The latest from J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot studio, might already be the best movie of the year. It’s a curious and gripping film that demonstrates the power of intentionality, atmosphere, and limited scope.
10 Cloverfield Lane was announced in January – a mere two months before its release – with a tense online trailer. Abrams’ name was attached to the project as executive producer, and it was soon confirmed that it would be a “spiritual successor” to 2008’s Cloverfield. Those two elements generated a world of hype in its respective subcultures. It was drowned out at the box office by other competition, but it was critically received well and didn’t flop given its limited budget.
I really can’t say anything about the plot of this film without spoiling anything, and this delicate structure is one of the elements that makes it so compelling. I can say one thing about the promises made to connect at some level to Cloverfield: while the ties to another franchise are the most important part of the film, they are also the least important part. As far as the admittedly thin connections to Cloverfield go, what they accomplish for the characters could have been accomplished by other means just as well. That being said, I probably wouldn’t have seen the film otherwise. While I haven’t seen the original, I was at least familiar with it; and this familiarity was what drew me into the film. While it wasn’t what kept me in my seat, this obscure thriller with an even more obscure director needed the layer of accessibility that J.J. Abrams and Cloverfield provided.
Ironically, the relative unimportance to the story probably will keep this film from getting the credit it’s due. For those who weren’t interested in the thematically forgettable found-footage monster movie from 2008, the name could be more of a turn-off. For the hardcore fans of the original, the lack of substantial connection could be frustrating. For film’s award culture, a connection to a lo-fi popcorn muncher could remove this movie from serious consideration. However, for those willing to look beyond the threads that join the two films, this film is a treasure.
Again, I must speak in generalities to preserve the movie-going experience, but 10 Cloverfield Lane is about overcoming fear. Two fears in particular are explored: the fear of commitment and the fear of losing control. One character is consumed by their fear of losing control, and we see the monstrous effects. Other characters fear commitment, and they are offered opportunities to face that fear. In order for them to do that, however, a situation of fear must be created. In this way, the thriller/horror genre was a perfect choice for the story. By using an extreme illustration, the core of the message sticks with the viewer more readily. The filmmakers deliver the message powerfully in a way that’s resonant and not overly earnest.
Playing no small part in the filmmakers’ ability to send a message clearly and effectively is the intentionality in every decision in the film. Foul language is used, but never for any purpose except to increase the tension of a scene. When a hero or villain curses, it’s the result – or even the cause, in one case – of an escalated situation. Characters suffer physical harm, but the on-screen violence is fleeting and almost always in the periphery. Interestingly, these situations feel more intense than what we’ve become accustomed to seeing in our films (I’m looking at you, comic book movies) even though 10 Cloverfield Lane actually employs much more restraint than its contemporaries, especially in its genre category. These responsible choices show that deep impact isn’t necessarily created by what we see but by what we feel.
Besides its restraint in objectionable content, 10 Cloverfield Lane also shows restraint in scope, which is probably why it feels the way it does. The cast consists of three main players plus one background extra, a few short voiceovers, and one other actress in a brief scene which shan’t be spoken of. The credits are some of the shortest I’ve ever sat through (and I sit through credits often; looking at you again, superheroes). Most of the movie takes place inside a bunker, and many of those sequences are centered outside of the larger main area. The film is tightly shot with few people, making every veiled or direct threat feel that much more immediate. The viewers are immersed in the characters, immersed in their terror, and immersed in their victories at the end.
The End of the Matter
For filmmakers and artists, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a call to action for intentional creation. The film doesn’t waste any of its space and weighs its heavier content with the requirements of powerful storytelling. If it was in the film, it was necessary or at the very least well-rationalized.
Most importantly, 10 Cloverfield Lane challenges all of its viewers to boldly face fears. Through conversation, we hear that the characters were led by small fears into big problems. Their unwillingness to face their fears before put all of them in a bunker. By showing us this, the film highlights the importance of facing the little fears first so we’ll have the strength when the harder issues come.
10 Cloverfield Lane may be no visual spectacle; but it’s certainly spectacular.