10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, The Mystery Box And Matt Reeves

A collection of post-release thoughts!

Yesterday I reviewed 10 Cloverfield Lane, so this post won't be about the movie itself. I feel like I covered most of my feelings about the movie, which is very good even if I didn't dig the big action finale. This post is going to be about a few things swirling around the film that I have been thinking about a lot. 

One of those things is Matt Reeves. In the press lead-up to 10 Cloverfield Lane we've seen a lot of talk about how the movie is or isn't connected to Cloverfield (it definitively isn't), but most of the pieces talking about this seem to say the same thing. They seem to say that Cloverfield was JJ Abrams' movie. Which must come as some surprise to Matt Reeves, the guy who directed the thing. 

If Reeves hadn't made anything after Cloverfield I'd see why the press defaulted to Abrams. But Reeves did make more movies, both of which are differing degrees of quite good (Let Me In and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). JJ Abrams produced the movie, and it was released according to his 'Mystery Box' theory of film marketing, but by ignoring the filmmaker the press is mostly saying that Cloverfield was a marketing campaign, not a movie. Which couldn't be further from the truth - in my original review I called Cloverfield 'audacious,' and I compared it to the graphic novel Marvels, saying it gave a whole new life to the giant monster genre. I had my problems with the movie (those awful characters!) but in general I liked it. And Matt Reeves made it. Just as Dan Trachtenberg directed 10 Cloverfield Lane

It's not that Abrams is grabbing the credit for the movie, it's more that he has become the kind of figurehead to whom the press defaults. Look at how Lost, which had minimal JJ involvement after the pilot, is lumped in as a JJ thing. It's weird to see it happen so extremely with Cloverfield, as we don't see it happen when Spielberg produces a movie (the only comparison would be Poltergeist, which is a film many people believe Spielberg himself actually directed anyway). I think it's a function of how central the marketing is to all JJ Abrams films; for a guy whose whole thing is keeping as much hidden as possible, marketing is probably his strongest public-facing skill (I'm told he's a great producer). 

That marketing, of course, is the Mystery Box, which was again used on 10 Cloverfield Lane. The film was first announced a scant two months ago in a surprise trailer. It wasn't that nobody knew the movie existed, it's that the movie had existed under a different set of conditions; Dan Trachtenberg had been directing a movie with the working title Valencia based on a script called The Cellar, none of which had anything to do with Cloverfield or the larger JJ Abrams universe. From what I hear that was how the movie was approached - as a film that existed on its own, with no connections or tie-ins to larger universes (the two connective pieces - the Kelvin gas station and an envelope from Bold Futura - feel like inserts more than anything else). So the movie had the ultimate Mystery Box origin - it was just a regular movie until some point in the process when it was absorbed into the burgeoning Bad Robotverse, and the Cloverfield name was slapped on it. This was less about hiding a movie from the audience and more about late in the game changes. The next Bad Robotverse movie, by the way, is currently titled The God Particle and up for a 2017 release. Expect it to be retitled The Cloverfield Particle or Cloverfield Station or something, as the move now is to subsume all these movies into a broad anthology format. 

Anyway, 10 Cloverfield Lane wasn't a secret because it was hidden, it was a secret because nobody had decided to make it a Cloverfield movie until late in the game. When the trailer debuted it really seemed like a major next step in how these things are marketed (hooray, I guess), even if it wasn't quite that way. Still, a trailer two months before release - this breaks the cycle of endless trailers and clips and sneak peeks and posters and all that. Isn't it grand?

Kinda. Let's be very honest here - in no iteration is 10 Cloverfield Lane a movie that gets trailers 18 months out. No matter what this movie is titled there's no way it's a film that gets ten posters and a dozen clip packages. It's a little film. It was always a little film. It's the smallness that makes it great, in fact. This isn't the Mystery Box in play, it's how smaller movies get marketed. You just don't spend as much on these films because you're not trying to bang it up to a billion dollars worldwide. Despite the action finale, 10 Cloverfield Lane isn't a blockbuster, so why would you ever market it as such? 

Let's be really honest here: the title of the movie is the anti-Mystery Box. By putting a title on Valencia/The Cellar that calls to mind giant monsters and mass destruction, Bad Robot ruined their own Mystery Box. Instead of letting viewers discover the truth of the situation - that John Goodman's Howard is right and that a cataclysmic scifi event has happened outside the bunker - audiences walk in knowing that something has happened. What's more, they walk in expecting it to be a giant monster invasion, so they don't even bother considering whether it's nukes or whatever. It says Cloverfield right in the title! It's as if the Mystery Box had a sticker on it that told you the contents within... but listed the wrong (but similar) contents. 

I understand that Abrams wants to create an anthology concept that will allow smaller original films to be marketed, but I do believe the Cloverfield titling is a cynical move that hurts the film. A B- CinemaScore tells me that it has - audiences give movies a lower CinemaScore when they feel like the marketing misled them (see The Witch as a recent example). Marketed right - with the reveal of the outside world not ruined by the title - I think 10 Cloverfield Lane is an easy A. It lives right between tight indie drama and big Hollywood movie, and it feels like nothing else in theaters right now. If people weren't waiting for giant monsters the whole time they would be able to see that (and I think the fact that it didn't get the dreaded C score is because the film is so well made. The Witch was fucked with general audiences from the get-go - it's just an arthouse movie, which they will never take to).

So where does that leave the Mystery Box? For my money the original Cloverfield was the only time it truly, really worked. It worked there because it was secretive and coy, but the film itself delivered just enough that people felt satisfied. I think the Mystery Box works best with original films, because there's less of a desire to peek inside, and there are fewer signifiers that inflame speculation. I think the Mystery Box works best when it's being honest, as it was in Cloverfield, and not when it's lying, as it was with Star Trek Into Darkness. I also think it works best when the movie is good, which is why I don't think it really worked with Super 8. The one big variable for me is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, because I don't know how the Mystery Box impacted our experience of that movie. If you look back at the trailers and TV clips and the marketing you will realize we saw everything from the movie. I think just about every scene of the film is represented in the pre-release marketing and merch, it's just that we didn't have any context for any of it. Would the experience of Star Wars have been worse if we knew Kylo Ren was Han's son, a thing the movie doesn't even treat as a reveal? I can say from a purely selfish point of view that having the information would have made the press day more valuable - we could have asked real questions of the talent. But that's a very inside baseball way of looking at it. 

What's weird is that calling 10 Cloverfield Lane something like The Cellar and slapping a "JJ Abrams Presents" banner on it (as Universal tried to do with M Night Shyamalan's abortive low-budget horror anthology movies that started with the underrated Devil) would have served the Mystery Box better. Audiences would have had the name-brand recognition and expectations of a JJ Abrams movie (something cool, something twisty) without having the film tied directly to giant monsters. The good news is that 10 Cloverfield Lane is doing fine at the box office, which means Trachtenberg is going to get a chance to climb the ladder and make something else (I imagine he's about to get consumed by the franchise machine, while also being consumed by the stalled project machine, as happens with a lot of new white nerdy directors).

When the weekend is done and the actual box office numbers are in, that's the important thing. Dan Trachtenberg directed 10 Cloverfield Lane and he directed it well. Let's not erase him from the film's history as too many have erased Matt Reeves.