What is Cloverfield, exactly? That’s a question this curious franchise is in no hurry to answer. I revisited the films, newly released on 4K UHD Blu-ray last week, and still couldn’t give you a really convincing answer. In a way it feels like an attempt to reverse engineer a mystery box; a film series, whose actual films seem to take a back seat to their viral marketing campaigns.
10 Cloverfield Lane is the better film, thanks mostly to a taught script that exploits the claustrophobia of the bunker setting. It’s a small film with tight focus. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a woman on the run who awakens from a car crash to find herself a prisoner in an underground bunker. John Goodman is Howard, the owner of the bunker, who claims to have rescued her from an invasion going on up top. John Gallagher Jr. plays the bunkers’ other occupant, with a somewhat ambiguous connection to Howard.
Of the three leads, John Goodman has the trickiest job, and the most memorable role here. I haven’t seen a character so blatantly psychotic since Jack Torrance in Kubrick’s The Shining. Goodman sinks his teeth into the role, which on paper shouldn’t really work, and runs with what he’s given. He threads a fine needle between menacing and pathetic. He’s a character with all the power, but his psychological I vulnerability makes the film’s psychological tug-of-war anyone’s game.
10 Cloverfield Lane’s connection to 2008’s Cloverfield is a little bit of a reach. And without giving too much away (that would be defeating the purpose of a mystery box, after all), I find the connecting tissues to the franchise to be the weakest part of 10 Cloverfield Lane. It’s no secret that 10 was retconned into the Cloverfield brand, and the seams show.
If anything, the unifying thread isn’t a shared world, or narrative, but a marketing process; an exercise in producer JJ Abrams’ much hyped “mystery box” method of filmmaking.
Which brings us to Cloverfield. It mostly holds up as an interesting experiment; a not-entirely-satisfying monster movie, that nevertheless effectively taps into the unease of the waning Bush years, and manages to be pretty prescient about how we as a generation document our lives. As a found footage movie, the seams are exposed a little here. The lengths to which editing choices have to be explained by dialogue and plot, call attention to themselves, and detract from the suspension of disbelief. Cloverfield’s biggest success though, is the way it incorporates its VFX into its found-footage format. It marks a point where VFX have progressed enough to move beyond the challenge and novelty of simply showing something cool, and got to the point of being able fully integrate it in the movie’s visual style. The VFXs are seamless, in that the film looks like it was shot on a digital camera by a guy on the street.
I’m not convinced these two stories are building towards a bigger unified whole, but both films successfully manage to borrow the ethos of indie filmmaking and apply it to a story mostly seen in tent-pole summer fare. They’re small, intimate movies about the stuff that would be going on in the margins of a would-be blockbuster. That unique angle make them worth a revisit.