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In defense of the Cloverfield franchise

The horror series that’s batting above its weight

Cloverfield - headless Statue of Liberty Bad Robot Productions/Paramount Pictures

There are now three movies in the Cloverfield franchise. One is great, one is good and the third is ... available for free with your Netflix subscription. I think you can figure out which is which.

The Cloverfield Paradox has sullied the reputation of the Cloverfield franchise somewhat. But it’s worth taking the time to give the first movie another chance — it deserves it — while remembering why so many people love the series. A big part of that love comes from the franchise’s approach to the movie business itself, but it’s also due to the fact that the series is still more good than bad.

The joy of being a Cloverfield fan doesn’t always come directly from the movies themselves. The original Cloverfield was marketed in part with an alternate reality game, in which fans scoured the internet for clues and shared conspiracy theories among themselves before the movie’s release.

“In layman’s terms, rather than give you a trailer and a press release, you’re fed supplemental fiction that somehow ties into the story you’re so interested in,” a 2016 retrospective at Dinosaur Dracula explained. “These aren’t ‘games’ in the traditional sense. Your reward is usually just knowledge, and even then, what you learn often makes you more confused.”

Cloverfield was a monster movie told from the point of view of the people on the ground, using footage that the characters “shot” themselves as the events took place. It has aged better than most found footage films, and the scene in the tunnel remains one of the more terrifying sequences in modern horror or science fiction. It’s right up there with the kitchen scene in the first Jurassic Park.

The film made more than $170 million on a $25 million production budget, and it solidified the pillars that make for a good Cloverfield movie: It has to fit with some aspect of science fiction or horror; the experience around the film itself has to add to the experience of watching it; and it doesn’t require a huge budget to make an impact. It’s a formula that continues to pay off.

10 Cloverfield Lane didn’t start as a Cloverfield movie, but a script being picked up and adapted for use in an existing franchise isn’t anything new, nor is it that rare. Look up the history of the Die Hard series for good examples, beginning with the first movie. But 10 Cloverfield Lane presented its own mystery within a mystery when it introduced its self-contained setting: a bomb shelter holding a small group of people, one of whom might be crazy. Are they hiding because the air outside the bunker is poisonous, or is the leader of the group delusional?

Even the trailer is amazing — take a look:

10 Cloverfield Lane’s alternate reality game included a playable game that was supposedly created by one of the movie’s characters, as a way to teach his daughter how to survive underground. It was released with the following message:

Life inside a bunker is going to be a challenge. Especially since we have to stay down there for a few years. It’s important to be prepared — not just with supplies and gear, but with the knowledge of what to do once you’re down there. It’s going to be a different kind of living, with no room for mistakes. I made something to help you get ready. It may just feel like a little game, but it contains a lot of important information to help you learn what it’ll take to survive. I hope you learn quickly from it. Love, Dad.

10 Cloverfield Lane is a nearly perfect movie with an amazing script and strong performances from all its leads. It’s a thriller with the perfect twist, although its link to Cloverfield is tenuous at best.

There is conflicting information about the movie’s budget online, but it made $110 million at the box office. Now we have another part of what makes Cloverfield movies so interesting: They don’t have to come from Cloverfield scripts.

The Cloverfield Paradox came from a script called The God Particle, and it opens the door for basically anything within the Cloverfield universe. The in-universe paradox means that aliens, monsters and all kinds of spooky things may appear at any point in history, with little rhyme or reason. Suddenly everything is fair game, and indeed the next movie in the series will take place during World War II and involve zombies.

The Cloverfield Paradox itself wasn’t good, but it was an example of some fine deal-making on the part of both Netflix and Paramount. The film had a modest budget; it was reported to have made money for the studio through the Netflix deal; and Netflix surprised the world with the film’s post-Super Bowl launch. The move made Netflix, and Cloverfield, look experimental and interesting to fans and the industry.

Shaking up the orthodoxy of promoting movies is part of the Cloverfield experience, and The Cloverfield Paradox certainly delivered on that.

Why should you still be excited about Cloverfield?

The Cloverfield franchise gives J.J. Abrams an excuse to pick up small but interesting scripts, insert a page or two that attaches them to the main story, and then release them in interesting ways. That’s a hell of a playground to set up for yourself, and it gives genre fans something to look forward to, even if we never quite know what we’re getting next, or when.

If it takes a closing shot of a monster to get interesting, smaller and more character-focused genre films made, I’m perfectly fine with that compromise. It’s a good, inexpensive way to make films that studios may have thought weren’t marketable and get them in our hands. That’s a good deal.

The three existing Cloverfield movies are very different, but two of them are worth your time and each one provides its own pleasures. Don’t let the third movie scare you off this franchise, as Cloverfield has always been about the risk of making these smaller movies.

The world of science fiction is a better, and brighter, place with Cloverfield in it.

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