Last month I finally got around to watching the 2008 film Cloverfield, which is one of the most unique monster movies I’ve ever seen. I really liked it — but then I saw 10 Cloverfield Lane this weekend, and it blew the first movie away. I highly recommend both for putting the focus not so much on the stories they tell, but on how they tell them. Here’s a review double feature for you! (Spoilers to follow…)
So last month I watched the Matt Reeves movie Cloverfield (2008) for the first time. With J.J. Abrams as a producer and Drew Goddard as screenwriter (he more recently penned The Martian adaptation), it’s an action-packed sci-fi film that stands out for how it’s told.
What you’re watching (fiction though it is) is camcorder footage the U.S. government is showing you for the first time. The film starts with protagonist Rob (Michael Stahl-David) at the house of a young woman named Beth (Odette Yustman), right by Central Park. Rob narrates what a good day it is and reveals Beth sleeping in bed. They decide to go to Coney Island. They’re clearly having a romantic day, and whatever their story, Rob is in love.
The footage is soon taken over by Hud (get it, Heads-Up-Display? — played by T. J. Miller), one of Rob’s friends, three weeks later. Rob is apparently leaving New York for a new career opportunity in Tokyo. Hud is filming his goodbye party, thrown by Rob’s brother Jason and Jason’s girlfriend Lily (Mike Vogel and Jessica Lucas). You find out that Rob and Beth are not together — in fact, Beth shows up to the party with another guy — but clearly they still have feelings for each other. You also get to know Rob’s friends as Hud narrates the footage and spends a lot of camera time with his oblivious crush, Marlena (Lizzie Caplan).
I’ll admit this style of filming made me really motion sick. I’m prone to that. When I sat down to watch the movie, I already had a light headache; by the end of the film, it was a full-on nauseated migraine, and I had to go straight to bed to sleep it off. Apparently that’s a common problem when watching this movie! But I still wouldn’t want to see it filmed any other way. The “found footage” style is very arresting, making everything feel real and urgent.
That’s important, because at some point during Rob’s going-away party, everything starts shaking and the power briefly cuts out. Then you realize something is out there — a huge alien creature stomping through the streets of New York City, devouring people in its path.
The story isn’t necessarily all that interesting — it has a definite Godzilla vibe — but the filming style makes the storytelling feel innovative. Because you’re watching people in “real life,” nothing feels scripted. The characters are scared at what’s going on. You hear Hud freak out behind the camera. There are times when the characters argue over what to do, talking over each other like people do in real life.
Hud chooses what to focus the camera on so you catch characters’ expressions even when they’re just sitting there, thinking they’re unnoticed. There are also times when the footage cuts out because of the surrounding chaos. Once or twice, Rob even shouts at Hud to put down the camera and focus on what they’re doing.
I won’t give away everything that happens… though I wouldn’t say there are tons of spoilers to be had here. It’s the kind of movie you just have to experience for yourself, because the character-driven storytelling — the film’s personality — is what it’s all about. The story’s set-up and last scene are really poignant; it’s a pretty perfect way to tell this particular tale.
I’ve been recommended this film for a long time, but put off watching it because I’m not really into monster movies or apocalyptic stories. But I’m so glad I finally gave this film a chance. It’s definitely worth a watch if you can stomach the film style to enjoy it as much as I did, migraine or not.
10 Cloverfield Lane
I wasn’t sure how — or even if — 10 Cloverfield Lane would be related to Cloverfield. They share a producer in J.J. Abrams, but the trailer for 10 didn’t showcase the same handheld camera style or even hint that a monster might be loose. (Spoilers to follow!)
In fact, 10 Cloverfield Lane shares very little in common with the original movie, other than the fact that it focuses on characters in very tough situations. It starts with protagonist Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) packing a bag and fleeing her home, leaving her engagement ring behind. A mannequin and sketches of clothing hint at her passions. She stops at a gas station and looks uncomfortable at the presence — and probably unwanted gaze — of someone else there, but you don’t really see who. She ignores her boyfriend calling, trying to make up with her. And then a truck slams her car off the road.
When she awakens, she’s in a windowless basement somewhere, with an IV and a leg brace that just happens to be chained to the wall. Her captor, Howard (John Goodman), claims that he saved her when he saw her on the side of the road, and they are the only survivors of some sort of apocalypse that contaminated the air outside. Well, them and one other man, Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), who works for Howard.
I won’t give away every twist and turn of this film, but the filmmakers did a fantastic job of telling this story. Once it’s over, you realize there was just one reality the whole time, but Michelle spends her stay with Howard trying to figure out if he is her kidnapper or her savior. Does she believe the air outside is really contaminated? She gets Emmett on her side at different points, and she believes Howard at different points… but new evidence keeps cropping up to keep her (and the audience) guessing. I love the way this tale is unraveled. The pacing is perfect.
What also interested me is that very little is known about Michelle the whole time. Other than the initial scene I just explained, which gives the audience hints about who she is, you don’t learn any more details. At one point, she tells a story about watching a father physically hurt his daughter by yanking on her arm, and how she regrets not helping even though she wanted to. She says she did what she always does when things get hard: She ran away. That seems to be what she was doing with her fiance, but we never learn any details about their fight or life together.
It’s an obvious choice of the part of the storytellers, not to give too much away about Michelle. It’s like those tangible details are less important than who she is — the fact that she runs away, her intelligence as she tries to figure things out, her hopes of escape. I guess it helps you project onto her a little too, so you’re rooting for her even more than you would if you found out there was something about her you didn’t like. It’s a great way to introduce a heroine who’s not perfect.
10 Cloverfield Lane is my favorite movie of the year so far. I’ve seen some other good ones — my other favorites being Spotlight and The Witch — but 10 stands at the top. It’s pretty cool that it was Dan Trachtenberg’s directorial debut, and the writing team (Josh Campbell, Matthew Stucken, and Damien Chazelle) did an amazing job with psychological storytelling and minimalist character development. I guess I went into the movie not expecting much — even though I liked Cloverfield, I’m not really into monster movies — so this one totally took me by surprise.