The hook is immediate and devastating. In 10 Cloverfield Lane, our heroine Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up from a brutal car accident to find herself chained to a wall in a small anonymous room. Her captor, Howard (John Goodman), is cryptic and evasive, his only words of explanation “I’m sorry, but no one’s looking for you.” Eventually Howard blurts out a terrible truth: the world is under attack, possibly from extra-terrestrial enemies, and Michelle must wait out whatever terror is wreaking havoc outside for a year, maybe more, with only Howard and unassuming country boy Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) to keep her company. To be fair, Howard’s bunker itself is surprisingly plush, complete with comfy couches, an endless supply of board games, and a jukebox blasting ‘60s pop. It would be your friend’s cool basement if it weren’t for the ominous survivalist controlling your every move. And as Howard’s actions take on a more and more menacing vibe, the film presents us with a brutal question: Is the world beyond Michelle’s claustrophobic prison as treacherous as Howard claims it to be, or is she the victim of a madman? Whom can we trust?
When 10 Cloverfield Lane poses this dilemma it does so with the baggage of a franchise threatening its narrative development. While Michelle certainly wonders how reliable the men around her are, we have purchased a ticket for a film with the word Cloverfield in the title, sold to us as an extension of the 2008 found-footage film Cloverfield, which depicted a group of Manhattanites fleeing a monster attack and inexplicably slowing to record all of it on a camcorder. While Michelle and Emmett react skeptically when Howard floats theories of alien invaders, we nod in perfect understanding. Yes, John Goodman, the alien apocalypse is upon us, tell us more! Because of course the aliens are attacking, but so too is Howard an untrustworthy menace with harsh methods of punishment, a thorough danger to the people he’s “saving.” 10 Cloverfield Lane posits a world wherein every paranoid scenario of just how bad things could get proves itself to be true.
The erosion of this potential zone of ambiguity has upset some critics, notably Amy Nicholson of MTV News, who wrote “The title alone is a spoiler,” suggesting our inherent awareness of 10 Cloverfield Lane’s franchise inheritance deflates the film’s suspense. Perhaps when 10 Cloverfield Lane was born, in the form of a spec script by John Campbell and Matt Stuecken entitled The Cellar, the question of what is actually lurking outside was a component of the film’s dramatic tension. The titles even reflect an entire shift in perspective: Campbell and Stuecken’s Cellar could be anywhere, but we could find 10 Cloverfield Lane on Google Maps, and get a clear feel for its surroundings.
A widely circulated screenplay, The Cellar was included in “The Hit List” of 2012, a prestigious annual listing of un-produced screenplays put out by The Tracking Board, a news site and resource for burgeoning screenwriters. The screenplay was soon bought by Paramount and given to J.J. Abrams’s Bad Robot Productions for development, where a decision was quickly made to perform surgery on the script, artificially conjoining the film to the existing Cloverfield franchise, marketing it as a “spiritual successor.” It’s up to the viewer to decide the terms of that spiritual succession, whether the film is a follow-up to the literal plot of Cloverfield, is just re-formatting the viewer’s perspective, or is cut off from the first film all together, sharing with the original only a genre and a vibe.
But what to make of this franchise appendage, both created outside of its brand and wearing it as a filter? Many critics look upon the composite nature of 10 Cloverfield Lane as a tragedy, a sign of Hollywood’s mass dependence on franchises crushing the fledgling original thought. A.A. Dowd for The AV Club essentially said just that, writing “the worst thing about 10 Cloverfield Lane is that it turns out to be a Cloverfield movie.” And their cries of mourning are fully justified! Recent Hollywood has been defined by a swelling of budgets for select few mega-blockbusters, with a resulting decrease of funds for any other film produced, necessitating extremely low budgets. Jason Bailey wrote a key article for Flavorwire explaining how we ended up in this quagmire, “How the Death of Mid-Budget Cinema Left a Generation of Iconic Filmmakers MIA” describing how the mid-level of Hollywood production has dropped out, but restricted his analysis primarily to beloved twentieth century auteurs who find their projects without funding, such as Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Soderbergh, David Lynch, Spike Lee, and John Waters.
Regan Reid, in “Clueless Representation, or, How the Death of Mid-Budget Cinema Is Pushing Women Out of the Mainstream,” drew upon Bailey’s statistics but shifted his argument away from the waning influence of noted filmmakers, and towards the actual socio-cultural effects of mid-budget cinema’s disappearance, namely, less female-directed products and less potential for new voices, lost in an increasingly overrun independent market. These actions push women out of Hollywood disproportionately, churning out rehashed material and extended franchises well beyond their lifespans. Larger than the tragedy of auteurs without financing is that of all the auteurs-to-be that can’t get their first start, the films that aren’t being made in an age of such stringent demands. To hell with alien attacks; cinematically speaking, Hollywood’s destroying itself just fine.
Critics look upon 10 Cloverfield Lane and see a gravestone: this is where our franchise-addiction has gotten us, original stories that can only be successful if flimsily posted on to an existing franchise. It’s easy to imagine the writers of The Cellar forced to make a decision evocative of Michelle’s: is the greater danger being trapped inside a claustrophobic Hollywood franchise, its powerful tyrants obsessed with marketing and bottom-line profits; or out in the independent world, where the pickings are slim, the hungry filmmakers many, and your career stands the chance of being obliterated by a passing alien ship?
The Cellar has chosen the former, and morphed into its safe passage identity of 10 Cloverfield Lane. But the surgery scars remain, and boy, are they visible. A.A. Dowd’s disappointment that 10 Cloverfield Lane “turns out to be a Cloverfield movie” isn’t a figurative analytic statement, it’s much more literal than that. You can pinpoint the scene, shot, and timecode at which we become a certifiable Cloverfield movie (understandably, it coincides with Michelle escaping the bunker and something appearing in the sky). And rather than viewing the transitional quirks as the embarrassing remnants of the film’s franchise integration, I choose to honor them as part and parcel of 10 Cloverfield Lane’s cinematic identity.
The scenes A.A. Dowd might describe as “may or may not be a Cloverfield movie” are richly satisfying, crackling with tension and surprisingly detailed character work. John Goodman has had a wonderful career playing specifically drawn oddballs in supporting roles. Here in his top-billed role he’s doing something stunningly different, taking on a lead role and one where Goodman has to be more content with ambiguity, with the viewer’s concerned ambivalence regarding his general intentions and motives towards his captives/co-survivors. Winstead is quite good as well, furnishing a rather plain role with welcome emotional detailing.
It is this very intimacy and the absorptive stakes of 10 Cloverfield Lane—being trapped in a bunker, struggling to firmly grasp the character of your supposed protector—that belie the context of franchise filmmaking. There is no larger canvas we’re obsessing over, no shared continuum between different films. If 10 Cloverfield Lane has a major studio opposite it would be the recent Avengers: Age of Ultron, a hyperlink text if there ever was one, each and every scene existing only in relation to an ever-expanding cinematic universe, never to itself, a capitalist franchise gone off the rails, living off its own fumes and looking only to offer the everlasting promise of extension, stretching, and compounding rather than shaping narrative in engaging or articulate ways. Expansion has a funny way of cheapening the very thing you’re trying to extend.
But the tense bunker standoff does end, and we reveal the backdrop of Cloverfield monstrosity filling in the context of a modest little movie. Michelle looks upon an alien invader with exhausted annoyance, going through the motions of a sci-fi heroine with frustrated tedium. The scars of 10 Cloverfield Lane’s absorption of The Cellar have never been clearer. And I like that. The visible stitches present this film as an active, knowing product that recognizes the strains it’s under in this age of the Hollywood mega-blockbuster. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a film exceptionally willing to mark its separation between franchise obligations and artful filmmaking. Maybe instead of holding out nostalgia for a fantasy of artistic creation or reminiscing about the days when auteurs had studio budgets at their command, here’s a chance to admire what art and resistance can look like today: a willful synchronicity of cinematic forms.
For the moment, franchise culture has won. The Marvel cinematic universe has rebounded from potential setbacks (like Age of Ultron) with aplomb, and anticipation for Captain America: Civil War runs deep. Even outside the official canon, Marvel properties like Deadpool are financial home-runs, giving studios little reason to shift their priorities away from their current obsession with big-budget franchises. With the money rolling in, it’s easy to stay underground with Howard, especially if we take as scripture his assurance that “no one is looking for us.” But perhaps 10 Cloverfield Lane is our first case of anxious dreaming for a way outside the bunker.