Anthology is all the rage these days whether you’re a TV show on FX or a tape based horror series. In an age where every blockbuster is expected to be a part of a “cinematic universe”, you’re likely to have push back and the antithesis of world building is having films and TV series be connected by a name alone. This is hard to achieve in films that are not vignette style like V/H/S because there are certain expectation people have when they see a familiar title. Halloween 3: Season of the Witch is a great example. That movie isn’t bad, but audiences were infuriated that Michael Myers was nowhere to be found (aside from the meta instance of a character watching the original Halloween on television). While there are still fond memories of 2008’s January smash Cloverfield, the film’s monster never became an icon of cinema no matter how hard I wished. Now seven years later JJ Abrams’ production company Bad Robot repurposed John Campbell and Matthew Stuecken’s script “The Cellar” to become part of the Cloverfield family. The real question becomes what does it mean to be a “Cloverfield” movie. Some could argue tone, atmosphere, inclusion of something not of this world or just argue they don’t have anything in common at all, only a recognizable name to sell tickets. Because I’m an optimist and hope not everything is done in the name of commerce, for me what makes a Cloverfield movie is it’s “oh shit” moments. Those jarring moments in a film that catch you off guard, that make you gasp and tense up in your seat. They’re more meaningful than a jump scare and further the plot in some way. Both Reeves and Trachtenberg’s films grab you with those moments pulling you deeper into the experience that is Clovefield.
When I saw Cloverfield opening weekend in 2008, I was brewing with excitement. The promise of a large reptilian beast is like Christmas Day for me. What this movie creates so brilliantly is putting you in the first person perspective of a monster attack. If you’ve ever wondered what it’d be like to have to escape Godzilla plowing through New York City, here you get the literal POV of a running civilian. Whether you approve of the hand held style or not (when I saw it in theaters it didn’t bother me but upon rewatch it made me a little dizzy) it makes for an immersive experience, elevating an otherwise tired genre. Reeves has such a handle on when to dole out those accelerated glimpses of the creature. That first big moment when our hero Rob (Michael Stall-David) raids an electronics store in search of a phone charger and videographer Hud (TJ Miller) stares at the breaking news coverage and we get our first full view of the monster, my jaw dropped. After all the secretive marketing, it was finally there and it was glorious. Throughout the film you just get these amazing thirty second instances where Clovie smashes through a building or destroys a bridge and it’s exhilarating. The deaths are unexpected and unpredictable from Rob’s brother (Mike Vogel) collapsing with the Brooklyn Bridge to Marlena’s (Lizzy Caplan) abruptly exploding. You realize everyone is fair game. You want the characters to survive as you feel like you’re one of them with the POV but you also want to see what ways this monster could tear them apart.
This year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane aimed at recapturing the dread and surprise we got in 2008 and fruitfully produces more than one could imagine. Trapped in a bunker amidst an unexplained apocalypse, kidnapped Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) adapts to her surroundings and plans for escape when living with Doomsday Prepper Howard (John Goodman) and the friendly yet naive Emmett (John Gallagher Jr). Lane hits the ground running with its “oh shits” when we get credits smash cut with a brutal car accident. The sound design is so sharp as each title card is silent contrasted with the loud pierce of screeching metal. The film paces its big moments well. Much like never seeing too much of the monster at once, the major plot twists that startle you are spaced out until the end where it goes full Cloverfield in revealing the true nature of the beast that’s outside. The sci-fi elements with the of a gigantic alien and its minion become even more shocking since you’ve been spending most of the film worried about what’s inside the bunker rather than out.
The ultimate question is which one is better? I’ve found that hard to answer mostly because of my own biased. Objectively 10 Cloverfield Lane is better written and at its core is a performance piece thriller, and subjectively I agree. Just to jog everyone’s memory it takes 18 minutes (I checked the time code) before anything interesting happens in 2008’s Cloverfield. Reeves’ film takes a lot of time to set up characters and their relationship yet doesn’t do a great job because they all stay pretty bland (perfect for monster food). The film opens with Rob having a playful morning after with Beth (Odette Yustman) who you think is his girlfriend because they seem very much involved and it’s not till halfway through his going away party that you find out that was the only time they slept together then he never called her back. The film starts off portraying how normal this group of friends is but once shit hits the fan, they never get a chance to become more engaging. They’re a pretty vanilla bunch. Cloverfield Lane, with its three person cast, creates complex, compelling characters to match its unusual circumstances. The band of friends in Cloverfield lack personality and are either crying or screaming for a majority of the run time. Michelle and Howard deal with their predicament more level headily. Each are smart and resourceful in ways none of the 2008 friends are. I’d nominate Michelle as one of the great horror movie heroines like Clarice Starling or Nancy Thompson. She’s strategic, always planning her next move even if it’s the wrong one. Hud’s most helpful idea he comes up with on accident. The Cloverfield gang all act on emotion while Michelle and Howard think on a more calculated plane.
But here’s the deal, I fucking love monsters. Lane serves up a brilliant psychological horror with an alien twist but that can’t compete with the majesty that is a Kaiju demolishing New York City. Every time it’s worth sitting through the bullshit love story to see the beast roaring in the distance as Hud zooms the lens in closer. It’s undeniable that I have strong reactions to both movies but I keep going back to Cloverfield as a pinnacle film in creating a genre (it kicked off the hand held camera boom along with 2009’s Paranormal Activity) and revamping a genre (Pacific Rim and the Godzilla remake were yet on the horizon). Lane has some unique alien design but the real terror is in the bunker. The fear of Howard outweighs the human eating spaceship but creepy John Goodman has nothing on a 25 foot tall, 6 legged creature from the deep. Despite this bickering, I approve of this anthology route. If Bad Robot wants to produce well written thrillers, adding their own chilling sci-fi elements, I’m on board. I’d like for the word “Cloverfield” to become synonymous with high quality horror.