Why 10 Cloverfield Lane is the Future of Franchise Filmmaking

Cloverfield was few people’s favorite movie. Sure, plenty of people liked it, some people even loved it. It was a movie that smashed two genres together into a new, mostly successful one: with Cloverfield, the found footage/giant monster movie was born. Granted, it didn’t spawn a lot of imitators or give rise to a wave of other found footage/giant monster movies. And the ones it did spawn were mostly terrible or forgettable. Had JJ Abrams not been attached to the project, it may have been forgotten altogether, save for kaiju aficionados like myself.

Which is why no one expected to see the future of franchise filmmaking arrive in the Cloverfield sequel.

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Well, sequel is a strong word. I’m not actually sure there’s a word for what 10 Cloverfield Lane is. Mostly because I don’t think there’s ever been a movie like 10 Cloverfield Lane before. Abrams has described it as a “blood relative” to the original, and I suppose that’s about as accurate as I can be. First time director Dan Trachtenberg has stated unequivocally that the two movies take place in the same “Cloververse,” saying that a third Cloverfield film might even tie the first two films together.

At first blush, this might seem part and parcel to what Marvel has been doing since 2008. That is, creating a cinematic universe in which the walls between films are not solid, allowing characters to pass from one film to the next. The ability to pick out a character and zero in on them for an entire film is a thrilling idea, something that comic books have been doing basically since their invention. But that’s what makes this new film, this “blood relative,” so exciting. There are no characters from the first film present in 10 Cloverfield Lane, not even the titular monster of the original. In fact, the movie presents more questions about this universe than it answers, leaving open wide possibilities for future films. And that’s the key difference between the “Cloververse” and the MCU.

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In the MCU (and the DC universe, probably, although who cares?), characters are the relevant link between films. Sure, there are various macguffins scattered here and there, but those aren’t the point. We don’t go see a Marvel movie because we want to know where the next infinity stone is. We go see Marvel movies because we want to see superheroes. More to the point, we want to see superheroes interacting. Do you remember how exciting it was when The Avengers was finally released? How satisfying it was to see Tony Stark and Steve Rogers trade witty barbs? It felt like something new, something different.

But those are the limits of the MCU. The best the universe can offer is to pair up characters in different situations. The second you stray from any of the superheroes, it stops being a Marvel movie. It’s a franchise defined by its characters, and at the same time restrained by them.

The Cloververse has no such problem.

Just for context, I’ll give you the briefest of summaries of 10 Cloverfield Lane, but the less you know about it going in the better. Michelle, played by a spectacular Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is fleeing her life and her boyfriend for reasons that aren’t totally clear. But after getting knocked out in a near fatal car accident, she comes-to in an underground bunker, chained to a pipe. Her savior and captor (John Goodman in a jaw-dropping performance) gives her some unfortunate news: the world has ended. 

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This movie is a claustrophobic thriller, more akin to a Hitchcock film than a Godzilla picture. The only thing shared between the movies is that they take place in the same universe, with the same global catastrophe taking place. Going forward, these movies will have endless potential for storytelling. We could have a love story set in the Cloververse. Or a paranoid spy thriller, or a bonkers Edgar Wright style action flick, or even a comedy. They can do anything they want, because now the precedent has been set. And other studios would be stupid not to jump on the bandwagon.

In fact, arguably the biggest film franchise in history is already making plans to do that very thing. Later this year, Disney will be releasing the first Star Wars film that stands on its own, separate from the trilogies. Rogue One will focus on the rebels who stole the plans for the Death Star, making it possible to finally destroy it at the end of A New Hope. It’s a gamble, to take a beloved franchise and step away from the characters at its core, but the important thing is that it’s setting a precedent. If we can have a whole movie about a group of characters mentioned in passing in the original film, why not a movie about the very first Sith? Or about Yoda’s great-grandparents? Why not let ten promising directors go off into their own corner of the Star Wars universe and see what they come back with? Again, the possibilities are staggering.

And this is why I think 10 Cloverfield Lane will be remembered as a watershed moment in film history. It will be our very first example of a studio being willing to tap into the potential of a fictional universe. It will be the first example of a studio trusting that people will go see a film not because of the promise of seeing their favorites characters, but because they want to explore.

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