay, but the train and the pick up truck are dismantled. Surprisingly (and I use the word derisively) the driver of the truck is still alive, and is one of their teachers, who warns them about things to come. They find some strange little objects from the train, and then the military comes in and takes over. Then, the whole town begins to experience strange happenings as their power goes out, the sherrif goes missing, and other wild things occur while the ubiquitous military starts to impose their presence more and more. Meanwhile, the kids are still trying to make their movie, but they’re scared about what they know and what the military knows they know. Not to mention, they’re scared about whatever the military is supposed to be protecting them from.
There’s a subplot that’s supposed to bring a human element to the film in which Joe has lost his mother. We have no idea what kind of relationship he had with her or why that’s important to the “reveal” about what they have discovered as a result of the train wreck, and it seems very clunky and slows down the pace of the film in scenes where he’s watching old home movies of him as a baby and her taking care of him. While I know this is supposed to be poignant–and the performances during these scenes, especially by Elle Fanning are very nicely handled–the drama seems out of place in that it really doesn’t enhance anything about the direction of the plot nor does it really flesh out the characters. We never really understand the family element of the film because they don’t give the story enough life or time to develop anything. Joe’s father is an estranged man, but we’re not really sure why, nor do we understand why he can’t relate to his son. There’s a scene where he wants to send Joe to a baseball camp but that’s never mentioned again. Alice’s father is an alcoholic who is the bane of Joe’s dad’s existence because he was the guy who was supposed to be on the shift that his wife took that ultimately got her killed (she died in an accident at a warehouse). We’re not even sure how she died. All of these hinted-at elements just aren’t enough for the arc to stand on its own legs, and we’re bogged down so much toward the end with special effects and a climax that is so routine and predictable, you could easily get up and leave and know exactly how it ends, so it just seems disjointed.
The kids are very charismatic but their story arc of making their movie doesn’t really go anywhere either, and their characterizations don’t have any uniqueness in the way that “The Goonies” did. There’s a kid who likes to light firecrackers, but that’s never really explored. It’s offered as comic relief and then a cheap payoff in the film’s third act. The director, Charles, admits he wanted to cast Alice because he liked her and he was jealous of Joe liking her, but there’s no payoff in that storyline either. Even them capturing something they’re not supposed to doesn’t really have a huge impact on them because the military never really seeks them out. They really don’t have much at stake at all, except knowing something that’s eventually going to be revealed to everyone in town anyway.
The biggest problem I have with this film, though, is that it’s so by-the-book and standard, it just feels like you’re being taken through a re-run of older, better movies. It’s part “Close Encounters”, part “Jaws”, part “Goonies”, part “Stand By Me”, part “E.T.” and because it’s this Frankenstein monster cut up of all of them, it comes off as just shoddy. Whereas movies like “The Goonies” and “Stand By Me” actually explore the characters and have them relate to each other, this movie just uses the kids ultimately as props and throw in some standard talking scenes–but nothing is really revealed about them as people.
There’s nothing special about this movie and I guess that’s what’s let me down the most. Much like “Cloverfield”, this movie had promise and it seemed to want to be a little different. But in the end it’s nothing but an average summer action flick that has nice moments, but not enough to make it a good movie. Instead of a work of art, it’s pre-packaged leftovers.