Most modern films spend about twice the amount of time hyping their project as they do actually making it. In the era of decade-long cinematic schedules and elaborate plans, a franchise like Cloverfield is exactly what we need sandwiched between superhero clashes. The original Cloverfield is somewhat of a cult classic, a cult I proudly subscribe to. 10 Cloverfield Lane manages to take the smallest apocalypse story ever told and push the idea forward.
Cloverfield and the original Paranormal Activity were essentially siblings in the family of small budget thrillers, coming out at around the same time. As siblings often do, the two took drastically different career paths, demonstrating the two basic schools of thought on the matter of building a franchise. One took the commercial route, pumping out a yearly installment to quench the fans’ thirst for more. The other faded into the distance, residing in the back of our minds until the time was right to resurface. Paranormal Activity, like most franchises of this nature, resembles an interview I once saw on TV with a stunt double. He was describing his day-to-day work in response to the idea of stunt doubles having “cool” jobs. He said it’s very cool to do a crazy stunt for the first time; that much lives up to the layman’s expectations. However the fun does lose a little something when you have to go back and do it again as the filmmakers try to improve and perfect their idea. By the fifth and sixth attempts, it really becomes work. Paranormal Activity was a great stunt that lost a little of the magic on its second attempt. By the fifth and sixth installments, getting through those movies becomes work.
There was probably more money to be made if Cloverfield just blew up a new city via shaky-cam action every year, climbing into one plot hole after the next until the franchise suffocated. But Cloverfield is a very different animal, one that had the patience to wait eight years before giving us another taste. They would never be able to recapture the magic of that first movie, so they didn’t try to. They made something completely different. While the two clearly share a universe, 10 Cloverfield Lane has a different filmmaking style, a different narrative structure, and a completely different brand of thrills. The only element consistently shared by the two isn’t even the presence of aliens; it’s the balance of fist-clenching suspense and appropriately placed, tension-easing humor. While the first contains more outright scares, I’d argue this sequel is significantly more terrifying. Not one scene allowed me to relax, and I loved it.
10 Cloverfield Lane is basically the story of if Room had a baby with Misery and took one or two creative liberties. In fact, if this movie wasn’t Cloverfield-related at all, they could’ve made a huge twist at the end saying there is no apocalypse and the movie would’ve functioned perfectly well on its own as a faux Sci-Fi thriller like The Village (but significantly better, oh and spoiler alert for The Village I guess). The eventual alien sequence only serves as both a connection to the Cloverfield universe and a cherry on top of a fantastic film. The already brief 103-minute runtime flies despite the unchanging, claustrophobic setting. The uncanny chemistry between the only three characters in the entire movie takes the audience seamlessly from one moment to the next. The crippled, confused, and conflicted state of the two protagonists conveys a feeling of helplessness to the audience, as if even they can’t move or go anywhere. Moments will have you guessing not only how you’d try to escape, but also whether or not you’d even want to. Every single minute of this movie is tense or uncomfortable in some way, yet the tone still finds a balance that keeps the suspense from going stale.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle gives us the perfect type of hero for this universe, one who captures this tonal balance with a subtle charisma that doesn’t attempt to overshadow the greater pieces in play. John Goodman is the film’s acting standout, as he so often is. Howard is a more complicated and uniquely terrifying villain than we see for years at a time. Your heart as a viewer almost wants to feel bad for him, but his disturbing actions and attitudes keep a foot on your throat the entire time. The Taboo scene in particular had to be one of the eeriest moments I’ve ever seen on screen. Yet nothing in this movie is too on the nose or over the top; everything I’ve given praise to here is as understated as you want your Cloverfield movies to be.
With a movie like this, you run the risk of telling us too much and ruining the universe’s mystique. You also run the risk of telling us too little and stomping out what’s left of your fans’ patience for answers. This chapter of Cloverfield’s world gave us just enough to say we’ve learned a few things while leaving the door wide open for a sequel. I would certainly hope a third installment would yield some serious plot progression. I don’t need “Cloverfield 3” to be Independence Day, but a little fight back against the otherworldly forces would be nice. And it seems as if we may be heading in that more productive direction. I always say once a horror series wraps up a third movie and the protagonists have yet to make an inch of progress against the bad guy/guys, the franchise is pretty much pointless. Either way, 10 Cloverfield Lane succeeds on every level.
Successful sequels often redefine the series by introducing a new genre to the story you already know and love. The Dark Knight took Batman Begins’ gritty superhero story and gave us a legitimate crime drama. Aliens took Alien’s suffocating horror story and gave us a legendary action adventure. Captain America transitioned from the classic underdog story to a political thriller. Terminator went from the monster movie formula to one of the best Sci-Fi action movies of all time. You get the point. Cloverfield’s sequel isn’t about monsters, extraterrestrials and destruction. It tells an impactful self-contained story about captivity, helplessness, and the idea that not all monsters are aliens.