How '10 Cloverfield Lane' Redefines Movie Franchises

J.J. Abrams misled us about his latest movie — which is what makes it so much fun

Mary Elizabeth Winstead in '10 Cloverfield Lane.' Credit: Michele K. Short/Paramount

Well, it worked.

The typically secretive J.J. Abrams made no attempt to hide how nervous he was about the daring and experimental launch of his latest project — "I don't know if this is going to work," he admitted to Rolling Stone — but the impresario's fears were ultimately unfounded. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the existence of IMAX-sized 10 Cloverfield Lane was only unveiled two months ago, the "blood relative" of 2008's Cloverfield is a bona fide hit. Exploding out of the gate with a $25.2 million opening weekend, the modestly budgeted monster movie is already guaranteed to turn a healthy profit and bolster Abrams' reputation as Hollywood's greatest hype man.

There's only one problem: 10 Cloverfield Lane has almost nothing to do with Cloverfield. It doesn't have the same monster. It doesn't have the same characters. It doesn't even take place on the same timeline.

Judging by the critical consensus and the social media response, most people seem to be onboard with the whole thing. The film's B- CinemaScore suggests that audiences felt the discrepancy between the movie that they saw and the movie they had been promised, but enjoyed the final product too much to resent the misdirection of the marketing campaign. 

On the other hand, it was inevitable that some viewers were going to feel duped. Take this guy, for example, who Tweeted that "10 Cloverfield Lane is more like a sequel to Room than Cloverfield — feeling disappointed." Or this guy, who struggled to contextualize the spiritual sequel. Or, for a more (the most?) extreme example, check out "The truth about 10 Cloverfield Lane," a conspiratorial Reddit thread that concludes with a classic: "I'm not paying money towards this shit."

People always say that they want to see something new, but they're only willing to pay for something old. Where's the line between swindling people and coercing them into doing themselves a favor?

Abrams, who had the foresight to expect such responses, did his best to run interference in the weeks leading up to the film's release. "This movie is its own thing," he told Rolling Stone after making a last-minute decision to fly across the country and help frame the film for members of the press. "There's definitely a connection in many ways — thematically, spiritually, in terms of genre — but if you're going in to see Cloverfield 2, this is not Cloverfield 2. And it's intentionally not called Cloverfield 2." Abrams has burned audiences before (remember the whole "Benedict Cumberbatch totally isn't playing Khan" mishegoss?), and the idea of using a brand as a Trojan horse for a seemingly unrelated psychological thriller is a bold move for someone who already has a strike on his record. 

"It felt to me," Abrams explained, "that if we're able to authentically connect this movie to this other thing that has been a curious source of interest from a lot of people, it might give a deserving movie the kind of attention that it should get and do so by making public this thing that we were feeling privately, which was 'Oh my God, this literally feels like the sister movie to Cloverfield.'" 

The question then becomes: What does it mean to "authentically" connect one movie to another? People always say that they want to see something new, but they're only willing to pay for something old. Where's the line between swindling people outright and coercing them into doing themselves a favor? 

Our current understanding of franchise filmmaking is best defined by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which every installment is linked together with pulverizing literalness. Those infamous post-credit scenes, once innocent teases meant to string viewers along from one episode to the next, have come to feel like they're meant to solder together the spaces between stories so that nobody falls into the cracks. 

The ways in which 10 Cloverfield Lane connects to a clever found-footage exercise about obnoxious millennials getting murdered by a rampaging sea monster are authentic; they just happen to be abstract. The two films occupy completely different timelines — not only has director Dan Trachtenberg said so himself, but there's also no logical explanation for how the incidents depicted in these films could coexist in the same linear universe. Given the framing device around the original film, it would also be an untenable stretch to suggest that the two films are happening concurrently. 

Still, there a number of very real connections that lend credence to Abrams' claim that the two films could be seen as siblings. Both stories center around young people who are panicking in the face of a romantic crisis: The original's hero Rob, having recently slept with his long-time best friend, is so petrified of the next step that he's fleeing the country in favor of a new job in Japan. Lane's Michelle, frazzled in the aftermath of a fight with her partner, slams her engagement ring on the table of her apartment and drives off into the maw of middle America. Then, in the span of a single moment, each character's respective worlds are turned upside down, hideously misshapen to reflect the internal conflicts from which they were trying to flee. Their personal demons sprout into indiscriminate monsters, and the things that were preventing these people from living their lives to the fullest are now actively trying to end them.

Both films are uncommonly immersive. Both films are taunted and terrorized by the unknown. And, yes, both films build to confrontations with genocidal CG colossuses. They're two different experiences, and yet they each provoke the same nightmares. 

Some people were miffed that the title deprived them of the sequel's third-act "surprise," but that's the thing about Abrams' vaunted "mystery box": It's not about surprise, it's about anticipation. It simply doesn't matter that Cloverfield, for all of its financial success and teasing extra-textual material, isn't exactly Star Wars when it comes to the power of its brand. Audiences weren't excited because they really wanted to find a particular gift waiting for them under the Christmas tree; they were excited because Christmas was coming nine months early. The follow-up uses familiarity to deliver the unexpected delight that characterized the original. Now, the next time that word appears in the title of a film, you'll get the same shiver of excitement and start counting down the days.

Watch how J.J. Abrams shocked movie-goers with “10 Cloverfield Lane”.