From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.
This one is from May 20th, 2014…
The secrecy and curiosity surrounding what would become known as Cloverfield remains seven years on as memorable as Matt Reeves’ resultant movie itself.
Shot in complete secrecy by Bad Robot, with Paramount’s backing, and inspired by BR’s founder JJ Abrams looking at Godzilla toys in Japan with his son and thinking how the movie world needed an American version, Cloverfield was trailered as simply 1-18-08 with no fanfare and took the world by storm – what was this mysterious found footage piece that seemed to simply be a light, preppy relationship drama until the Statue of Liberty head came crashing down the street?
Speculation was rife for months and finally the answer came as Cloverfield presented itself as a monster movie classic for the YouTube generation – a lithe, intense, chaotic piece of work with an emotional tether at its heart and a frenetic refusal to take a breath.
If The Confession was the point of no return, The Box is the tale which catapults Alias into what is, barring one or two exceptions, a season and a half of dynamic, top drawer storytelling.
Alias was a high concept TV series from the outset. The ‘high concept’ in Hollywood vernacular defines an idea which can be distilled into a pure, accessible, often blockbuster form. ‘What if we could clone dinosaurs?’ for example with Jurassic Park, or to use another Michael Crichton example, ‘What if theme park robots became sentient and took control?’. Alias itself flaunts the high concept in its DNA, pitched essentially as ‘What if a spy found out she was working for the enemy?’. Even fromTruth Be Told, Alias perhaps throws a few extras caveats into that pitch but in basic terms, that’s the point JJ Abrams’ show starts from. The Box, however, is the first episode to truly deliver on a high concept idea.
If you look at Alias across the first half of its first season, we haven’t seen an episode anything like The Box. Right from the get go, Alias engaged in a level of serialised storytelling through which it broke the 90’s mould of stand-alone, easy to syndicate episodes of television to depict a compelling, ongoing narrative journey for Sydney Bristow as she becomes more embroiled in her double-agent life with SD-6 and the CIA. Each episode, even those which carried heavily over to each other such as Reckoning and Color-Blind, tells an espionage tale on a scale which never overwhelms the broader character and narrative arcs in play: Syd & Jack’s relationship, Syd & Vaughn’s relationship, the Rambaldi mythology etc… Thus far, the spy stories have been fairly incidental and the weekly bad guys relatively disposable.
All of that changes, immediately, with The Box. The first genuine two-part story in Alias’ lifespan, labelled indeed as such, it delivers on the high concept idea with the pitch: ‘What if terrorists seize control of SD-6?’.Alias does Die Hard, basically, and without a shred of embarrassment. Writers John Eisendrath and Jesse Alexander immediately understand their reference point and the fact they are riffing, broadly, off one of the greatest examples of a high concept in Hollywood history. It only adds to the joy of The Box which exemplifies the remarkable level of confidence Alias had in its storytelling from the very beginning. Many other series wouldn’t have the balls to make The Box until maybe its third, even fourth, seasons. Alias gets it out the way as a midpoint to its debut year.
If you ran a poll asking the average film goer, and indeed the average film critic, which of the Mission Impossible films they considered to be the strongest outing in the franchise, you would have a significant amount point to Ghost Protocol. On the face of it, you can see why. Once you scratch deeper, those reasons become more opaque.
Mission Impossible II is a film that remains eternally fascinating to me, particularly as the demonstrable nadir of, otherwise, one of cinema’s most consistently entertaining blockbuster franchises.
The better entries of the Tom Cruise-led modern adaptation of Bruce Geller’s iconic 1960’s espionage TV series are easier to write about, in many respects. You have the Euro-centric, Hitchcockian suspense and classic retro thrills of Brian De Palma’s first 1996 take on the material, and once JJ Abrams and Bad Robot get their hands on the property from 2006’s Mission Impossible III onwards, the franchise becomes a much slicker fusion of all-American spy thrills, combining modern technology, action spectacle and ‘spy-fi’ theatrics. Abrams’ III is an adaptation of his TV series Alias in all but name. John Woo’s II is the clear, harder to define aberration.
Time Will Tell is another important episode of Alias when it comes to establishing and contextualising the mythology of the show and how it directly relates to, particularly, our protagonist Sydney Bristow. With a title both figurative and literal, this episode brings into focus Alias’ growing preoccupation with time, and just how directly the past influences the present.
Jeff Pinkner’s first script for the series, continuing the steady roll out of Bad Robot creatives who will all go onto major recognisable projects in the future, operates very much as a sequel to the third episode Parity, and the pre-credits sequence of A Broken Heart. Time Will Tell very much illuminates just how Alias, while a highly serialised show, remains indebted to its principal influence, The X-Files, in the structural manner it approaches the mythology at the show’s heart – the search for the work of 15th century ‘prophet’ Milo Rambaldi. While the previous four episodes all continued the ongoing narrative sub-plots and storylines for the characters and the complicated double-agent situation Sydney finds herself in, only two of them concern Rambaldi, and in both cases he is very much background.
Alias arrived at a fascinating point when it came to television.
The year was 2001 and a lot was changing in the ether around it. JJ Abrams, at this point best known as the writer of Harrison Ford weepie Regarding Henry, Michael Bay blockbuster Armageddon and show-runner of late 90’s teen hit drama Felicity, was nowhere near the producing and directing Hollywood totem he would become. His production house, Bad Robot, had not yet become the nascent Amblin of its generation. And, just nineteen days before the pilot, ‘Truth Be Told’, aired… 9/11 happened.
Abrams’ spy series already had some interesting cache behind it. Alias was a show that emerged on ABC with the intention of riding into the 21st century with a fresh storytelling model. The most successful and important TV shows of the 1990’s had almost all built their success on an episodic, network model of storytelling; 22-26 episode seasons with plenty of stand-alone stories which would serve the show well in syndication. In everything from Quantum Leap through to The X-Files, show-runners moving from the 1980’s into more of a Golden Age of television, in which some of the most key writers in both TV and cinema of the next few decades would emerge, had cleaved to the way it had been done for years.
It would immediately strive for an aesthetic which would tap into a deep reservoir of retro-futurism, both aesthetically and in terms of production. Abrams and his staff came out of the gate leaning heavily into the kind of serialisation most shows in the 1990’s just didn’t do, bar a few trend-setting exception we’ll return to. The concept was both high and complex – female super-spy Sydney Bristow would find herself learning the covert CIA branch she had been working for, SD-6, was in truth the arm of a worldwide crime syndicate, and would work as a double-agent to bring down the enemy from within. Episodes would end on a cliffhanger every week and fold into each other. A surfeit of character and narrative mysteries would propel Syd’s journey along, not to mention a curious central, underlying occult and arcane mythology which tipped the show away from action-thriller and more toward science-fiction.
One suspects in the future, when people talk about The Cloverfield Paradox, they may wonder if the title was intentionally ironic. The paradox of Julius Onah’s picture doesn’t lie in the alternate realities or particle accelerators in space that its plot propagates, rather in quite how unsuccessfully a promising spec script was ported into the burgeoning Cloverfield universe, hashed up, delayed, re-written, re-shot, and then thrown onto Netflix after the Super Bowl with, literally, around two hours notice. That story is undoubtedly more remarkable than anything in the film itself.
Let’s backtrack. In early 2008, JJ Abrams’ production house Bad Robot dropped, equally out of nowhere, the original Cloverfield. Directed by friend and collaborator Matt Reeves, who has since gone on to make quite the name for himself with the Dawn and War For the Planet of the Apes (and potentially soon The Batman), Cloverfield took everyone by surprise. Abrams, fresh off huge TV success with Lost and breaking into cinema with Mission Impossible III, managed to fuse together the en vogue found footage sub-genre with a modern day, Hollywood take on Toho, reimagining a Godzilla-esque monster ramping through New York for a post-911, burgeoning social media American audience. Punchy, frothy and deft, Cloverfield just *worked*.
Understandably, it also left people wanting more. Abrams & Reeves left just enough clues as to a wider universe to make fans salivate; a blink and you’ll miss it (literally) suggestion the monster came from outer space, for one thing. The point of that story didn’t involve answers—it was about average Joe characters thrown into a scenario equivalent to a terrorist attack, essentially—but the idea answers may point to a broader mythology left many hoping Abrams and his collaborators would follow it up. Though it took almost a decade, in 2016, again almost out of nowhere, 10 Cloverfield Lane arrived in cinemas with a more recognisable cast (including a great John Goodman performance) and a narrative which made one thing clear: the Cloverfield universe was playing by different rules.