First Thoughts: 10 Cloverfield Land

As someone who devotes a large portion of his viewing time to monster movies, it always struck me as kind of odd that I had a tepid reaction to Cloverfield, at best, in spite of all of the acclaim that surrounded it. Maybe it was the shaky-cam, maybe it was a victim of all of that hype, maybe it just wasn’t scary enough; whatever the problem, it just didn’t sit with me. So, along came the trailers for its sequel and I was hesitant, to say the least, but, personally, how could I say no to watching a film centered on creepy–possibly crazy–John Goodman when one of my favorite scenes is him running through a flaming hallway, wielding a shotgun in Barton Fink10 Cloverfield Lane is a good film–and it’s a much smarter film than its predecessor. As you’ll probably read in any number of countless reviews–or as you’ve probably seen if you made it past my italicized warning–it has little to do with the first one (we’ll return to that thought and how the name fits in). What impacted me the most was how, as my title suggests, the sole purpose of the film seemed to be to rebut any sort of cynicism on the part of the spectator.

Michelle becomes the stand in for the audience; despite never overtly acknowledging it, 10 Cloverfield Lane is set from her point-of-view. This means the spectator incurs the same gap of knowledge as Michelle at the beginning of the film, and must also depend upon the scant clues, and the hearsay of the other inhabitants Howard and Emmett, to piece together what’s actually happening. Debut filmmaker Dan Trachtenberg sets the film up so as to give the viewer, and Michelle, every reason to doubt what she’ll hear, as she awakens with an IV in her, handcuffed to a wall, locked into a prison cell, and hears Howard yelling at the other, unknown inhabitant after a large crash. Perhaps luck is as important a factor as anything in filmmaking, as this scene feels so reminiscent of Room that what’s coming next seems inevitable.

But, in spite of those overtones, the inevitable never happens. The film then goes to set up as much evidence as possible in favor of Howard’s account (that there was an attack of some sort, he saved Michelle, and they can’t go outside as the air has most likely been contaminated): there’s Emmett, someone Howard clearly harbors disdain for, that not only corroborates his story but confirms that he broke his arm trying to get in, and there’s Howard’s insistence on acting through on everything and following proper procedure. On the last note, consider the fact that Howard actually throws away the shower curtain when he thinks it might have been compromised. Despite being the antagonist for the first third of the film–again, from Michelle’s point of view, as he clearly asserts he is the generous hero that saved their lives–Howard’s story is pretty consistent, before you even consider the fact that Michelle witnesses an unknown woman clearly die due to some sort of chemical attack. The tension of the film, and the thriller aspect of it, relies on the viewer’s oscillation between cynicism and belief for the first two-thirds of the film. This, itself, is quite the commentary on the way that we view these monster movies; it seems to me that in many viewing experiences the spectator will move between cynicism about the actual threat posed and belief during these types of films. By belief, I don’t mean that the monster is real, or poses an actual threat, but the bodily response of fear in any analogous horror film, monster movie, thriller is predicated on some sort of belief that something bad will happen, which is why we allow it to effect us.

By subtracting the physical monster from the entirety of the first two-thirds of the film, Trachtenberg not only brilliantly commentates on the way we spectate within this genre, but also allows further tension to develop between our (and Michelle’s) cynicism about the outside monster and the fear of what could be a very real monster on the inside. With the introduction of the possibility that Howard’s past may actually be incredibly dark–something the film never seeks concretely resolves–Michelle begins to have the thought that what is outside may be better, or that it might at least be better to find help then to remain alone with what is actually a more pressing threat than the sound of circling helicopters. When Howard attacks Emmett remorselessly, and creepily suggests that they’ll now be alone, as originally intended (while she wears the shirt of a possible murder victim, no less), things hit the breaking point and the choice becomes clear: she must escape the mad man.

Shortly thereafter, there’s a peaceful respite of sustained bliss, as Michelle escapes and is able to take her home made gas mask off without dying of contaminated air, seemingly confirming that the true monster all along was Howard. Of course–the title of this being what it is–10 Cloverfield Lane does not allow that moment to linger, and Michelle exclaims something along the lines of “you’re [expletive] kidding me,” as all of her cynicism about Howard’s claims are shattered with the arrival of a spaceship. It’s a wonderful moment in a film that encourages you to focus on a smaller piece of the picture for an extended amount of time, overshadowing the bigger stakes within the diegesis, and I think this move, and the inherent gamble of confirming what Howard says, is pulled off in a pretty expert fashion. Of course, this resolution still leaves some pretty pressing matters: even if his account was true, there’s some pretty decent evidence that Howard may have abducted and tortured a girl and was just the monster that awaited Michelle on the outside. I haven’t quite made out what to make of that at this point, given how recently I saw the film, but I’m sure I’ll come back to it at some point (or at least talk about it in real life) when I wade through what to make about the fact that a pretty strong female character is forced to choose between the monsters outside and within (and defeats both, it must be noted).  I suppose the question becomes if we should take the narrative happenstance at face value, or as an inner, emotional journey in which she conquers that fear of not being able to be proactive and takes control of her life? I’d tend to think that the fact that she begins emotionally and physically wounded, but grows to the point where she is able to fight off not only Howard, but the extra terrestrial, definitely hint at the inside growth that these outer conflicts are externalizing–as is the case in many horror films. Should we read it in as outrightly feminist, or just the required arc and growth of most characters? I’m not certain yet, but I think more time of reflection will lend a deeper, more insightful answer to this.

This all brings me full circle to the name, 10 Cloverfield Lane. The cynical person in me–the one that the film, originally entitled The Cellar, subverted–views this as a marketing ploy. And, I don’t think that you can deny that there’s a certain lens to that that is absolutely true; there’s a chance this film would have been as successful as it will be with its original title, but I think the (good?) memories associated with the first one, and the act of franchising, certainly put it on pace to be much more profitable. In the diegetic world, however, the title alludes to the location of the bunker in which the Michelle, Howard and Emmett must reside, as the mail box she knocks down after escaping. But it also serves as one last reminder of how the film seeks to subvert cynicism; we’re encouraged to think that Howard is the deadliest threat in the film, and quite possibly a liar, in the face of the fact that the film situates itself within the genre of monster movies with that title. That’s all the evidence we as viewers should need about what’s coming, yet it still doesn’t seem to be enough to overcome our natural doubts as the narrative progresses.

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