News broke late last week that sometime after J.J. Abrams had wrapped filming on Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, his production company Bad Robot had “secretly” filmed a “blood-relative” followup to his 2008 production Cloverfield. I personally had a mixed reaction to the revelation that a second Cloverfield film is headed our way. I absolutely hated the original Cloverfield film when it was released in 2008. Loathed it. A sequel (or a “blood relative” semi-sequel) would not likely be something I’d be interested in, then, except that the trailer for 10 Cloverfield Lane is so thoroughly badass that it made me reconsider my stance on the original entirely. So, for the third time in eight years I decided to give Cloverfield a chance to grow on me. I’m bummed to report that although my hatred for the film has calmed down a great deal, it’s still not my thing.
Found footage horror films are a dime a dozen (almost literally; their attractively low production costs are a large part of why they’re so plentiful). Cloverfield is a step above the rest in terms of what it accomplishes with the limited scope of the found footage horror as a genre. On the monster end of the equation, the movie nails everything it aims for. Its lumbering, Godzilla-sized creature is a sight to behold (whenever you can get a good glimpse of it) and the broad strokes of its threat on New York City is complimented nicely by an evil army of tiny insectoid (baby?) versions of the larger creature. The movie is smart not to over-detail exactly why or how the monster arrived. Is it from the ocean floor? Is it from another planet? These questions are asked, but never answered. Instead, Cloverfield focuses on detailing the mayhem: rockets launched, buildings demolished, oil tankers tipped & set aflame. It’s honestly not at all hard to see why so many people have latched onto Cloverfield as a breath of fresh air in the creature feature genre.
What sinks the film for me is the human end of the equation. The characters are understandably panicked by the sight of a grand scale monster tearing the city down around them, but their shrill, frantic reactions are relentless & honestly, annoying. As an audience member it’s far more entertaining to focus on what the gigantic (alien?) beast is up to instead of hearing someone shriek “Rob’s got Beth on the phone! Rob’s got Beth on the phone! Rob’s got Beth on the phone!”, especially since Rob & Beth are so vaguely defined that they’re barely more than total strangers. It’s an exciting feeling to be chased down to a creature you barely comprehend, but when you’re only interacting with the damned thing through brief flashes & the creatures you do spend time with are just as barely-comprehendible New York City nobodies, the whole ordeal can be very frustrating. Despite the presence of future-greats Lizzie Caplan & T.J. Miller, the human toll in Cloverfield feels greatly deserved, a debt well paid. I wanted (most of) these characters to die at the monster’s hands(? tentacles?). I doubt that was the desired effect.
Still, I find myself excited for 10 Cloverfield Lane. Maybe it’s the narrative remove from the found footage format that’s working for me in that ad? Cloverfield aims for a kind of authenticity that I’m not sure it achieves. It bends over backwards to make sure there’s a reason why the cameraman (Miller) would be filming in the first place (a going away party for Rob! Rob! Roooooooob!). It goes way overboard on that end, though, with the cameradude explicitly saying “This is going to be important. People are going to want to see this.” There are also some eyeroll-worthy instances of coincidence (like the Statue of Liberty’s head rolling to a stop at these exact characters’ feet) & terrible self-survival choices (even for the horror genre) that compromise the film’s attempts to feel like a document of a “real” supernatural event. Really, though, what doesn’t work for me in Cloverfield is its human casualty stockpile. It’s especially sad that they’re so blandly represented & so unable to generate sympathy even though the monster mayhem doesn’t start until 20 minutes into the runtime & the characters in question never leave our sight. They’re always around, waiting to baffle & annoy. 10 Cloverfield Lane promises almost the exact opposite experience: three characters trapped in a small space through a cinematic lens instead of a faux documentary one. I expect that set-up (and what promises to be one intense John Goodman performance) will be a much more satisfying experience. I believe this despite optimistically giving the first Cloverfield a shot three separate times, with my opinion only being raised from white hot anger to mild displeasure. That’s still progress, I guess.