Saturday, October 29, 2016

HubrisWeen 2016, Day 24: 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

[Before we get started, you may ask why I'm reviewing this movie for my X film. Well, if you've ever played Scrabble, you're familiar with the concept of the "blank tile." Seeing as how some letters are always going to be difficult to find a suitable film for that review, the Celluloid Zeroes instituted a blank tile option for HubrisWeen and this is mine. Also, the Roman numeral for 10 is "X" and I think I'm clever for making that connection]

I gotta say, J.J. Abrams has done quite a lot since 2015 to make me almost want to forgive him for Star Trek Into Darkness. For starters, he finally left Trek alone to go play in the sci-fi franchise he clearly wanted from the beginning and did an infinitely better job there. Secondly, he caught everyone totally off guard by dropping a trailer for what appeared to be a sequel to Cloverfield roughly two months before it was to hit theaters.

Now, while my opinion of the original film has obviously soured in the years since its initial release, I was instantly intrigued. The fact it was clearly not a found footage film helped, even though Abrams and the film's director made it clear that this was more of a spiritual sequel than an actual follow-up. Still, I didn't get to catch it in theaters because it came out at a busy time for me and my curiosity level wasn't quite high enough.

These days a film's entire plot can be spoiled for you, and with animated gifs, before it's been in theaters for a week. So by the time I saw it, I already knew the big reveal. In some ways I think that actually helped me enjoy the film more, because I'm going to come right out and say this before I talk about the film's plot:

The first approximately three-fourths of this film are a really great thriller about three people trapped in a claustrophobic setting, not knowing if they can trust each other. The last section of the film, however, is a disappointment by comparison. It's silly, abrupt, and oddly anti-climactic for all the action it throws our way.

In fact, it's so silly that while I am not going to give the whole film away, I am going to spoil the reveal near the end of this review. Don't worry, you'll have plenty of time to avert your eyes.

We open with a woman we'll later learn is named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in an awful hurry to gather her things and depart from her apartment. Based on the calls she dodges and messages from a male voice depaerate to apoogize for some wrongdoing, it's safe to assume she is fleeing from her romantic partner. By night she is driving through rural Louisiana and still clearly worked up.

The radio speaks of reports of blackouts across the country as she switches stations. Unfortunately, she looks up from the radio just too late to avoid the truck coming straight at her...

"Oh no, not a Febreeze commercial!"
When Michelle comes to, she is in a concrete room, lying on a mattress, with a crude cast on her right leg, and an IV in her arm. She is also dressed only in her underwear and a tank top, the rest of her clothes in a pile a few feet away. She's been left her cell phone, at least. but she can't get a signal on it so it's less than helpful.

Understandably, she is freaked out when Howard Stambler (John Goodman) walks into the room to deliver food to her. Thinking she's about to be sexually assaulted or made to participate in some kind of Saw set-up, she cowers against the wall and begs to be let go. Howard tells her she can't leave because he brought her here to save her life.

Michelle doesn't buy that for a second and she attempts escape by setting a fire in the vent. However, when she attacks Howard and tries to escape, he injects her with a sedative. This time she comes to and is handcuffed to the wall. Howard comes back in and chides for her escape attempt before explaining there's nowhere for her to go because he has brought her to his underground bunker, which he had prepared for exactly the sort of event that has just occurred outside. Some kind of chemical or biological attack has taken place, and while he doesn't know if it was man-made or something extraterrestrial, he knows there's no going outside for quite some time.

In all likelihood, in fact, everyone she cares about is already dead.

Once she begins to at least play along with his story, Howard allows her to leave her room and see the rest of the surprsingly cozy bunker. He also introduces her to their fellow bunkermate, Emmett DeWitt (John Gallagher, Jr.). Emmett is a local who used to work for Howard, and so he knew about this bunker for years. When Michelle notices his arm is in a sling, she asks if he hurt in trying to escape, but Emmett explains that he hurt his arm trying to get in. Something strange happened on the surface, an event Emmett could only interpret as an oncoming apocalypse, and he made for the first safe place he could think of.

That's the trouble with modern life: nobody treats family dinner with the proper amount of terror.
However, Michelle is still skeptical. So at dinner she seizes an opportunity to steal Howard's keys and then attacks him with the cane he provided her in order to make a break for the exit door. She has locked the inner airlock door behind her as Howard yells at her not to go outside, when suddenly a terrified woman appears at the porthole window on the outside door.

The woman is bloodied and has lesions on her skin, and babbles about how she didn't let "it" touch her. Michelle is frozen, unsure of how to react, when the woman suddenly bashes her own skull against the window repeatedly and dies. Howard's story seems a lot more credible now.

"On second thought, outside is a silly place."
As Michelle processes everything that happens, she suddenly remembers that Howard told her he found her car run off the road and saved her. However, she distinctly remembers a truck deliberately crashing into her and running her off the road. Before she can decide whether to confront her host about this, he confesses to her that he ran her off the road by accident in his hurry to get to the bunker. Knowing it was his fault she was hurt, he couldn't leave her to die and so he rescued her.

Michelle accepts his version of the incident and life begins to fall into a normal routine in the bunker. Howard really opens up to Michelle, advising she kind of reminds him of his daughter, Megan. He doesn't reveal much about Megan, beyond a picture of her, but it's clear that either she died or he is assuming she was killed in whatever catastrophe befell the outside world.

One day, the sound of helicopters or some other aircraft overhead gets their attention, but Howard points out it could be an invading force looking to wipe out survivors and so they make no move toward revealing their existence.

And then the ventilator fails and only Michelle, even still healing from her hurt leg, is small enough to climb into the shaft and get it started again. Once she gets up to the machinery and restarts it with Emmett and Howard guiding her over radio, she notices the nearby hatch secured with a padlock. On the inside of the porthole window, she notices someone has scratched "HELP."

Beginning to think her initial suspicions about Howard, she confides in Emmett and the two compare notes of Howard's strange behavior. When Michelle shows him the picture of Megan, Emmett advises that he knew Howard's daughter, and that is not her in the picture. In fact, he recognizes her as a girl who went missing two years earlier. It's clear that whatever happened outside, they need to figure out how to get out there because this bunker is not safe after all...

"Here, help me move this barrel of Trioxin before the zombie inside wakes up."
I'm both going to not spoil the rest of the film, because I think it deserves to be seen and appreciated, and I'm going to spoil the ending. That's because the ending is dumb and knowing that going in actually helped me to enjoy the film more.

Okay, the ending is not dumb on its face, but it's absolutely wrong for this movie. It rather reminds of The Last Exorcism, in that I almost have to pretend the ending is a totally separate movie. As with that film, when viewed as distinct entities the film and its ending are both pretty good; but together they're like a tuna salad and marmalade sandwich.

We'll get to that shortly, however, because I want to address everything that leads up to that ending without spoiling that part. First of all, this film does a great job of making the most of its bottle plot and the actors at the core of its story are wonderful. Naturally, John Goodman is a standout--largely because even having seen some movies where he played a darker character like The Big Lebowski, I still tend to think of Goodman as a reassuring, almost cuddly man. Here, however, Goodman is terrifying.

At times it's because he is forceful or physically and verbally aggressive. However, his quiet moments are just as unnerving because you can sense the instability at work inside of him.

John Gallagher, Jr. is really good as Emmett, too, bringing a natural easygoing charm to the role when the character could easily have been largely unmemorable. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is always great, but she really brings a lot to her character and her performance and the direction put us in her headspace before we even know anything about her.

Shame, then, that we know eventually we're going to have to get outside of the bunker and find out what happened and the film's answer is, well:

It's not that aliens is a bad answer, mind you. However, these aliens are.

For one thing, it feels incredibly rushed and yet somehow dragged out at the same time. Honestly, if the film ended with the first sighting of the alien scout ship zooming in from the horizon it would be an effective ending. However, instead it goes through a cat and mouse sequence where an alien stalks its human prey on foot, and then to a full-on action sequence that includes the revelation that you can kill an alien spaceship by tossing a Molotov cocktail into its mouth.

Yes, the spaceship has a mouth. Don't...don't worry about it.

"Oh God, I really hope that's the alien's face."
The original ending of the film as scripted apparently kept the human villain relevant far longer and ended ambiguously with the reveal of a ruined city skyline (Chicago in the script), with no explanation for what happened. That would have been a much better idea, frankly, because Howard is far scarier and more interesting than the painfully unmemorable aliens at the end of the actual film.

Well, okay, the alien itself is kind of memorable with its weird head that slides out of a tougher shell (a spacesuit, maybe?) like a cross between the sandworm in Beetlejuice and some kind of slug. However, it's still a lot less intimidating than John Goodman. It's a decent if kind of predictable sequence, but it doesn't compare favorably to the rest of the film and the fact it doesn't seem to fit with the story we've seen up to that point makes it feels like the film got the Godfrey Ho treatment and just stapled on another film's ending.

Honestly, it would have been less jarring for the film to have ended with the Cloverfield kaiju being shown to be responsible for the apocalypse. It also would have made the "spiritual sequel" angle feel less like an "in name only" sequel. I mean, if the film absolutely had to end with monsters that was the way to go. Hell, they should have filmed the scripted ending and just added a monster destroying the city.

So that's why I spoiled the film's big reveal, because if you go in knowing how much it peters out once it leaves the bunker then it's easier to accept that such a great film suddenly blows it in the last 10 minutes or so. I highly recommend watching the film, but honestly you could easily turn it off before the spaceship shows up and feel much happier.

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  1. Just watched this, and you're absolutely right, everything after the bunker seems grafted on from a different movie entirely. It's not bad in and of itself, but it completely changes the tone and feel of the movie.

    Still, if that end part helped get the movie distributed, I suppose I can live with it, because the bunker stuff is great. And John Goodman is terrifying.

  2. This movie is definitely going to be amazing and I could actually feel my goose bumps all over my body by just reading the review. I am definitely watching it very soon.

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