A movie trailer is released. It bears the Paramount and Bad Robot logos to indicate that we’re in JJ Abrams country. ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ begins playing over the soundtrack. Not the Tiffany version, however, but the original by Tommy James and The Shondells. The images we see involve Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman and John Gallagher, Jr in some sort of domesticated environment, playing games, having dinner before we realise they are in some sort of bunker and that something unnatural is lurking outside.
We cut to a black screen. The words Cloverfield appear, which then reveals itself further to be 10 Cloverfield Lane. The release date is a mere two months later.
It almost seems impossible in this day and age to keep a film a secret. The internet has, for better or worse, made information on movies and their releases virtually impossible to hide and it does sometimes feel as if we know every inch of information and detail concerning plot about a new release before we’ve even sat down in our seats at the cinema.
The first Cloverfield revealed itself brilliantly in a teaser trailer for a film we didn’t know was in the works, wowing audiences with its first look that was attached to prints of the first in Michael Bay’s Transformers series. A profitable hit upon release, a sequel seemed inevitable but it left many, including those involved in the film, questioning how best to make a follow-up to the found footage thriller.
READ MORE: How Cloverfield’s marketing parallels the disappearance of mid-budget studio films
Amazingly, the film that would become the successor, spiritually and potentially in the narrative, didn’t start off as a Cloverfield film. Originally conceived as The Cellar, the film started off life as a spec script that landed in the hands of Bad Robot and was developed as a stand-alone film as part of the company’s contract with Paramount Pictures before the Cloverfield tag was attached to it.
Written by Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken, soon Damien Chazelle would be brought in to do some rewriting work, while the finished script would be handed to Dan Trachtenberg to direct.
What would emerge would be one of the most brilliantly intense claustrophobic thrillers in recent years, with three fantastic central performances at the heart of it, and a disquieting, disturbing atmosphere that would run throughout it leans 104 minute running time.
Like many projects that JJ Abrams had put his name to, there would also be a sense of mystery and unanswered questions that would have been asked upon the beginning of the end credits: was the film a follow-up to Cloverfield? Are the films only named Cloverfield in order to give what is essentially an anthology series a sense of connection? If that’s the case then what is up with the last five minutes turning into an alien invasion picture that feels like it’s an extension of the first film from the Cloverfield brand, and a sequence that many criticised the film for as feeling as if it was either a left-field turn, or removed any sense of mystery from the preceding ninety-five minutes?
Claustrophobia and mystery are very much the driving forces behind 10 Cloverfield Lane. We are introduced to our lead character, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, superb as always) who, after being involved in a car accident, finds herself locked up an underground shelter populated by Howard (John Goodman) and Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr). Howard claims that something has happened on the surface, something terrible that made the surface uninhabitable, but is he telling the truth, or is lying in order to get Michelle to stay put?
It’s a brilliant set up for a film and Trachtenberg’s ability to mix claustrophobia, even though the bunker is pretty sizeable, and mystery over what is happening above is superb. The film has us questioning everything pretty much throughout its running time and is bolstered by the performances of the three leads.
Winstead, one of the most underrated actresses working today, brings character, strength and just the right touch of emotional vulnerability to Michelle, while Goodman, who usually plays amiable, lovable characters, really goes dark with Howard, particularly in the final third when the thriller elements are heightened and the audience is left shaken after he kills Emmet.
The film itself is magnificent, although the reveal in the final moments, especially coming off the back of one of the film’s most prolonged moments of suspense as Michelle tries, and eventually succeeds, in escaping from Howard’s clutches, did draw criticism for showing what was happening on the surface when it really didn’t need to.
READ MORE: Looking back at Cloverfield, 10 years later
Unsure of how to approach a sequel to the first film especially after the release of movies such as Pacific Rim and Gareth Edward’s Godzilla, the film very much takes the stance of The Cellar and sets it in the world of Cloverfield, if one is to take the events of the final ten minutes of the film as a sign that it’s taking place at the same time as the first film.
That sense of mystery and “what if” would also be the driving force behind The Cloverfield Paradox, which would take the “don’t announce the film until its nearly ready to be viewed” philosophy to extremes, but only when Paramount lost faith in that picture.
While the eventual third film in the “series” would be viewed as a dud in the eyes of many despite the ingenuity of the release strategy, the same cannot be said for 10 Cloverfield Lane. Issues with the climax aside, the majority of the film is magnetic, dark and emotionally nasty in a way that Hollywood never seems to approach their thrillers anymore. While the film was rated PG-13 in the US, and a 12A in the UK, the lower budget and less of a need to make a billion dollars like everything else nowadays meant the film could take more chances.
There is a genuinely dark, queasy air to Howard’s motivations. Clearly, Emmet is the third wheel (Gallagher, Jr does bring likability and charm to a role that is essentially the third wheel), and Howard is more eager to spend time alone with Michelle in a way that leaves one feeling nauseous a little. The moment he finally snaps after some time has passed and the three have found a balance to their life in the bunker is as disturbing as anything that any mainstream film has presented in recent years, mostly due to Goodman’s disturbing performance and the use of a vat of acid.
It also shows a sense of ingenuity to this “franchise” if one wants to call it that. While original material is harder to come by in this day and age of endless superhero films, shared cinematic universes and reboots and remakes, the fact that Bad Robot and Abrams have founded a franchise but one in which they can bring lower budgeted interesting genre-related material to the screen is something to cherish.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a superb piece of work, and the ending has a creepy, ethereal quality that almost feels as if it could sustain a film of its own, despite the criticisms it attracted. While the series would slip a little with Paradox, there is still hope for its future. The forthcoming Overlord may not be linked to the Cloverfield series, as Abrams has said. But just the idea of it (or the potential of it) given that it’s an original piece of work also means that – while originality feels as if it’s dead these days, so long live originality – there may just be a series or franchise, ironically, that may prove to be a way for original unique visions to live on.