By Preston Wilder
The schedules sent to us by local cinemas have this listed as ‘10 Gloverfield Lane’ – a small but significant typo, making clear that ‘Cloverfield’ isn’t exactly a household name in these parts (it’s hard to imagine Star Wars being advertised as ‘Star Bars’ without someone noticing). It’s been eight years since a film with that title came out – and the film was a hit, but its pop-cultural impact (at least in Cyprus) has been minimal. Let me therefore note that Cloverfield was a found-footage sci-fi thriller about a giant monster terrorising New York – and let me add that you don’t necessarily need that information to enjoy 10 Cloverfield Lane, a not-quite sequel that wasn’t even connected to the older movie until being rejigged and re-titled late in the day.
Neither style nor content recalls Cloverfield. Instead there are echoes of last year’s Z for Zachariah, another three-character drama with an apocalyptic slant – except that Zachariah was post-apocalyptic whereas here the great disaster takes place (or does it?) during the course of the movie – and the film also belongs to the recent mini-genre of end-of-the-world japes like Coherence, This is the End and It’s a Disaster. It opens a bit like Misery, with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) rescued from a car crash by a Good Samaritan (Howard, played by John Goodman) who’s actually not so good – and there’s also a touch of Dogtooth, insofar as Howard tells our heroine that the air outside is infected (“There’s been an attack”) and unbreathable so she has to stay in his bunker-like house, cut off from the outside world, for her own good.
Howard is “a black belt in conspiracy theory,” jokes Emmett (John Gallagher Jr), the third side of this particular triangle – not a love triangle per se, though there are some unsavoury undercurrents. Howard explodes when the younger two seem to flirt at the dinner table. He obviously fancies Michelle, though he’s old enough to be her father – and Michelle actually had an abusive father, making the atmosphere even more loaded (a game of Taboo gets a creepy undertow when Emmett must explain ‘Little Women’ and points to Michelle as a clue for the second word, only for Howard to guess words like ‘girl’ and ‘child’ instead). Worst of all, of course, is Michelle’s suspicion that Howard is lying about the outside world – either deliberately, or because he’s a conspiracy nut – and may in fact have caused her car crash in order to abduct her.
This is exactly the kind of film we need more of – a psychological thriller full of rich ambiguity. This particular film, however, isn’t very rich. It’s well made, with the camera effortlessly lending shape to the cramped spaces (Room is another recent film that may come to mind); the director, Dan Trachtenberg, is a first-timer, and knows better than to ruin his big break by being sloppy. The script, however, is ungainly, with muddled motivations and clumsy touches like pausing the plot so Michelle and Emmett can exchange personal memories in a scene that might be called ‘Insert Back-Story Here’. Their memories don’t even make sense – Michelle’s account of running away when she saw a little girl being abused doesn’t seem to fit the proactive person we see in the movie – but what’s worse is the inorganic way the information is conveyed to us, especially since the characters aren’t that complex anyway. Even monstrous Howard (by far the most interesting of the trio) seems a bit hollow, despite Goodman’s gloriously rumpled performance.
And then there’s Cloverfield – a subject I can’t really broach without spoiling the ending, but suffice to say (a) this would probably be a tighter, more coherent film without the Cloverfield connection and (b) such a tighter, more coherent film probably wouldn’t make any money, let alone get released to the Cyprus multiplex. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a pretty fair low-budget thriller that’s been given a shot of Hollywood steroids and sent out to represent a nascent sci-fi franchise – an ingenious plan in terms of creative marketing, but one that’s bound to leave it looking slightly misshapen. In the end there’s a gripping set-up, a great deal of craft, a few twists and turns (not that many), one unexpected Oh-my-God moment that’s guaranteed to leave your whole audience feeling shell-shocked, a huge vat of acid (!) providing an unlikely escalation – and an overall sense of a small movie forced to flex muscles it never really had. I say near-miss, you say Gloverfield.
DIRECTED BY Dan Trachtenberg
STARRING Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr
US 2016 103 mins