In preparation for 10 Cloverfield Lane, I watched Cloverfield for the very first time (yes, even I was shocked when I realized I haven’t seen it), and I found myself pleasantly surprised by how strong it was. It’s a stellar exploration of post-9/11 anxieties expressed as a Lovecraftian take on the monster movie genre. It’s the perfect companion piece to Steven Spielberg’s excellent and thoroughly under-appreciated War of the Worlds (which 10 Cloverfield Lane echos at certain points), and it’s the kind of movie that shows off just how great and unique 21st century blockbuster filmmaking can be, and I was glad to finally see it before seeing the latest exercise in J.J. Abrams’ mystery box shtick.
By the way, 10 Cloverfield Lane has absolutely nothing to do with the 2008 film. There are no returning characters, the monster is nowhere to be seen, there are no references to the events in New York and if there were any nods and winks to the original film, I must have missed them.
Instead, this particular story is about Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a woman who survives a car crash only to find herself in an underground bunker along with a guy named Emmet (John Gallagher Jr.). The man responsible for the bunker and the two being there in the first place is a mysterious man named Howard (John Goodman). He claims that the air outside is toxic due to an attack and they are stuck in the bunker for the time being.
It wouldn’t be fair to compare and contrast the two, since they are very different films taking very different approaches to a specific tone/feel, so I’ll try to avoid that unless I find it necessary. This film plays out sort of like a feature length Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits episode with Hitchcockian elements, very clearly differentiating itself from the more visceral aesthetics of Cloverfield. It is more about creating an unnerving atmosphere, building tension, which is complemented by the claustrophobia you experience with the characters as they’re stuck in the bunker.
While the film doesn’t seems as thematically ambitious as Cloverfield, at least, upon first viewing (and frankly it would require some spoiling to really dig into it, and I’d rather let you experience it for yourself), it effortlessly makes up for it in just how well crafted it is. It makes a great use of economic storytelling, and incredible build-up/payoff. Despite being 18 minutes longer than its predecessor, it moves far more quickly at a breakneck pace that still somehow manages to feel well-rounded and efficiently told at the same time. It doesn’t feel rushed, and no moment feels wasted or pointless; everything helps build the tension and move the story forward. As an exercise of thrilling, pulpy, genre filmmaking, it is easily up there among the more notable efforts in recent memory.
What really anchors and sells the movie, as well done as it is, are the great performances from the three cast members. Mary Elizabeth Winstead conveys the drive to search for answers and her curiosity and boldness makes her a character worth rooting for. John Gallagher Jr. gets plenty of moments to shine and add some personality and humor in the midst of all the tension. It’s frankly a bit of a thankless role, but he really makes the most of it. Surprising absolutely no one is John Goodman stealing the movie in every second he’s on screen. It’s not just great because it’s John Goodman, though it certainly helps, but he conveys a lot of layers and depth in his performance. From frame one, he is a figure to be skeptical of, he later gets a couple moments that make you slightly empathize with him, and other times, you get a straight up monster. He balances these moments very well, and despite not learning too much about his character, you can feel a whole history oozing off John Goodman and his delivery. For a character that may not seem like a whole lot on paper, I think he does an excellent job here, and in a fair world, his name would be brought up for awards season.
I do think that the titling of “10 Cloverfield Lane” reeks of corporate cynicism. I admire that we can get what basically looks and feels like an indie film, but give it the same level of promotion for a summer blockbuster. However, since this is a Bad Robot production, we have to deal with J.J. Abrams “mystery box” nonsense, a well-intended notion, but one that ultimately brought out the worst in our modern hype culture and even moreso muddles up the way he tends to tell his stories. This is hardly an issue on movies that he simply produces (as is the case for the two Cloverfield films), but it still makes me wonder how the success (or lackthereof) of 10 Cloverfield Lane will affect smaller scale genre films in the realm of big budget blockbusters marketed through building hype and fan anticipation. Could the filmmakers have been honest from the get-go and say that the “Cloverfield” brand is meant to cover an anthology series that explores grounded, real life horrors through low budget genre films? Maybe. But would it had the same level of excitement among audiences when the trailer made its debut? Probably not, and I’m honestly not sure how to feel about all that.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a fascinating beast of a movie, though it’s mostly to do with things outside of the film itself, beyond its control, as a film, it’s a great twisty-turny thriller full of fantastic performances and an impressive feature length debut from director, Dan Trachtenberg. He makes the most out of the small scale with the assistance of production designer, Ramsey Avery, and cinematographer, Jeff Cutter. It may not have its mind set on higher themes or ideas, but it sets out to deliver smart, economic storytelling and fast paced thrills and it confidently delivers those in spades. There is chance that it will disappoint those looking for a direct sequel to Cloverfield and that is an unfortunate side-effect of the mystery box marketing from J.J. Abrams, and I’m sure the final act will throw off (personally, I thought it was a pretty killer ending). However, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t interested to see what other “Cloverfield” movies they have in store. 80/100