Does not knowing the ins and outs of the Cloverfield mythology take away from the fun?

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Mar 23, 2018, 6:02 PM EDT (Updated)

Most of the time, sci-fi and mythology go hand in hand. Whether you’re writing a screenplay, a novel, a comic or a game, worldbuilding is typically an essential part of that storytelling process. There’s a lot that entails, whether you’re tackling an original universe in science fiction or in fantasy — new planets, unique magic systems, unique hierarchical structures or strange extraterrestrial creatures, just to name a few. Some of the biggest sci-fi franchises are so rich with immersive construction that each frame is overflowing with detail, like the cantina scene in Star Wars or the neo-noir futuristic noodle bar in Blade Runner. Behind-the-scenes guides and supplementary materials provide explanations for everything from a certain alien race to the name of a fictional beverage, satisfying even the most thorough genre fans who want to expand their knowledge of their preferred world. But what happens when some of the biggest aspects of a genre film are never really established and continue to remain a mystery, even after several installments? Is it still possible to enjoy the experience with no firm answers or a complicated backstory?

When the first Cloverfield movie premiered in 2008, the story was pretty simple on the surface but brilliantly innovative in its construction. Using a filming method designed to imitate personal camcorders, the “found footage”-style movie follows six friends who find themselves on the run from a giant monster (as well as several smaller creatures) overtaking New York City. There’s no apparent reason for the monster’s drive to carry out a catastrophic rampage, though its motivations were frequently theorized about by the crew involving in making the movie. At one point, director Matt Reeves posited that it was an infant who was searching for its mother, and its disorientation had led to devastating consequences. As for why the big creature has suddenly shown up to cause mayhem, death, and destruction? Apart from a brief tease at the end of the film, in which a mysterious object is accidentally caught on camera falling into the ocean, no explanation is given for the presence of a terrifying monster — but there doesn’t have to be one. 

Revisiting Cloverfield 10 years later, there isn’t a lot about the movie that dates it in any drastic way. Sure, there are the telltale signs of older technology — if the film had been shot today using iPhones, for example, it could probably join the ranks of other projects that have done the same like The Florida Project or Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming Unsane — but the best parts of Cloverfield have nothing to do with the fact that these characters are walking around using ancient flip phones. What makes the first installment of this film series really great — as well as the two films that followed it — is that it’s really about the drive to endure in the face of threats both alien and human, not about the aliens themselves. In Cloverfield, we see this in Rob’s need to rescue Beth at all costs; in 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, Michelle’s resilience is her defining characteristic.

In fact, the performances in 10 Cloverfield Lane, largely outside of any alien influence, elevate the film beyond its predecessor. Next to the pace of Cloverfield, which operates in alternating moments of chaos and respite, 10 Cloverfield Lane is almost stifling in comparison. But that’s largely the point, considering where the bulk of the story takes place. Inside the confining walls of kidnapper-cum-killer Howard’s underground bunker, Michelle is disadvantaged on a number of fronts; she’s injured, she’s operating under the belief that she can’t go anywhere, and she can’t get in contact with anyone who might be worried about her. The majority of her impairments have been inflicted upon her by Howard himself, who is driven to protect Michelle in a twisted sense of responsibility. It’s only when Michelle discovers the fate of his previous abductee (who Howard had referred to as his “daughter”) that she renews her decision to escape. Nothing outside the fallout shelter can be as bad as who’s within. The film’s ending, in which Michelle comes face-to-face with an alien spacecraft, does feel a bit jammed in, like a puzzle piece that’s made to fit where it doesn’t quite belong. In retrospect, 10 Cloverfield Lane may have succeeded even more as a Cloverfield installment if the only actual sign of the alien invasion had been that final shot of ships hovering in the sky, briefly illuminated by lightning as Michelle heads to Houston to assist survivors in need. Out-of-focus near-glimpses of monsters made up the bulk of Cloverfield’s terror; succeeding films don’t necessarily need to up the ante in that regard to be entertaining.

In terms of bigger answers, this year’s The Cloverfield Paradox became the first in the overall franchise to offer something remotely resembling a backstory for how the aliens made their way to Earth to begin with. It wasn’t technically a Cloverfield film from the start; most of the movie had been shot already before producer J.J. Abrams decided to link it to the franchise, but this subsequent choice wound up putting an interesting sci-fi-based spin on the monster’s origins. An accident with a particle accelerator not only propels a motley crew of international space scientists to an alternate dimension, it opens a rift that allows creatures from parallel universes to make their way through into the prime version of Earth. Critical response has been mixed on the third Cloverfield movie, which was released on Netflix after the Super Bowl, and even though there’s some predictability in Paradox’s narrative, which more resembles a haunted house in space than anything else, the greater implications for the Cloverfield franchise as a whole are truly exciting. The canonical existence of interdimensional space-time portals — and the new tears in them — can allow for these monsters to show up in any combination of settings. But establishing potential future installments is not necessarily as simple as shooting a film and then slapping a Cloverfield title on it — though what really defines a Cloverfield film for some viewers might be different than others. 

With Paradox, we now know the circumstances that brought the Cloverfield monsters here, but we don’t necessarily need to know where they originated or even how they came to exist in the first place. Now that they're a looming threat, how will our world deal with it? This year’s Overlord, which is reportedly a part of the Cloverfield franchise, is set in World War II and follows two American paratroopers who unearth a secret supernatural weapon being used by the Nazis. It’s reasonable to assume that said secret weapon probably has something to do with the big bad monsters we’ve seen already, though how much we’ll witness in Overlord… well, that remains to be seen. Thanks to Paradox, we have our means of alien entry, at least.

As for the future beyond, it’s probably best to just consider the Cloverfield films as a true anthology franchise without any comprehensive worldbuilding. Crossover is possible, but not always promised. In-depth exposition is definitely not guaranteed. The best thing we can do as an audience is to take our cues from the wide-ranging characters that make up this continually cryptic universe — and just hold on for the ride.

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