“10 Cloverfield Lane” is directed by Dan Trachtenberg and written by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damian Chazelle from a story by Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken. It stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, and John Gallagher, Jr.
Just under two months ago, the first trailer debuted, packaged with Michael Bay’s 13 Hours. That was the first time anyone had heard of this thing. The idea of a new Cloverfield film, one that ditched the now out-of-fashion found-footage aesthetic, excited many. It didn’t hurt that it was such a fantastic trailer, brilliantly teasing the audience with tantalizing glimpses but leaving out most plot details. This film is produced by J.J. Abrams (still riding high off of the success of The Force Awakens), who is perhaps best known for the “mystery box.” He prefers audiences know as little as possible about his films going in, which arguably impacts the press and marketing more than the films themselves.
The first thing you need to understand about 10 Cloverfield Lane is that it has nothing to do with the first film. Nothing. The title appears to be a mere marketing gimmick (apparently it was originally written as “The Cellar” and was only made part of a franchise in development). The film does not try to top the first film because its goals are entirely different. Cloverfield was an original, extremely successful take on the found-footage sub-genre. Matt Reeves made an entirely new kind of monster movie by showing it from the perspective of the people on the ground. It minimized exposition and maximized the destruction and incomprehensible horror of it all. 10 Cloverfield Lane takes a very different approach. While it lacks the economy and precision of its predecessor, it’s more fun to watch, resulting in an experience that is slightly less consistent, but that reaches greater heights.
Out of respect for the box, I’ll just give you the set-up. A young woman (Michelle, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) decides to leave her boyfriend and begins to drive away from her home and life. She is run off the road by a stranger and wakes up in a basement. She soon learns that she is being held by Howard (John Goodman), who claims that, due to an attack on US soil, everyone above ground is now dead. Her only companions are Howard and Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), a young man who buys into Howard’s story. The movie plays coy with us, making it ambiguous just how true Howard’s stories are. Is he right, or is he insane? Are those possibilities mutually exclusive?
The film does a great job getting the most out of this location, pacing out revelations and developments so that narrative momentum is maintained. The three leads are perfectly cast. Special mention has to be made of John Goodman. With a role this juicy, who can blame him for devouring it with such gusto? He is scary, funny, and always convincing as the fascinating Howard. First-time feature-helmer Trachtenberg performs admirably here, effortlessly walking a tonal tightrope between scary and funny. He beautifully builds and releases tension in a way that makes the film enthralling. Pitch-perfect production design and lighting really sells the space as well.
There is a particular scene where Trachtenberg slows things down for character development at the expense of narrative propulsion. This is well-intentioned but sticks out like a sore thumb in a film that is otherwise impeccably taut. My only other gripe concerns the final fifteen minutes. The film seems to change genres toward the conclusion in a way that’s admirable in its audacity but pales to everything that came before. There are bits that hint at a greater mythology that honestly feel tacked-on. It’s hard to shake the feeling they want to make this into an ongoing franchise. If they ever do another one of these, I’d like it to have a similar relationship to this movie that this has to the first one: no relation.
Despite my third act reservations, I had a fantastic time watching 10 Cloverfield Lane. It’s the kind of blockbuster it’d be great to see more of: small, fun, and grounded in a strong sense of character and setting.