Five years on, we look back at the film that almost made a Cloverfield universe possible.
The spaghetti dinner sequence is one I always go back to when thinking about 10 Cloverfield Lane. In a previous scene, John Goodman’s survivalist character Howard – a man of intimidating attitude and girth – introduces himself to Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle, after having brought her to his underground bunker following a car accident. While explaining that a chemical attack has potentially occurred on the outside, Michelle doubts his story but nods along to humor him. She thanks him for having saved her before, for which he gushes cutely. Her leg in a brace (from being broken in the accident) and confronted by this peculiar man with a peculiar story, she sits at his table with him and his handyman – John Gallagher Jr.’s Emmett – over plates of spaghetti.
Dan Trachtenberg‘s 10 Cloverfield Lane is a movie of palpable tension, even in its moments of unexpected camaraderie and connection. When officially announced right before its theatrical release as a Cloverfield sequel, the usual J.J. Abrams-style buzz turned what was an independent thriller into a more intimate but larger story, now existing within a new breed of sci-fi suspense tales. Following 10 was The Cloverfield Paradox, which dropped on Netflix rather shockingly after that year’s Super Bowl. Go big or go home, one could say is the strategy for these teaser-loving and uber-marketing heavy flicks.
Where 10 fits in recent cultural history are tied directly into Abrams’ brand of movies built on mystery and profundity. The first Cloverfield featured a titleless teaser spot, showing a New York party from a Handycam perspective, which then gets interrupted by catastrophe, culminating in the Statue of Liberty’s head landing in the street. This came out post-9/11 and pre-Bin Laden raid, adding an extra and all too terrifying consequence to this monster-feature found footage escapade. Again, intimate story in a larger world. Again, go big or go home.
For 10 Cloverfield Lane, the circumstance is similar, but the presentation is a bit different. Spoilers, but this movie features two monsters, one of whom is, of course, Goodman’s Howard. In a performance that certainly makes the film truly memorable, Goodman imbues into the Cloverfield series with a down to Earth threat, that being the man next door. He is essentially confining two other people to his underground lair under a loose idea of safety from a situation they can only speculate on. While he ends up endearing himself to the two young adults for a time, suspicions begin to take shape. Is what he’s saying for real? Are they kidnapped? Might a possible disaster be a convenient excuse for him to live a twisted fantasy?
Goodman lights up the screen with ever so careful details. He goes from huggable bear to violent grizzly in a flash, giving only the barest and tiniest of clues to his switches. The writing and direction are equally strong, but the movie radiates from him, forcing Winstead and Gallagher Jr. into reactionary corners to break out of. A force of many sorts.
Save for the final few minutes, 10 is less a sci-fi creature clash, and more a domestic-like suspense thriller, combining a survival arc with psychological and horror elements. Years after its run in theaters, it’s regarded by many as one of Bad Robot’s best features, and the better entry in this series of films. Many complain about the ending feeling tacked on, but I actually think it works as a nice last-minute obstacle. Why the hell not add in a new last-minute problem? It’s weird, but it’s fun. The follow-up Paradox has its moments, playing itself as the origin of the fantastical scenarios experienced in the other stories, but ultimately disappoints and falls flat, feeling like two half-finished projects smushed together. 10 was likely retrofitted for the Cloverfield world, but charmingly rests itself well into the fold.
That spaghetti dinner scene. After beginning to eat, Winstead’s Michelle fake flirts with the handyman, as a move for a weapon. Goodman’s Howard misses this ruse, becoming momentarily offended by her supposed affection towards the other man in the room. Without hesitation, she attacks Howard, and makes a rush for the door at the top of the stairs. A woman cries for help outside, as Michelle begins to doubt herself, now hesitating with paralyzing fear. Howard yells not to open up.
This scene was prominently featured in teaser spots for 10, and for good reason. Everything you need to know about what’s happened, what’s happening, and what will happen later are told at that table. Howard’s ulterior motives, Michelle’s distrust and her strategy to escape, the relationships between the three individuals, and more are on display. It’s a wonderful thesis at work.
There were expectations that the WWII action-horror Overlord was going to be the next film in the Cloverfield franchise, but that turned out to be untrue. Interestingly, Paradox represents a kind of paradox itself. How should the series move forward? If 10 Cloverfield Lane is an example of superb suspense, then let it be a blueprint for small-scale, larger world blockbuster filmmaking.
Go home to go big.