‘10 Cloverfield Lane’: Film Review

John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead headline Dan Trachtenberg’s tense sci-fi thriller, which was produced by J.J. Abrams.

Flying under the radar with the working title Valencia, the latest feature from producer J.J. Abrams was only linked to his previous Cloverfield project when trailers first surfaced last month under the current title. Directed by first-timer Dan Trachtenberg, 10 Cloverfield Lane is, in Abrams’ words, a “spiritual successor” to Matt Reeves’ unusually gripping 2008 monster movie, rather than a literal sequel.

Any disclaimers seem unlikely to assuage long-standing expectations for a follow-up, especially since promos for the film clearly hint at something otherworldly overshadowing the narrative. Trachtenberg favors a slow build getting to the final reveal, however, and although some may miss the immediacy of a rampaging kaiju destroying everything in its path, this is an entirely different breed of movie that’s potentially even more effective for its shift in style and tone. Irrepressible fanboy anticipation aside, Paramount’s enticing viral marketing campaign and enthusiastic word of mouth could propel the release to a strong showing going into the spring break season.

The Bottom Line

Unexpected, in the best sense.

RELEASE DATE Mar 11, 2016

Assumptions founded on the catastrophic conclusion of Cloverfield are quickly discarded as Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) flees New Orleans and a nasty fight with her fiance (Bradley Cooper, heard only in voiceover) that throws their entire marriage plan into question. Randomly driving westward in the direction of Lake Charles, she’s somewhere on a deserted highway when a violent collision with a passing pickup sends her car off the road, knocking her unconscious. When she recovers, she finds herself chained to a makeshift bed in an underground cinder-block bunker constructed by Howard (John Goodman), a bearded, hard-core, pistol-packing survivalist, who claims to have rescued her from the car crash and saved her life.

When Michelle insists on seeking professional medical care, Howard refuses to let her leave, saying the surrounding area is under attack. “Nobody is looking for you,” he chides her, estimating it could be a year or more before it’s safe to go aboveground. Unsure whether to believe that she’s actually been “rescued” and uneasy about remaining in the well-equipped shelter indefinitely, Michelle discovers that there’s another resident as well. An acquaintance of Howard’s who helped him build the structure, Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) says he sought refuge after the attack, confirming Howard’s version of events and his speculation that the vast majority of residents throughout the region are already dead.

Still determined to get away, Michelle makes a bold bid for freedom, only to pull up short at the bunker door, where she gets a glimpse of the horror awaiting outside. Resigned to devising an alternative strategy, she tries to make the best of the makeshift domestic situation, with increasingly paranoid Howard assuming the role of savior and benefactor. A random coincidence inspires her to forge an allegiance with Emmett to prepare another escape bid, even though what she may find on the surface could be even more calamitous than Howard’s sinister doomsday planning.   

Both narratively and stylistically, Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane remain at a significant remove from one another. Making an impactful feature debut, Trachtenberg eschews the well-worn found-footage technique in favor of a suspenseful style that’s more consistent with the tense character dynamics of the first two-thirds of the movie, perceptibly heightened by the claustrophobic underground setting. The final third shifts into high-adrenaline action mode with some thrilling set pieces as Michelle faces unexpected new threats, making the paradoxical conclusion satisfying on multiple levels as it delivers on the thriller setup while introducing surprising new developments. A subplot involving the mysterious disappearance of Howard’s teen daughter adds a frisson of dread that’s strategically leveraged to catalyze the characters’ conclusive confrontation.

Essentially a three-hander, the highly inventive screenplay — originally titled The Cellar — by newcomers Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken (revised by Damien Chazelle before he went on to direct Whiplash) is anchored by a transformative performance from Goodman. Hulking, hostile and wildly unpredictable, he’s like a wounded bear defending his lair who’s forced to accommodate a pair of destabilizing interlopers. On the receiving end of all that poorly restrained aggression, Winstead estimably balances Michelle’s flight-or-fight reactions with an unanticipated resourcefulness and assertive depth of self-preservation that’s a challenging match for Howard’s perverse manipulations. Emmett ends up inextricably caught between these two resolute opponents and Gallagher convincingly embodies his perilously shifting loyalties as the horrifying scope of Howard’s transgressions inevitably emerges.  

Director of photography Jeff Cutter’s intimate camerawork, often relying on darkly expressive close-ups before expansively capitalizing on later plot developments, ably establishes the film’s unsettling tone, underpinned by Bear McCreary’s brooding orchestral score.

Distributor: Paramount
Production company: Bad Robot Productions
Cast: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher, Jr.
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Screenwriters: Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, Damien Chazelle
Producers: J.J. Abrams, Lindsey Weber
Executive producers: Bryan Burk, Matt Reeves, Drew Goddard
Director of photography: Jeff Cutter
Production designer:  Ramsey Avery
Costume designer: Meagan McLaughlin
Editor: Stefan Grube
Music: Bear McCreary

Rated PG-13, 103 minutes