Wednesday, 23 March 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane; small, simple, gripping

I didn’t know if I was going to like 10 Cloverfield Lane, but I know enough about JJ Abrams to know that my best chance of liking it was to go and see it before anyone had a chance to tell me all about it. The Abrams schtick is that nothing is quite what it seems, which is all very well and good until the movie gets onto the internets. So, get there early and make the most of it; like fish, Abrams is not a thing which keeps well.

And it’s a good little movie. Considering that it’s got Cloverfield DNA, it’s a surprisingly good movie. Luckily, they ditched the gimmick from Cloverfield, and even more luckily they went and hired themselves a couple of actors and locked them in a box where they had nothing to distract them from acting. John Goodman is so loveable normally that Howard makes a great villain, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle is perfectly convincing as a smart woman who never gives up trying to improvise her way out of impossible situations. 

The first of which is trying to figure out whether John Howard's an absolute monster, or just a horrible prick trying to do the right thing. Which leads into the second problem; there’s definitely some kind of monster round the place, but is it Howard, or is he right about there being a holocaust underway outside the bunker he’s locked Michelle into? Or is it both? And indeed, is this another take on Room and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt just pretending to be a Cloverfield movie so as to really wind you up for the punch line?

Well, all of that would be telling. 

What I can say, without fear of ruining very much, is that the midgame is absolutely nerve-wracking. Goodman just exudes menace; no matter whether there’s anything out there, or how evil he might really be, he’s got a bad side a mile wide, and with three people stuck in a bunker with nowhere to go, there’s no safe place for tantrums. Howard and Michelle and dumb handyman Emmet are as ill matched as three people can be, and the whole middle of the movie is dominated by the feeling that any of them could snap at any moment.

There is stuff that doesn’t hang together properly; Michelle starts off in the bunker with a leg brace for her knee, and is hopping around fine without effort a lot earlier than I ever was. Not that I grudge her the rapid recovery, but I spent most of the movie hoping she wouldn’t bang her knee into something painful. There’s other stuff which hangs together almost too well; there’s a Chekhovian economy of props that gets a bit excessive when a bottle of whiskey from the opening scene turns into a ludicrously effective molotov cocktail for the climax.

There’s a hint in the whole thing that Abrams has some kind of long con in his mind, where all kinds of stories might get told around the edges of the origin story, and I have to admit that as things wrap up, I was almost interested in seeing what else might come up. But the first movie’s kind of a mess, and you can’t keep locking a couple of good actors in a basement and hoping it works out.

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