Entertainment Geekly: Contrasting 2008's bleak 'Cloverfield' and the inexplicable 'Cloverfield Lane'
When we talk about Cloverfield, we talk about advertising. The mystery trailer that played before Transformers in 2007, no title, just a release date. The posters with the ruined Statue of Liberty that promised monstrosity but showed no monster. If you cared, you could speculate: Was this a new Godzilla? An H.P. Lovecraft adaptation? The release date was 1-18-08, and those are numbers, and Lost has numbers: Dharma Initiative, maybe?
Cloverfield was actually a movie that came out in theaters. It made lots of money, but every obvious metric argues that it was a disappointment for the people who actually watched it. Between its first and second weekend, the box office declined 68 percent. It earned a C from CinemaScore — which tells you nothing about a movie’s quality but it tells you everything about how much the experience of watching the movie matched the experience that was promised by the advertising. So it’s understandable that, say, if you were expecting a Godzilla-Cthulhu god-monster opera of monument destruction that would also finally explain why Hurley saw Jin in that Chicken Dream, you were maybe mildly disappointed to spend 85 minutes watching a 20something yuppie walk through Manhattan on a desperate mission to tell his hook-up buddy that he has feelings for her.
J.J. Abrams is unparalleled as a promoter, and the mere fact that a no-namer found-footage film making big money in January will forever classify Cloverfield as a success. But the Bad Robot advertising strategy can overwhelm and obscure the actual movie behind them. The endless breadcrumbs of the Cloverfield marketing experience promised, on some level, the possibility that your questions would be answered. This was never really the point of Cloverfield the movie. There are no “answers,” because there aren’t really any questions. The monster is a monster, and the fact of its monstrosity is taken for granted.
If you’re the kind of person who goes to monster movies because you are interested in monsters — and not the lovelorn misadventures of Manhattanite friends-with-benefits — there is actually more narrative complexity in something like Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. Like, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla isn’t complicated the way Game of Thrones is complicated, but its whole central premise demands some amount of ethical complexity: “Yes, the giant rampage-lizard has knocked over a few cities, but the enemy of my mecha-enemy-from-space is my friend.”
As a singular movie experience, I actually kind of love Cloverfield. You’ve got Lizzy Caplan and T.J. Miller, future hipster-comedy stars playing rough 2008 pastiches of hipsterdom. (Her: Withdrawn, eye-shadowed, not that into you. Him: Awkward lout-nerd with a camera fixation.) And there’s people like Odette Yustman, Michael Stahl-David, and Jessica Lucas, all so perfectly blandly attractive in a network-drama way. (Collectively, they’ve gone on to star in nine TV shows, all short-lived.)
Cloverfield is less interested in the giant rampaging alien monster than in the burgeoning relationship between Yustman and Stahl-David — but it is interested in that relationship. The film keeps cutting back to the happiest day of their coupling, when they took a trip to Coney Island. The conceit is simple: Miller is shooting the Monster-Night video on the same tape that Stahl-David used to record the Coney Island trip. That notion already vibed nostalgic six months after the release of the iPhone — and eight years later, technology has eliminated “to tape over” from the English language.
Stahl-David and Yustman are stuck playing boring people, and Cloverfield would be immeasurably better if the leads were Miller and Caplan. But there’s a real bleak melancholy underlying their relationship, right up until the end of Cloverfield, when they die declaring their love for each other. The screen cuts back to their Coney Island trip, and they look so happy, happy, happy, and if you look very closely behind them, some kind of thing falls from the sky into the water.
I think what you’re supposed to take away from Cloverfield is proof of that line from Casablanca, that the problems of little people really don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world. The difference is that Casablanca actually argues, very convincingly, that the fate of the free world depends entirely on the romantic entanglements of the owner of a Moroccan gambling casino. In Cloverfield, the main characters aren’t important. They gain no insight into the terror tormenting them. (Like us, they never find out what the monster is.) They die in the middle of a greater story they will never understand. The ending is somewhat ambiguous, but it’s strongly implied that the main characters are killed by the good guys.
So it makes sense that, as a final meta-joke, nobody ever talks about the characters in Cloverfield. To the extent that there has ever been a Cloverfield fandom, it is a fandom of people who carefully examine the final frames of the movie, analyzing the trajectory of the thing falling into the water. Would we ever learn “the truth” about the monster? For people who loved Cloverfield enough to keep talking about it after they saw it, Cloverfield itself was an advertisement for Cloverfield.
10 Cloverfield Lane is better in almost every conceivable way than the first Cloverfield. The actors are better: John Goodman is maybe the one actor who could do Willy Loman and Annie Wilkes simultaneously, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead is an appealingly real-person action hero. (For most of the film, she’s barefoot wearing a tank top, which I have to believe is an embedded reference to her Die Hard dad Bruce Willis’ Nakatomi uniform.) The film looks better: The original depends on the gimmickry of you-are-there shaky-cam photography, but 10 Cloverfield Lane gets most of its mileage out of the very old-fashioned idea of setting the camera down in front of actors playing characters.
The concept of 10 Cloverfield Lane isn’t new. There are people trapped together. There are secrets. Outside, the world has ended, maybe, and there are monsters, maybe. There are at least three Twilight Zone episodes riffing on this concept — go watch “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” right now — but Twilight Zone did everything, and anyhow, you could argue that the best Twilight Zones are just variations of Sartre’s “No Exit.”
And the fun of 10 Cloverfield Lane, initially, is that the characters all have mystery. You don’t know why Winstead left her boyfriend; you don’t know if Goodman is a lovable maniac or a murderous maniac; you don’t know how much you can trust the nice dude with the broken arm. SPOILER ALERT: None of this mystery actually matters at all. The nice boy with the broken arm is actually a nice dude. John Goodman is exactly as crazy as he appears to be. The complete lack of any major twist in 10 Cloverfield Lane is itself kind of radical, even if it stands up to zero actual scrutiny. (Goodman’s a manic-obsessive freak about maintaining order in his beautiful bunker — and he never noticed the window with “HELP” scratched across the inside, or the earring so telltale it actually has blood on it?)
But as an exercise in tension, 10 Cloverfield Lane works. Winstead is likable on a weirdly fundamental level: It’s the big eyes, I think, which speak to some sort of rueful experience, the kind of thing that makes you stronger by not killing you. So it’s a kick to see her finally triumph against her captor, and you’re with her completely when she emerges into the outside world, triumphant.
And right about then is when the floating space-squidship appears.
Did you like the ending of 10 Cloverfield Lane? I’m still struggling with it. What had been a tense human-sized story becomes a ludicrous special effects action movie. This is fun to watch, the way it’s fun to watch someone destroy an expensive new Apple product with a baseball bat. But it also seems to violate some essential Big Idea underlying the movie. At Minute 90, the movie says: “The real monster is us.” By Minute 100, the movie says: “Never mind, the real monster is the hovering crustacean vacuum!”
Much has been made about how 10 Cloverfield Lane could be a new kind of franchise movie, and how Cloverfield is itself a new kind of film series: Less a saga than an anthology, telling human-sized stories amidst a barely explicable apocalyptic event. But 10 Cloverfield Lane argues, quite the opposite, that the whole franchise idea has become something like an infection. For 90 minutes of running time, Winstead plays a genuine human being. She’s not a particularly complicated human being — there’s a more interesting variation of 10 Cloverfield Lane where the bad guy isn’t the guy you think is the bad guy, where there isn’t even any such thing as a bad guy — but she is a human being.
And then, in the big climax, she’s someone who can construct a Molotov cocktail in midair and throw it at just the right moment into the gaping maw of a consuming spaceship.
The monster in the original Cloverfield didn’t make sense, either. God help those brave souls who are once again debating frame-by-frame easter eggs searching for clues toward Cloverfield‘s underlying mythology. Because the truth is that there is no Cloverfield mythology. The monsters are just trailer concepts for monsters, scary Things defined by nothing beyond their Thingness. Most great science-fiction lands on the idea that monsters are somehow human. The Cloverfield franchise never gets past the superficial notion that monsters are scary and weird and gross.
But at least the first Cloverfield told a complete story about characters trapped in a world they didn’t understand. Compared to that, the ending of 10 Cloverfield Lane feels like a betrayal. Winstead gets the end-of-a-superhero-movie-moment, driving off into the distance toward further adventures with alien squid-insect monsters. (The film tries to justify that finale with a terrible dialogue scene, where Winstead offers a psychological origin story about Not Helping Someone In Need. She might as well talk about how she really misses her Uncle Ben.)
It strikes me that 10 Cloverfield Lane is vastly more optimistic than the first film, believing firmly in the power of attractive humanity to triumph over mean humans and meaner aliens. But it also strikes me that 10 Cloverfield Lane is more cynical about its own Cloverfield-ness. Did people gripe about how pointless the characters in the first movie were? Fine: Let’s show Winstead exploding an alien spaceship, just like Cruise in War of the Worlds. And there’s an angle on the end of where the ending almost feels like an apology. “Sorry you had to sit through all that dialogue stuff… Here, we spent 40 percent of the budget on an alien dog-raptor with eyeball teeth.”
And I am not against alien dog-raptors with eyeball teeth! But I wonder: Did the ending of 10 Cloverfield Lane work for you? Did you feel like it worked better than the tragic finale of the original Cloverfield? Email your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll discuss the film in this week’s edition of the Entertainment Geekly podcast.