Despite having the name in the title, 10 Cloverfield LN. has less in common with the 2008 sci-fi horror film and more with the H.G. Wells classic “The War of the Worlds.” Of course that’s not even a readily apparent comparison until the final portion of the movie. I won’t even call it the final “act.” It’s more like a coda to the end of the movie when the film makes it’s big move to challenge your conceptions on what it is about.
Back to the beginning of the movie. For starters, this is a film that dropped out of the sky on the unsuspecting public. It was first revealed as an already-finished film late last year. Granted, the small nature of the movie helped it to be made quietly but it’s still a remarkable achievement that Bad Robot was able to produce this entire movie with nary any publicity or pre-release spoilers mucking it up.
And you really need to go into this as spoiler-free as you can. I may have already said too much in my opening sentence so if you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading and go see it now.
There. Seen it?
The movie begins with a worldless opening as we are introduced to our heroine. Everything seems normal in the world but she’s in the midst of a life-crisis as she’s driving away from her fiance and planning…something. Maybe she’s planning to go start a new life; maybe she just wants to get away. Either way she’s running…er, driving.
She stops for a fill up and the camera focuses on a pickup truck that pulls up at the pump behind her. We never get a good look at the driver of the truck; we only see that he has a chubby hand that’s clutching a large set of keys. Once our heroine—Michelle—is back on the road, the movie really begins.
And it begins with a crash. Out of nowhere, Michelle’s car is struck by an unseen assailant, it careens off the road, flips and rolls and ends up upside down in a field. The next thing we see is Michelle waking up, chained to the wall inside the bunker that will consume the next 90% of the film. The bunker belongs to John Goodman’s character Howard, and is also occupied by a young man around our heroine’s age, named Emmett.
What’s great about the movie, and what is also so remarkable for a small-location film like this, is how well paced everything is. A lot of movies that rely on small or intimate settings tend to have moments that drag, as it seems like there’s more movie than screenplay at the filmmaker’s disposal. Not this film; this movie doesn’t just move, it glides. It slides from one set piece to another with a perfect pace and with the tension always high.
Another great accomplishment is how it reveals its secrets piecemeal throughout the runtime, instead of the more customary “big reveals saved for the end of the movie” approach that most use. For example, I suspected that Howard was the driver first glimpsed at the beginning of the movie and that he purposefully ran Michelle off the road. It’s not ten or fifteen minutes into the second act (which again takes place entirely in the bunker) that my suspicion was proven correct. First Michelle remembers it and then later Howard openly confesses it. It was a simple gesture to the careful viewer but one that was much appreciated.
We also are given our first escape attempt very early on, and it’s here where the movie really plays against your preconceived notions about where the film is going. Howard is presented as a nutjob that believes in government conspiracies, getting off the grid and probably soundly supported Ron Paul for President. He casually talks about being wary of potential martian invaders as normally as you or I would take about the threat of North Korea. Because of this we are naturally inclined to disbelieve him when he says the world has gone to pot and that the air outside the bunker is toxic. It’s not half an hour into the movie, though, when our preconceptions are turned on their head.
Michelle steals Howard’s keys and tries to escape out of the bunker, and as she does she’s confronted with a neighbor who is trying desperately to get in the bunker. Suddenly at least some of Howard’s paranoia is validated. With that thread tied up we’re left to watch as our heroine exists in the bunker with this man that may be “right” but certainly isn’t “good.” It’s an interesting dynamic and one that makes for some real tension. You’re left to wonder what the end game is. Clearly Michelle can’t stay in the bunker, but she also can’t go outside. As viewers we sympathize with our heroine as she is forced into a no-win scenario inside the bunker. Even though Howard’s rescue of Michelle actually did save her life, it’s still not much of a life when you’re held at gunpoint by a man who has 200lbs on her, is definitely unstable, probably has killed and maybe will kill again.
Of course there is an out for our heroine, and that takes us back to the movie’s ending. It will probably be the most controversial aspect of the film and had the movie simply ended after a tension and horror-packed escape to the great outdoors, then it still would have been hailed as a great work of suspense. Instead the movie decides to show just how right or wrong Howard was as Michelle breaks out only to discover the planet has been invaded by aliens. Once again, Howard may not have been “good” but apparently he was “right.” Your mileage may vary on how you handle the twist ending (actually, can it be called a “twist” ending when the main character predicted it at the beginning of the movie?) but personally I enjoyed it. The conventional thing to do would have been to reveal that Howard was lying about the air outside the bunker and, once disposed of, have the heroine escape wounded but free. This movie chose to do an unconventional thing and if the prospect of aliens seems too out of left field, remember that there was a reason Bad Robot decided to snag the rights to the movie and rebrand it as part of the “Cloverfield” family.
Whatever your opinion on the final ten minutes, it can’t be denied that the first 110 minutes are packed with Hitchcockian-level tension, drama, and suspense. It’s a masterpiece in that regard and definitely worthy of your attention while it’s in theaters.
9/10 – See it in theaters. It’s the best movie released so far this year.