Putting aside the marketing and whatever connections made to another monster movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a nifty little thriller that delivers on tension and performances. Shrouding a film like this in secrecy works as an interesting experiment, but what matters is how effective it is. As a result, regardless of where this flick came from, a fine job has been done in bringing a slick sense of discovery to a very simple setup.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as Michelle, the survivor of a car accident who finds herself waking up in an underground cellar. Her savoir is a survivalist named Howard (John Goodman), who claims a worldwide attack has killed everyone above ground and left the air too deadly to breathe. John Gallagher, Jr. also stars as Emmet, another survivor living in the cellar, though he is more trusting of Howard than Michelle.
The script comes from Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken, which was then given a rewrite by Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle for the sake of connecting it to Cloverfield. Now that is a bit misleading, given the insistence by producer J.J. Abrams (likely thrilled to not be talking about Star Wars every ten minutes) that this film is merely a spiritual successor. I suppose that is the downside of placing ‘Cloverfield’ in your title, without making it easy to understand that a Twilight Zone–like universe is being created here.
It should not matter too much, but so much of 10 Cloverfield Lane seems to revolve around the mystery box-focused marketing campaign. It is a strange sort of retro era to be in, as the idea of not knowing much about a film is not exactly new, but we are treating it as such. Leave it to the guy who grew up on Amblin films (only to mimic them himself with flicks like Super 8) to try and recreate an era via advertisements. The benefit is how good these stealth productions that are Cloverfield films have turned out to be.
While not directly connected to 2008’s Cloverfield (which is pretty great), 10 Cloverfield Lane works at presenting a new take on an old concept. There is very little going on, outside of watching three people interact in a tight space. The small scale approach means digging into a world through character beats and dialogue, with ample opportunity to mix things up thanks to various reveals and an understanding of how things function. Given how the first film was expansive and full of character archetypes, it is a credit to the Bad Robot Productions brain trust that the opposite method was employed this time around.
Director Dan Trachtenberg does fine work here in his debut feature film. Emphasis shines on the right area, never betraying the spirit of what the film tries to accomplish. It is evident from the opening scenes, as Bear McCreary’s score blares loud enough to alert you how much of a Hitchcockian throwback this genre film is trying to be. Trachtenberg realizes sound is key quite often actually. Along with the score, a superb handling on sound design makes this claustrophobic thriller a great one to check out in a theater.
All of this would matter little if the core cast was not up to the challenge, but they are. Winstead utilizes many strengths to properly convey a sense of fear and resourcefulness that balance each other out, without ever making her seem like a helpless damsel. Gallagher has innocence important to his role that may or may not leave him as an odd man out in the group. Of course, the great Goodman perfectly embodies a force that is untrustworthy, yet intriguing all the same. A question concerning the validity of Howard’s claims lingers throughout the film and Goodman is a strong enough actor to know how to shift himself in ways that could lead you to believe in an assortment of possibilities.
To say more about the story would be unnecessary and unfair to a film that benefits from its clever marketing campaign, but it should be noted that the third act rewards those who have been patient. As tensions boil (and characters are properly developed), the final portion of this film has reveals that allow things to go into overdrive. 10 Cloverfield Lane may revel in what it unleashes, but the film never stops being fun to watch.
Whether or not the film’s full circle attempt at closure works for the viewer, there is a lot of great filmmaking on display when it comes to seeing a fine genre exercise in play. The actors all do fine work thanks to a script that does not forget to use these strong components to get the viewer more invested in what is happening. It will likely remain interesting to analyze the secrecy of this production about as much as the film itself, but it is great to see a final product that feels so accomplished.