Thursday, March 17, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: 10 Cloverfield Lane

10 Cloverfield Lane was written by Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and Damien Chazelle (it took three people to write this!). It was directed by Dan Trachtenberg.

Campbell previously wrote 4 Minute Mile, whatever that is. Stuecken is primarily a producer, having previously worked on G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra and The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor. Chazelle previously wrote The Last Exorcism Part II, which I apparently saw and even reviewed, despite having absolutely no memory of having done either.

Trachtenberg previously directed a couple of short films, but this is his big screen debut. He did a pretty good job of it too, for a first timer.

I don't usually list producers, but I'm making an exception this time. Drew Goddard was the executive producer on the film. He was a producer on LOST and previously wrote Cloverfield, The Cabin In The Woods, World War Z and The Martian. Not a bad resume.

JJ Abrams produced the film, but don't let that stop you from seeing it. Zing!

OK, let's get this out of the way right now. Despite the film's title, this is not, repeat NOT, a sequel to 2008's Cloverfield. I cannot emphasize this enough. There are no characters from the original film here, it takes place in a completely different city, no shaky cam found footage and most importantly at all, there is no giant monster. I repeat, there are no fleeting, poorly framed glimpses of any giant monsters. If you go to this film expecting to see a kaiju rampaging through a city, you're in for a big disappointment.

So if there's no connection, why is this film called 10 Cloverfield Lane? That's a damned good question. Let's see what JJ Abrams had to say about it in a recent interview:
"The spirit of it, the genre of it, the heart of it, the fear factor, the comedy factor, the weirdness factor, there were so many elements that felt like the DNA of this story were of the same place that Cloverfield was born out of. Those characters and that monster are not in this movie, but there are other characters and other monsters. This movie is very purposefully not called Cloverfield 2, because it’s not Cloverfield 2. So if you’re approaching it as a literal sequel, you’ll be surprised to see what this movie is. But while it’s not what you might expect from a movie that has the name Cloverfield in it, I think you’ll find that you’ll understand the connection when you see the whole thing."
Well, JJ, that was certainly informative without saying anything. Director Dan Trachtenberg had this to say about the film:
"10 Cloverfield Lane does not take place in the same fictional universe as Cloverfield."
So there you go. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a "blood relative" or "spiritual successor" to Cloverfield, and not a direct sequel. Think of the films sort of like The Twilight Zone TV series. Stories with a similar mood and feel, that are unrelated to one another. Part of an anthology, if you will. In fact now that I think about it, the film feels very much like a lost Twilight Zone episode. All that missing is the Rod Serling intro.

I have to admit all this "is it or isn't it" double-talk has triggered my bulls*t detector. No matter what Abrams & Co. may say, I know exactly why the film has "Cloverfield" in the title, and that's MONEY. Cloverfield was a fairly big hit ($80 million against its $25 million budget) back in 2008. Putting that name in the title, whether it belonged there or not, would attract fans of the first film who were expecting to see a sequel.

I wonder if this could end up working against the film? Die hard Cloverfield fans may well be disappointed or furious when they realize there's no giant monster. And people who hated Cloverfield will likely steer well clear of this film. It might have been better if they'd given this unrelated film and unrelated title. It's certainly good enough to stand on its own merits. The film reportedly had a budget of just $13 million, so it's pretty much guaranteed to make a profit.

10 Cloverfield Lane started out as a low budget spec script called The Cellar, written by John Campbell and Matt Stuecken. Paramount Pictures bought the script in 2012, and JJ Abrams Bad Robot production company got involved shortly after, renaming it Valencia (?).

Damien Chazelle was brought in to rewrite and direct. He dropped out of the directing spot, which then went to Dan Trachtenberg. During filming, the cast and crew alike reported noticed similarities to Cloverfield (what exactly they noticed, I have no idea). That's when JJ Abrams got involved and thought it would be cute to add Cloverfield to the title. Reportedly the actors had no idea of the title change until the trailer was released.

Normally I'm not a big fan of "claustrophobic" stories like this, in which one or two characters spend the entire film sitting and talking in one room. If I don't like the characters or the single setting, then I'm going to end up hating the entire film. Fortunately that didn't happen here. The characters were all well-drawn and interesting, and the cramped setting was actually a plus here, helping to ramp up the tension.

Best of all this wasn't a found footage film, like its sort of predecessor. 

HUGE, MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD! I'M NOT KIDDING! THIS FILM IS BEST ENJOYED IF YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT IT BEFOREHAND, SO DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER UNLESS YOU'VE SEEN IT. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

The Plot:
Michelle (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead— or perhaps it's Summer Glau?) has an argument with her fiance Ben, hurriedly packs her bags and leaves her New Orleans apartment. As she's driving, she hears radio reports of power outages in major cities. Ben calls her cell phone, causing Michelle to look away from the road for a split second. She's rammed by a truck and her car flips over several times. Don't talk and drive, kids!

Michelle (no last names, please) wakes up in an empty concrete room. She has a saline IV in her arm and is chained to the wall. She tries her cell phone, but can't get any reception. Suddenly the door opens, and a man introduces himself as Howard (played by John Goodman). He tells her he found her unconscious in the crash, and brought her back here to his underground bunker to save her life. He gives her a pair of crutches and leaves.

Michelle sharpens one of the crutches and fashions a makeshift spear. When Howard returns, she tries to stab him. He quickly overpowers her and insists that he saved her life and expects some gratitude. When she asks to contact her family, he says they're all gone. He claims a nationwide attack has occurred, by either Russians or Martians, and everyone on the surface is dead. As that info sinks in, he tosses her the key to her chains.

Howard shows her around the bunker, including the common area, sleeping quarters, kitchen, storage room, and the set of double airlock doors. He unlocks the inner door and lets her look out the window of the outer door. The landscape appears normal, except for two pigs who apparently died a bloody and unpleasant death. She also sees Howard's truck parked nearby, complete with a large red paint scratch on the side, and realizes he's the one who hit her car.

Michelle then meets a young man named Emmett (played by John Gallagher Jr.), who's also a guest of Howard's. She says she doesn't believe Howard's claim of an attack, but Emmett confirms it, saying he saw... something happen before he hurried to the bunker. He helped build the bunker a few years ago, and says he always thought Howard's conspiracy theories were nuts, but it turns out he was right.

That night at dinner, Howard becomes angry when Michelle and Emmett talk too much. Michelle secretly grabs Howards keys from his belt. There's a rumble from above, and Michelle smashes a beer bottle over Howard's head. She runs up the stairs and unlocks the first door, locking it behind her. Howard catches up and pleads with her not to open the outer door, as it'll kill them. Michelle peers through the window, and just as she's about to open the outer door and escape, an hysterical woman appears. Her face is deformed, either from a plague or chemical attack, and she begs to be let in. Realizing Howard was right, Michelle apologizes to him.

Later on Howard confesses he was the one who hit her car, as he was trying to make it to his bunker as quickly as possible. After that the group gets along like a real family, through the power of a montage.

Howard gives Michelle some clothes that belonged to his daughter Megan. He shows her a photo of Megan, and says his wife took her and moved away to Chicago, presumably after he started building his nutsy cuckoo end-of-the-world bunker. Michelle also bonds with Emmett. She tells him about her abusive father, and says she's always been bad at confrontation, running away instead of helping. Foreshadowing!

Later that day the bunker begins rumbling. Michelle thinks it's an earthquake, but Howard suspects it the aliens, saying their initial gas attack is over and now ground troops are moving through, mopping up any remaining survivors. He assures them they're safe in the bunker.

Suddenly the air filtration system stops working. Howard says the only way to reset it is for Michelle, who's the smallest, to craw through the vents to the filter room and reset it. She does so and makes it to the room, and manages to restart the unit. While there she notices a small skylight. She sees the word "HELP" is scratched on the window, along with some traces of blood. On the floor she finds an earring, identical to the one Megan was wearing in her photo. She shows the photo to Emmett, who say it's not Megan, but a girl from his high school named Brittany, who went missing a while back. Apparently after losing Megan, Howard abducted Brittney and kept her in the bunker as his "daughter." They realize he's unstable and they have to get out.

Michelle and Emmett steal some tools and use Howard's survival books to fashion a crude biohazard suit. Howard discovers his tools missing, and threatens them by uncovering a large vat of deadly, perchloric acid. He drops the tools in the vat, and demands to know why they stole them. Michelle starts to confess, but Emmett takes the blame. Howard says he forgives him, then shoots Emmett in the head.

Terrified, Michelle doubles her efforts to finish the suit and escape, but Howard finds out what she's doing. He chases her, and she dumps the Chekov's Gun, er, I mean the vat of acid onto the floor. He slips and falls face-first into it. The acid then starts a fire in the bunker. Michelle escapes through the air vents and into the filtration room. She puts on her biohazard suit, breaks the lock and crawls out of the bunker.

WARNING! END OF THE FILM SPOILERS BEGIN HERE! PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK! 

Highlight the area between the marks to read.

>>>Outside everything looks normal. Howard's truck is still there, as well as the car of the woman who tried to get into the bunker. She sees birds flying overhead, and realizes the air's fine. She takes off her mask and tries to start Howard's truck. She sees what she thinks is a helicopter in the distance. Turns out it's an alien spaceship. She realizes that despite the fact that Howard is batsh*t crazy and a child abductor to boot, everything he said about what was going outside on was true.

Just then the bunker explodes, which attracts the attention of the ship. It sees Michelle and releases a toxic green gas. She puts her homemade gas mask back on, then hides in Howard's barn. She finds the body of the woman who was trying to enter the bunker, and takes her keys. She sees an alien creature nosing around the truck. It wanders off and she runs for the car. Before she can get in, the creature returns and she dives into Howard's truck. Suddenly the ship lowers a series of mechanical tentacles that pick up the truck.

The ship pulls the truck up toward an obscene, organic mouth. Michelle makes a Molotov cocktail and tosses it into the mouth. The ship explodes and the truck falls back to the ground. She dives into the car and drives off. She turns on the radio and hears a broadcast telling people to seek refuge in Baton Rogue. Another broadcast calls for any able bodied help to come to Houston, which is under attack. Michelle stops and thinks, then makes the choice to stop running and head for Houston. As she drives off, we see a larger alien ship hiding in the clouds.<<<

Thoughts:
• I'm very glad that the alien attack turned out to be real. Imagine if, at the end of the film, Michelle exited the bunker and saw that everything was fine, and the attack was all in Howard's twisted mind. I think I'd have set the theater on fire if that had happened.

• In Season 2 of LOST, Desmond was kept inside the Hatch by a man named Kelvin, on the pretense there was a deadly virus outside. Desmond eventually fought Kelvin and inadvertently killed him. When he left the Hatch, he found that the air outside was perfectly safe.

Sounds a lot like this movie, eh? Need I mention that both LOST and 10 Cloverfield Lane were produced by JJ Abrams?

Also, once Michelle escapes from the bunker, an alien spaceship grabs her with mechanical tentacles. As it lifts her up, she throws a Molotov cocktail into its gaping maw, causing it to explode. This is all very, very similar to a scene in the 2005 War Of The Worlds.

• Let's try to figure out Howard's unseen timeline, shall we? As near as I can tell, it went like this:

— Howard had a wife, and a daughter named Megan.

— He was in the Navy, where he worked on "satellite stuff." At some point he either saw classified info regarding an alien invasion, or began imagining an attack was imminent.

— He then begins building an underground survival bunker. He hires his neighbor Emmett to help.

— Howard's wife gets fed up with his doomsday prepping, and she and Megan move to Chicago.

— He then loses what's left of his sanity, and abducts a local teen named Brittany. He keeps her in the bunker, as a substitute for Megan. I don't think there was anything sexual going on between them, he was just trying to rebuild his family.

— Howard catches Megan trying to escape, becomes enraged and kills her. He most likely dissolved her body in the vat of perchloric acid.

— He then begins looking for another Megan. He spots Michelle at a gas station, and begins following her.

— Howard runs her car off the road, causing her to crash. As he's putting her in his truck, the alien attack coincidentally begins. He races back to the bunker.

— He arrives at the bunker, and as he's carrying the comatose Michelle inside, Emmett appears, begging for Howard to let him in. I'm assuming there was a struggle in which Howard broke Emmett's arm. As the aliens approach, Howard realizes there's no time left and admits Emmett into the bunker.

— Emmett is a wrench thrown into the machinery of Howard's plan, which explains why he's always acts so angry toward him, and looks for the slightest excuse to kill him.

Note that none of this is actually spelled out in the film, it's just what I came up with based on things that were unsaid and implied. It's possible the writers had a totally different timeline.

• Howard give Michelle a tour of the bunker, laying down his ground rules for proper post-apocalyptic behavior. He tells both her and Emmett that the common room table is a family heirloom, and to please use a coaster when enjoying a beverage.

A few minutes later Emmett takes a swig from a beer bottle and sets it down on the table. Guess what? No coaster. Amazingly Howard doesn't reach across the table and snap his neck with his bare hands. In fact a few seconds later Howard does the same thing!

• The film does quite a good job of keeping the audience guessing in regards to Howard. At some point he seems perfectly sane and harmless, while other times he's absolutely terrifying. Kudos to actor John Goodman for a great performance as Howard.

In retrospect the clues to Howard's mental state are all laid out for us. 

Howard claims that Emmett broke his arm when he fell into a rack of food. Obviously this is a lie, and Howard most likely did it to him. Why Emmett doesn't ever admit this to Michelle, I have no idea.

Howard provides Michelle with magazines and clothing belonging to his daughter Megan. This seems innocent at first, as it's the only female clothing available in the bunker. Later on these items take on a more sinister significance, as Howard's obviously trying to mold Michelle into Megan.

He gets upset at dinner when Emmett and Michelle begin mildly flirting. Howard brought Michelle to the bunker to become his "daughter," so he's enraged when he has to share her with someone else.

The three play a charades-like game, and Emmett tries to get Howard to guess Little Women. Howard easily guesses "little," so Emmett then begins pointing at Michelle, saying, "She's a…?" Howard keeps guessing words like "girl," finally giving up. He's completely incapable of thinking of Michelle as a woman, which was a very creepy touch.

• The scene in which Howard shows the two the vat of flesh-dissolving perchloric acid was very tense and uncomfortable. Any second I expected him to grab Emmett's hand and stick it into the vat. Or his head.

And did anyone in the audience not predict Howard would end up in the vat after it was introduced?

• When the air circulating unit breaks down, Howard says the only way to get to the machinery and reset it is to crawl through a series of air vents. He tells Michelle she's the only one small enough to fit inside the ducts.

She reluctantly crawls through the ductwork, and once she makes it to the air circulation room, she sees a small skylight in the ceiling. The word "HELP" is scratched into the glass, presumably by Brittney, Howard's previous captive. She also finds blood on the skylight, and a bloody earring on the floor, implying that Howard found the girl trying to escape and killed her.

Some viewers have questioned how Howard could have possibly found and killed the girl in the room, since he was far too big to crawl through the ducts to get there. It's not a plot hole though. There's a scene in which Howard tries to open the regular door to the circulation room and finds it's blocked by something. That's why Michelle had to take the long way round through the ducts. I guess the scene went by too fast to register with viewers.

Lucky Michelle was there, or Howard would have suffocated in his own bunker when the air ran out!

• Late in the film there's a nod to Cloverfield in the film. Howard claims he worked with satellites in the military. When Michelle crawls into the circulation room, she sees an envelope from a company called Bold Futura.

In addition to being the name of a font (well, a reversed name), Bold Futura was the company responsible for the satellite that's seen crashing into the ocean in Cloverfield, which either disturbed or created the monster in that film.

This would be a nice, subtle little link between the two movies, except that, per director Dan Trachtenberg, "10 Cloverfield Lane does not take place in the same fictional universe as Cloverfield."

• Supposedly the original script had a significantly different ending. Michelle escapes from the bunker and is chases by Howard. She runs into his house and blinds him with household cleaner. Defeated, he tells her about the wife and child who left him. She shoots him in the knee so he can't follow. He tells her to be careful.

She then takes his truck and begins driving. She comes over a hill and sees the smoldering ruins of Chicago in the distance. No explanation for what happened is given, but she realizes Howard was right. She removes the mask of her hazmat suit and takes a breath…

I'm glad they went with the revised ending.

• The end credits proudly proclaim the film was shot in Louisiana. Really? 99% of the film takes place in one little set. That could have been filmed anywhere. Did the cast and crew really have to travel to Louisiana for that? Maybe it was cheaper than filming in Hollywood?

10 Cloverfield Lane is a well written, well constructed little thriller that rewards you for paying attention, with an ending goes all the way and doesn't let the audience down. It is NOT a sequel to Cloverfield though, which may be a source of disappointment and confusion to some audiences. Better they should have stuck with its original title. I give it a B+.

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