Analysis

The best thing about 10 Cloverfield Lane? Not knowing anything about it.

At a time when every Hollywood movie gets a months-long promotional blitz, J.J. Abrams is smart enough to realize that less is more

This is not a review of 10 Cloverfield Lane. This is a review of the past six weeks or so, from the moment when 10 Cloverfield Lane was suddenly and unexpectedly announced. That ends today, when the movie arrives in theaters for an audience eager to learn its secrets.

I give those six weeks five stars.

There are few things more predictable than the promotional cycle of your average Hollywood movie. You get casting announcements. You get a teaser for a teaser. You get a teaser. You get a teaser for a trailer. You get a trailer. You get another trailer. All of this is dutifully reported by a significant percentage of the websites that cover film every day, because these posts are incredibly fast and easy to write, and because they get clicks from a fan base eager for any and all updates about a franchise they love. What you lose, of course, is the element of surprise.

And then there's the 10 Cloverfield Lane approach: Make a movie, drop just enough information to let people know what it is, and let it gather momentum on its own.

It's incredibly satisfying to watch this happen in real time. I was scrolling through Twitter the night of Jan.14, the evening 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi premiered — and slowly but surely, references to a strange, Cloverfield-related trailer that played before the film began to pop up. Mary Elizabeth Winstead? John Goodman? "I Think We're Alone Now"? And it's coming out in March? It was so startling and unexpected that most moviegoers couldn't really describe it coherently; by the time they realized what they were seeing, it was already over.

Six hours later, the 10 Cloverfield Lane teaser trailer was officially released online. That might not sound like much time, but let me tell you: It was a long six hours. Hollywood has primed us with a certain set of expectations, and this was so far off the map that, for once, I was desperate to learn a little more, instead of annoyed that I'd already been told too much.

Of course, we had been through this once before. Back in the halcyon era of July 2007, when Transformers was just a dubious-sounding toy-based action flick instead of a multi-billion-dollar blockbuster franchise, moviegoers were treated to a bizarre trailer before the first Transformers movie. The first minute or so captured a relatively mundane going-away party. And then the lights went out, the partygoers took to the streets, and a series of horrific explosions spread, culminating in the head of the Statue of Liberty rolling through the streets. People called it "1/18/08," because that was the only thing even resembling a title that appeared in the trailer. But the most important phrase in the trailer came immediately before the release date: "From producer J.J. Abrams."

Today, you basically can't write about J.J. Abrams without referencing his now-legendary TED Talk on the "mystery box," which is the key to understanding most of his decisions as a storyteller. In Abrams' hands, the anticipation of the film is as much a part of the experience as watching the film itself; if you know too much about a movie before you see it, the movie itself is somewhat compromised. Though Abrams didn't direct 10 Cloverfield Lane, his hand-picked protege, Dan Trachtenberg, is a true believer in this approach; even the actors didn't learn about the film's affiliation with Cloverfield until well after it had been completed.

This approach has led to some stumbles, as with Abrams' own Star Trek Into Darkness, which pointlessly held back the identity of the villain long after everyone had guessed it. But even in its most misguided form, it's hard to argue against the purity of the motive underpinning Abrams' philosophy: his belief in the raw power of an unspoiled film. And if you're not the kind of person who gets touchy-feely about that kind of thing, consider the raw numbers. Clovefield grossed $170 million worldwide on a $25 million budget. 10 Cloverfield Lane was budgeted at a significantly thriftier $5 million, and box-office analysts project it will earn $24 million this weekend alone.

The 10 Cloverfield Lane approach is, admittedly, easier to pull off when you're shooting a low-budget movie with a couple of actors in a single, interior location. (Game of Thrones does its best to withhold its secrets every year, but when you're shooting in public places with 1,000-plus extras, your odds of keeping everyone from taking an errant cell phone picture are pretty low.)

But as 10 Cloverfield Lane hits theaters, there are lessons for the rest of Hollywood to learn here. I can't help but think about the other big movie the internet couldn't stop buzzing about this week: the new trailer for Captain America: Civil War, which doesn't arrive in theaters until May. The new trailer spans two and a half minutes of footage, but the real purpose was to introduce the new Spider-Man, joining Marvel's Cinematic Universe for the first time. The trailer shot — in which Spider-Man grabs Captain America's shield with a web, in a move designed to hammer home the idea that yes, all these guys are in the same movie — was all but engineered for breathless headlines and screengrabs.

I don't want to pick on Captain America: Civil War, which has exhibited considerably more restraint than something like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which has essentially revealed the key beats of every single act over its barrage of trailers. But as Hollywood looks to combatting the inevitable force of audience fatigue, I think it's worth considering the element of surprise, which Abrams has preserved for films as small as 10 Cloverfield Lane and as large as Star Wars: The Force Awakens. As I head to the movie theater tonight, my favorite part about 10 Cloverfield Lane will be the moment I sit down, ready for a story I know almost nothing about.

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