MARCH 13, 2016
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)
It is one of the great ironies that the title Cloverfield is meaningless - it's the name of the street that JJ Abrams' production office was on back when the film was made, and has zero relation to anything in the movie if memory serves. But now the name *does* mean something, namely giant monsters, so the fact that they took a script called The Cellar, and filmed under Valencia (another LA street name), only to release it as 10 Cloverfield Lane is kind of insane - it's literally the last thing they ever should have called the movie. The trailers aren't really misleading - they're not *hiding* that ugly goddamn monster from Matt Reeves' 2008 film, it (spoiler) just simply isn't in it.
(SOME SPOILERS AHEAD! Nothing "Vader is Luke's father" level, but whether or not the John Goodman character is crazy or not is addressed!)
That's not to say the movie lacks any genre elements; I've withheld the exact one from the listing above, hoping you haven't had it spoiled elsewhere. As you can tell from the ads, the movie primarily takes place in a bunker, focusing on Mary Elizabeth Winstead's character as she tries to figure out if her host, John Goodman as the paranoid owner of the bunker, is crazy or if there really is something outside that will kill them should they exit his carefully designed shelter. Had the movie been called The Cellar, or Valencia, we'd walk in totally unsure about that - but they had to basically call it "Cloverfield 2", so we know that whatever Goodman's other issues may be, he's not crazy - there IS something out there. Again, it's not exactly the familiar monster we saw rampaging around New York eight years ago (Jesus, it has been that long?), but it's not something so simple as a nuke or toxic waste spill or whatever - there's something... JJ Abrams-y about it.
But ultimately, what it is doesn't really matter - there's only like 10 minutes left of the movie by the time we see it, and it's probably the least interesting part about it (beyond seeing Winstead do some minor action heroine stuff - to think they could have just had her tag along with Willis for Die Hard 5 instead of inflicting Jai Courtney on us!). The big draw, and the reason the movie works as well as it does, is the Twilight Zone-y simplicity of three people in a bunker, no one knowing the truth of what's out there or if they should trust anyone else they're with. It's clear that Goodman (who has never been better) is a bit "off", but is he dangerous or just a kook? We see enough of his OCD tendencies (watch him set down cups and things of that nature, he's always adjusting them) to know that his angry outbursts and strange rules might just be part of what's obviously some mental issues, but that doesn't mean he's going to kill her (or Emmett, the third person who may be harboring secrets of his own). Likewise, even if he's right and there's something dangerous out there - that doesn't mean she's safe INSIDE, either.
Even Goodman gets in on the fear factor - he's perfectly accommodating at first, but when she tries to escape by setting a fire in her room (stabbing him with a sharpened crutch as he enters), he won't let her out of his sight for fear of his own safety, which is plausible enough for me. I'm guessing that like me, none of you have ever been trapped in a bunker that was meant to sustain you for years - I'd be mighty paranoid about anyone who'd be eating my food, breathing my air, etc. The dynamic keeps changing; just when things get really dicey, Goodman has a perfectly good explanation for his behavior, and when things get "settled in" (they even do a jigsaw puzzle together!) we learn another strange thing about Goodman's past that puts things in new perspective. It's a perfectly executed one-location mystery, and the narrative turns are all earned and exciting - I was actually kind of amazed when the credits began to roll, because the movie (which I knew was a little over 100 minutes) just flew by for me. I can't even remember the last time that happened; I've gotten too used to Hollywood movies making you feel every minute of their bloated runtimes (why is Batman vs Superman two and a half goddamn hours long?).
And for a guy who has only made a (not very appealing to me) Portal fan film so far, Dan Trachtenberg proves to be a pretty promising director here. A film with three people set entirely in a cramped bunker could be a very dull one to look at, but he keeps it interesting from start to finish - all the more impressive when you consider he wastes little time getting Winstead into the bunker and not cheating with exteriors (there's a little window by the main door, but we can only see the same limited field of vision that she has from inside). I remember Phone Booth sure took its time getting Colin into the damn booth, and other "one location" movies also had a lot of set up before getting there, but I think she's in the bunker by like the 5 minute mark after a couple very brief scenes that set up her character (she's a budding clothing designer who just broke off her engagement to a very familiar sounding guy we hear over the phone).
In her car, and on some mail in Goodman's bunker, we see that the year is 2015, so one thing nagged at me - if this is set in the Cloverfield universe, even if it's not directly related, why does no one mention "giant monster" as a possibility for what's going on? Goodman proposes military weapons, Russian nukes, and even aliens, but it seems like there should have been a throwaway line - "another thing like New York?" or something like that. Unless they pulled a Transformers and somehow covered up the massive destruction (in TF2 it seems no one remembers that a bunch of giant robots destroyed downtown LA), but if that was the case I'd think Goodman's conspiracy theory nut would have been privy to it. I guess this is what happens when a totally unrelated movie is reconfigured at the 11th hour to be tangentially related to one that people have wanted to see a followup to for nearly a decade.
If that sounds like disappointment, it's not really - just sort of speaking for the number of Cloverfield fans who will certainly feel duped by the film's somewhat bait-and-switch approach. I'm more disappointed that it's come to this, that a really great original movie has to be (barely) shoehorned into another franchise just to get people to see it (somewhat ironically directed by a guy who made his calling by doing a fan film, as original shorts that are just as impressive don't get any coverage). Sure, they throw in Slusho and a couple other things like that as Easter Eggs, but that'd be like saying Natural Born Killers is a sequel to Reservoir Dogs because Tom Sizemore's character in the former is mentioned in the latter. The connections are slim, and the style of movie is completely different - if you go in hoping that the ads were just hiding these big connections, you're not going to be pleased. But if you can strip away their attempts at shared-world nonsense and focus on what it actually IS, then you should realize it's one of the best contained thrillers in ages, and possibly even a better film than Cloverfield was anyway. Enjoy it for what it is, and forget about what it isn't.
What say you?,