Friday, March 25, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane is very well told, but that didn’t stop me from resenting every moment of it

Here’s the problem with J.J. Abrams’s infamous “Mystery Box”: I can smell the stench of whatever is inside of it from way over here across the room.

At around minute six of 10 Cloverfield Lane, just after an incredible title sequence and a short “exploring our surroundings” scene that’s after my own heart, I’m faced with the question that will drive all the action for the next 70 minutes: is Howard (John Goodman) a crazy person, or has the world really ended? We’re all trapped together here in this underground bunker, and we only really have his word to go on. Have we been kidnapped, or did the reds finally pull the trigger?

So I tune out a little bit and start thinking forward, start to see the shape of what the story is going to look like either way that question gets answered. If we were just kidnapped and the world is fine, this movie is going to be a big letdown at the end. All this talk of sci-fi and aliens, and it turns out the real bad guys are the fat, “blackbelt in conspiracy theories” rednecks of the world. Okay, thanks. Dumb movie.

And whoever wrote this clearly knows what they’re doing, so they’d know that ending is dumb. So it’s going to be aliens. But then like, why are we going to spend the whole movie waffling back and forth? This is definitely a movie that’s going to go back and forth a bunch, but we both know where we’re going to end up. Why are we pretending?

Watching this movie is going to be like hanging out with an annoying friend when you ask them to hand you your keys from the dish there. They hand them to you but stop with them just out of your reach. You lean forward, and they pull back slightly. You lean forward again, and back they go again. A pause. They move the keys toward your hand again dangling them right in your palm, but you refuse to tighten your grip, knowing that they might pull back again. Finally you do, but indeed away they go. So fine, fuck it, your asshole friend can drive instead. You’d rather look at your phone anyway. At which point he tosses over the keys.

All this is not exactly fair, because maybe I’m wrong. I’m not a supergenius, there’s always the possibility there’s some super cool ending idea that I haven’t thought of in the 20 minutes that have gone by now. And that back and forth is inarguably propulsive. The mystery and uncertainty about what is really going on provides an energy that’s hard to find in a lot of stories.

But in the end, after we cut to black, I do end up being right. “There were some aliens, guys.” Aight. Can I go now?

It’s frustrating to me that I feel this way. I know how a roller coaster is going to end, but I’m still going to enjoy the ride. Hell, I’ve watched The Maltese Falcon a dozen times, and it doesn’t get old even when I know every corner of how the mystery ticks. What makes 10 Cloverfield Lane different?

I can’t put my finger on it, because I really liked a lot about this movie. I think the directing was great. Good, consistent visual storytelling as opposed to relying on dialog for everything, and better still the visuals were often adding subtext to what was being said. The performances were all good and fun, each in different ways. Production values all excellent. Loved the set.

Maybe it’s that I think the characters suck. Took me an hour or so after the house lights went up to realize it, but once I started to try and describe any depth in these people, I was stumped. Our protagonist, Michelle, is a blank slate and audience surrogate. Howard is first defined by that question of “is this guy crazy”, but it quickly becomes clear that the answer is a resounding “yes” and that the real question is whether he also happens to be right about the world ending. There’s no character there, just a question. Emmett’s the closest thing to a fleshed out person since he actually gets to take a character-revealing action when he takes the blame for collecting weapons to protect Michelle. (I would argue that Howard’s “being crazy” and Michelle’s “being scared and also reasonable” don’t count as character revealing actions.) But man, that’s a pretty basic, uninteresting, tried-and-true character-revealing action. Also I think it’s the only one in the script.

I guess what it comes down to is “why should I care?” It’s not the people. The only real reason the movie seems to give is “to find out what’s in the Mystery Box!” But I just don’t care. It’s not going to be satisfying.

“Come on.”

All that said, six of the seven previews before this movie were for franchise installments. Two of them used similar Queen songs. 10 Cloverfield Lane is at least something different. It stands alone, it’s trying something none of those franchises ever will. That’s worth doing. I respect that. That experiment was worth my two hours and ten dollars, even if I was medium on the result. It was more fun and more surprising than anything in Batman V Superman: Dawn Of A Shared Universe ever will be, and it’s a goddam shame that an interesting little movie like this has to have a brand like Cloverfield slapped on it in order to get made. It’s a name that feels more like Kubrick’s “CRM114” thing than a franchise, but I guess whatever you have to do to get the development execs to hand over the money.

Who needs a drink?