JJ Abrams probably needs to be stopped. He’s managed the Ford production line for the prepackaged cinematic spirit of the times more abominably than any of his fellow new-school blockbuster savants, and like most of them, he’s a genius marketer in a mostly soulless filmmaker’s body. The albatross of his films is also their raison d’ etre: their desperate, unquenchable desire to be answered. He’s turned the Christopher Nolan puzzle-box A-to-B-to-C filmmaking style, distressingly linear and devoid of personality, into a cottage industry, propping up mostly serviceable but unexceptional films devoid of personality with marketing constructs that obfuscate and ossify his products around and within layers of carefully calibrated, ultimately pointless mystery.
In a trend inauspiciously instituted by late ’90s works like The Usual Suspects and, especially, The Sixth Sense, these films – of which Cloverfield was arguably the marketing apex – conspire to plant seats in the theater with the promise of “solving” the film, or at least knowing that there is something to solve. Like puzzle-boxes, the appeal is their tricksy, convoluted outer-shell, the journey to figuring them out. That the contents within are mostly hollow, thematically and especially aesthetically, is beside the point. Their gift to the world is the idea that they are a gift; nothing more, and nothing less.
The fundamental issue with the style is its fixation on completeness and the ensuing excision of any material that might seem unsolvable, unanswerable, or unnecessary. In other words, this style denies the very lifeblood of cinema that strives not to deterministically arrive at an end-point, but to prismatically reach out to challenge the notion of “ends” altogether, to brave truly uncharted territory or to spelunk into uncertain and unstable tonal registers. The idea of a scene that doesn’t fit the mold, a moment that confounds expectation, is out of the question; these are films so subsumed within the self-important weight of twisting narratively that they forget to warp or warble tonally or atmospherically. Films are generally at their most beguiling when they fracture, fissure, bend, or otherwise flicker with disparity, when they exhibit a willingness for much more genuine “turns” or “twists” that actually complicate and threaten a film’s too-easy stability. But this new breed of puzzle-box film revels in “turns” that aren’t, “twists” that only occupy the plateau of the surface narrative level, rather than the more prickly, subterranean filmic cavern waiting to be mined underneath.
Abrams’ Lost is a sort of ur-text for this modern phenomenon, where secrets are worthy simply because they are secrets, and where the sheer fact of untangling them, the homework we must put in, the Venn diagrams we draw out, and the lines we draw from the final episode to the first are the finality and ultimate appreciation of the work. No type of film or television could possibly exhibit a more exclusionary, more smug, or more self-serving demeanor, existing only to exist and to convince people, as Roger Ebert wonderfully wrote, that their cross-word puzzles are worth solving.
At some level, 10 Cloverfield Lane is reducible to a phenomenally squishy John Goodman performance – all meat, bones, and blood – trapped in a ruthlessly mechanical film-box. But it isn’t entirely apt to say that Goodman is the only worthwhile thing here, even if he is the only magnetic charge of genuine uncertainty. If you can stomach the temerity of the overweening ad campaign that surfaces cinematically only in the faintly disastrous final fifteen minutes, one can at least appreciate the thankfully under-stressed psychological trappings of a film that ultimately hinges on trust and deceit rather than spectacle. This three-character tale of a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) trapped in a bunker with an authoritarian figure (John Goodman) and a fleshy third wheel (John Gallagher Jr) hinges on questions of festering paternalism and inky obligation.
At the very least, 10 Cloverfield Lane has discovered a shorthand for sublimating Abrams’ puzzle-fix into the level of character. The film exclusively shines around Goodman’s mixture of syrupy, avuncular compassion and combustible, flustered dominance, a vocal encapsulation of pure enigma. Few actors can two-fist menace and preacher-like charisma like Goodman, and the actor is in top form throughout the film, roiling around the often static script and rendering emotions in malleable, liquid states rather than programmatic Jekyll and Hyde shifts. The most fascinating questions 10 Cloverfield Lane offers are those which can’t be answered simply by telling us whether Goodman’s behemoth is right or not about the presence of obliterated life and abominable air above ground. If he is a truth teller and not a huckster, and life out of the bunker really is nonexistent, does that still make life in the bunker worth living?
Unfortunately, director Dan Trachtenberg isn’t much for comparatively surreptitious imagery or editing that buttresses, rather than merely acknowledging, this sense of existential duress. 10 Cloverfield Lane is by no means an ineptly directed product, but it always has the vaguely musty veneer of a product rather than a true work of art with a perspective. It’s competent claustrophobia, although fairly redolent in its presentation, not unlike a theater piece haphazardly shoehorned into the cinema. As with many theater pieces, the film stakes its claim on its performances and although all are competent, Goodman is the only one capable of thundering his way into a genuine character rather than simply an object.
In the end, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a little like Goodman’s bunker: an antiseptic, clinical puzzle on the outside that reveals parsimonious little slices of personality – a battered board game here, an amusingly sensational VHS of a cannibal movie there, one amusing montage tying the best bits together – that do nothing more than passably waste the time. The only surprising touch is a handful of gleefully unhinged ’60s pop pieces turned into devilish aural miscreants because of the context in which they are used. Admittedly, 10 Cloverfield Lane does benefit in comparison to its progenitor Cloverfield – a one-trick pony that seems arid and unconvincing now – but then, 10 Cloverfield Lane’s eventual insistence on latching itself to the memory of that cultural object is also this film’s eventual undoing.