Home > Reviews > 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE – Bear McCreary

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE – Bear McCreary

10cloverfieldlaneOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

A ‘spiritual successor’ to the 2008 film Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane is the directorial debut of Dan Trachtenberg. It stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle, a young woman who, after breaking up with her boyfriend and then crashing her car, wakes up in an underground bunker, chained to the wall, and with a broken leg. The well-stocked and surprisingly comfortable bunker is owned by Howard (John Goodman), a survivalist and doomsday prepper, who gradually explains that some sort of ‘attack’ has occurred outside, rendering the atmosphere toxic, and that he brought her to his bunker after finding her crashed car, saving her life. Michelle also meets Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), one of Howard’s neighbors, who fought his way into the bunker after the supposed attack occurred. Over time, the three of them learn to coexist in their tense proximity, despite Howard’s paranoia and unstable personality, but soon events cause Michelle to wonder whether Howard’s claims about the outside world are true.

The film is a wonderfully tense thriller, masterfully acted by the small cast, with a superb screenplay by Josh Campbell, Matthew Steucken, and Damien Chazelle. The film has a real sense of mounting claustrophobia and intensity, and really ramps up the atmosphere before all hell breaks loose in the third act. Contributing enormously to the overall feel of the film is the score by Bear McCreary, who is surely the busiest composer in Hollywood right now; not only has he already had two fairly major films come out in 2016 prior to this one (The Forest and The Boy), but he is the lead composer on at least six major TV series – including Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Black Sails, Da Vinci’s Demons, Damian, Outlander, and The Walking Dead – which makes me wonder if the man ever sleeps. However, the fact that he is so in demand clearly means he’s doing something right, and 10 Cloverfield Lane just adds more weight to the claim that he is the best composer under the age of 40 working in Hollywood today.

Early in his career McCreary spent a decade working for, and with, the great Elmer Bernstein, and the master’s genius clearly rubbed off on him. This score is a combination of Bernstein’s compositional acumen crossed with Bernard Herrmann’s gift for creating atmospheres thick with dread, filtered through McCreary’s unique sonic palette of instruments. In addition to a fairly standard symphony orchestra, McCreary includes two unusual instruments: firstly a yaylı tambur, a Turkish stringed instrument which looks like a banjo played with a bow, and secondly the famous blaster beam, invented and performed by the legendary Craig Huxley, and which famously lent its eerie, other-worldly metallic tones to Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979.

Michelle’s Theme is the first thing we hear, performed by the yaylı tambur during the opening moments of “Michelle,” and it forms the emotional backbone of the score. The viewer experiences the entire film through her eyes, so it makes sense that her theme is the guide; in the opening cue the theme is mysterious, ominous, especially when the tambur plays alone, but it also has a larger and more sweeping quality when the rest of the orchestra joins the fray and performs the theme with it. A recurring, undulating 8-note cello ostinato, which McCreary calls the ‘mystery ostinato,’ underpins much of the early part of the score, keeping everyone slightly uneasy and on edge as Michelle adjusts to her terrifying new circumstances. There is also a brief motif for Howard, a three-note idea which McCreary describes as being inverse to Goodman’s imposing size, instead “representing his threat as psychological instead of physical,” and which gradually becomes more twisted and guttural the more it is repeated.

Michelle’s theme combines with dissonant, unsettling orchestral textures through cues like “The Concrete Cell,” “Howard,” “A Bright Red Flash,” the gloomy “Two Stories,” and “A Happy Family,” some of which occasionally explode into moments of horror movie mayhem and rhythmic orchestral carnage featuring the mystery ostinato. McCreary is very clever in the way he passes Michelle’s theme around different sections of the orchestra – at one point during “The Concrete Cell,” for example, the theme almost scrapes across the highest registers of the string section – because, even though you might not be aware of it on a conscious level, subliminally the music keeps her at the center of attention. Furthermore, when McCreary switches the theme from the tanbur to more traditional strings, I am reminded of the numerous pretty/creepy horror-thriller scores Christopher Young wrote in the 1990s for films like Jennifer 8 and Copycat, which is a good thing as they have always been amongst my favorite scores of his.

“At the Door” is a knockout action sequence with a richer and deeper orchestral palette, full of screaming trombones, nerve-jangling tremolo strings, and a frenetic pace, again built around the mystery ostinato. Snippets of Michelle’s theme combine with ghostly, other-worldly vocal effects provided by singer Raya Yarbrough, as Michelle gets her first real glimpse of what lies outside Howard’s bunker door. Later, “Hazmat Suit” provides the first real standout moment for the blaster beam, which pits Huxley’s unique sound-bending chords against a determined-sounding version of Michelle’s theme and a relentless ostinato for strings, percussion, and synths, building the sense of anticipation for the film’s climax.

“The Burn” raises the stakes even more with a series of rampaging runs for strings and crashing, almost James Horner-esque pianos, offset by ragged, breathless performances of Michelle’s theme which jump around from strings, to brass, to deep woodwinds as the cue progresses. This leads up to the finale, comprising “Up Above” and “Valencia,” which alternates a sense of relief and quiet emotional release with moments of searing horror; the eerie return of the blaster beam coincides with the final revelation of what has actually been happening outside the bunker all this time, before quickly moving into a series of action sequences of great intensity. The final two cues, “The New Michelle” and the end credits suite “10 Cloverfield Lane,” are built around extended statements of Michelle’s theme that have a resolution, a finality, and a sense of renewed vigor and determination. The large-scale performances of the theme in the final cue, especially the more sweeping versions towards the end, are quite superb.

Although he has done a few movies in the past prior to this year – Knights of Badassdom and Europa Report, for example – Bear McCreary’s main focus has always been television, and he has been supremely successful in that arena since he first burst onto the scene with Battlestar Galactica in 2004. I have a feeling that, in the wake of 10 Cloverfield Lane, things may begin to change. That’s not to say that being a TV specialist is a bad thing – on the contrary, we are in a golden age of TV music right now, and McCreary is one of the composers leading the charge – but being able to add one or two major big-screen projects to your resume each year is always a good thing. 10 Cloverfield Lane confirms beyond doubt that Bear McCreary is perfectly comfortable writing for that canvas, that his theme-writing prowess remains undiminished, and that his working knowledge of contemporary orchestral film music is up there with the best.

Buy the 10 Cloverfield Lane soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Michelle (6:08)
  • The Concrete Cell (8:29)
  • Howard (5:00)
  • A Bright Red Flash (2:53)
  • At the Door (3:00)
  • Two Stories (2:47)
  • Message From Megan (3:07)
  • Hazmat Suit (3:02)
  • A Happy Family (3:52)
  • The Burn (6:15)
  • Up Above (3:04)
  • Valencia (6:12)
  • The New Michelle (3:25)
  • 10 Cloverfield Lane (6:23)

Running Time: 63 minutes 39 seconds

Sparks & Shadows (2016)

Music composed and conducted by Bear McCreary. Orchestrations by Jonathan Beard, Edward Trybek and Henri Wilkinson. Featured musical soloists Malachai Bandy and Craig Huxley. Special vocal performances by Raya Yarbrough. Recorded and mixed by Steve Kaplan. Album produced by Bear McCreary.

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  1. Edmund Meinerts
    April 4, 2016 at 6:36 am

    “We are in a golden age of TV music right now”

    Not sure I agree with that. We are in a golden age of TV, no doubt, but so very many great shows at the moment (or of the past few years) are saddled with music that never goes beyond functional. Game of Thrones (I know you won’t agree, but you’re in a bit of a minority), Breaking Bad, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, House of Cards…not bad scores, but the vast majority of them are pure mood music and rarely step up to the plate or come into the foreground. It really is a shame McCreary can’t just work on every show there is (although he tries), because I feel that his stuff is a cut way above what the majority of TV gets these days.

    • Trindade
      April 11, 2016 at 6:49 pm

      Agreed (although I like Russo’s Fargo and Beal’s House of Cards, specially his score for Season 3). But indeed most of TV music these days are purely functional scores, including McCreary’s own The Walking Dead, by far the most popular of the five (!) TV shows he is scoring right now.

    • May 10, 2016 at 6:28 pm

      I agree completely. So many shows I am watching have scores that I wouldn’t recognize outside the specific show. Most of them just fade into the background and certainly very few have interesting themes that get used properly. Game of Thrones has been completely wasted on Djawadi or by producers who expect the score to be nothing but functional. It could have been so much more musically in the hands of a composer who actually knows how to write for an orchestra. The action music especially is laughably bad even in major sequences where you expect something stunning.

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