Review: 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016)

Well this one came out of nowhere. Just two months ago there was a single trailer and now here it is, a J.J. Abrams produced maybe-sorta sequel/prequel to CLOVERFIELD? A word of warning before reading this review: it’s full of spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film you might wanna steer clear.

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is the type of film where most enjoyment is had by not knowing a single thing about it. You don’t wanna know too much about the story, because it’s all about tension and surprises. You don’t wanna know what genre it is, because that could give you hints on what’s coming. You don’t even wanna know how high the budget was, or whether it’s got a PG 13 or an R rating, because that will tell you what they were and weren’t able to put in their film, which can severely lower the impact of certain scenes. And finally, least of all you want to know this thing is called 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE – because that will spoil the entire fucking ending for you.

When the film opens, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, DIE HARD 4.0) is involved in a car accident and then wakes up in a creepy-looking basement, chained to the wall. Since she’s playing John McClane’s daughter (well, not in this film, but you could’ve fooled me), she immediately starts McGyvering the shit out of anything she can get her hands on. Uses her IV drip to get her phone from the opposite side of the room, shit like that. It doesn’t have reception though, so she has to wait until Howard comes down to say hi. Howard is played by John Goodman, and his performance is the highlight of the film. In fact, it’s pretty much the only reason for watching this at all, but I’ll come back to that later. In any case, Howard is an ex-military dude who built the elaborate bomb shelter that they’re in right now. There’s been an attack, he says. Everyone outside is dead, the air is contaminated, and they won’t be able to leave the bunker for at least 2 years. He says he found Michelle lying unconscious next to her car and decided to rescue her. Howard is a real weirdo, making it difficult for Michelle to believe him – especially when he starts speculating it was either the Russians or the freaking Martians that launched the attack. But there’s a third person in the shelter with them, a young guy named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who says he fought his way into Howard’s bunker because he saw some weird lights and figured the world was ending.

So those are the questions driving the film. Is Howard telling the truth about what’s going on outside, or does he have more sinister reasons for trapping a pretty girl in his basement? And what about Emmett? Did he really see something happen or does he just think he did? Michelle certainly believes she’s in more danger from Howard than she is from anything waiting outside, so she keeps trying to escape. Will she succeed? And if she does, will she wish she hadn’t?

Going in, I knew almost nothing about 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, which turned out to be a good thing mostly. I didn’t know the story and I didn’t know how high the budget was, so even Michelle’s early escape attempts had a degree of excitement to them. For all I knew she’d get out of the bunker quickly and continue her adventures outside on a much grander scale. Besides that I expected the film to have an R rating, meaning that when it seemed like some seriously gruesome shit was about to go down, I was on the edge of my seat, fearing what would happen.

Sadly, it didn’t take long for me to realize that Michelle would not be getting out of the bunker quickly. This is just another version of an overly familiar plot, done dozens of times before, both in short stories and on tv shows like THE OUTER LIMITS.You know how it goes: couple folks trapped in a room, something may or may not have happened outside and they only find out the truth at the very end, just as they’re finally setting one foot outside the room – boom, credits. Most recently it was done on a show called METAL HURLANT CHRONICLES in 2014. Go look up the episode called “Shelter Me” –  it’s so similar it’s embarassing, like two celebrities showing up to an awards ceremony wearing the same dress. Precisely because this type of story had already been done so many times, I was expecting CLOVERFIELD LANE to only use it as a set-up for something different, something bigger, but no… turns out they’re perfectly happy just recycling the same old crap from start to finish.

It doesn’t have an R rating either. That became pretty obvious when everything even remotely violent kept happening off screen, culminating in a ridiculous moment where one character is partially consumed by acid but instead of looking like Emil in ROBOCOP, he just stumbles around and gurgles a bit. There’s no visible wounds, except for a little gory makeup on the side of his head, but that just makes it look like he’s got a rash or something. Maybe put some cream on that, dude. You’ll be fine.

As unoriginal as it is, I will say this is a well executed version of this type of story, mostly because of the stellar acting on display. John Goodman especially is fantastic as the unstable Howard and keeps you on your toes at all times. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is equally great, but her character is a little weird. At some point they have her tell a story about how she was abused by her father as a kid and that’s why, whenever there’s trouble, she always runs in the opposite direction. But except for the very beginning of the film (where she appears to be running away from her fiancee) that’s totally not what she does throughout the story. Like I mentioned earlier, Michelle is so tough it’s like she’s still playing Lucy McClane. From the moment she wakes up in that basement she’s like a goddamn superhero. There’s no problem too complex for her, no situation too dire – she just looks around the room and finds her way out in three seconds flat, using random stuff like a broom, a pile of dog shit and three used tampons. You give her a sweaty sock with a hole in it, she’ll fucking kill you with it. So when the film’s final moment explicitly shows her making the choice to stop running and face trouble head-on, it hardly feels like a huge development for her character. By then she’s already won a footrace against an alien tracking dog and shoved a molotov cocktail up a living spaceship’s vagina – I think she’s doing pretty well facing trouble, you guys. But thanks for the thematic closure.

And yes, I did mention aliens. They come out during the last 15 minutes of the film, when we discover that Howard was right all along. There has indeed been an attack, lots of people are dead and it was the Martians that did it. The air is safe to breathe though, unless you happen to be sprayed with poison gas by one of those living ships that keep flying by. Now let me ask you: were you really expecting anything else? Of course there’d be aliens! It says CLOVERFIELD right there in the goddamn title! Probably you were expecting giant monsters like the one that was in the first film, and we don’t get those, but you knew something had to be up. While I’m sure it makes sense from a business perspective to use the branding, it does royally fuck up any surprise the ending may have had in store, which is a shame. Then again, even if the title had still been THE CELLAR (which is what it was originally called, before the decision was made to tie it into the CLOVERFIELD universe) the ending would have been a disappointment, simply because we’ve seen it all before. The only thing that saves this from being a complete waste of everyone’s time is the acting. God bless you John Goodman, you’re doing the Lord’s work.

I’ll end the review on a positive note. 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is the directing debut of Dan Trachtenberg, who also did that impressive short based on the PORTAL videogames a couple years back, and he’s got skills. He shoots things very clearly, making it easy to understand the layout of the bunker and ensuring we always know what’s happening during the more hectic scenes. I was particularly fond of the part where Michelle runs away from the ship spraying poison gas, scrambling to get her gas mask back on and eventually seeing the green smoke engulf her visor one second after she manages to put it on. It makes me curious what Trachtenberg can do when he’s got a more interesting story to work with. Based on the general reception of this film, I’m sure he’ll get that chance.

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