10 Cloverfield Lane is the film marketing equivalent of a really cool magic trick. As I mentioned in an earlier piece, 10CL was deliberately dropped into the pre-spring/summer blockbuster slate without any kind of advance notice, save for a few trailers in the month or so leading up to its release. And what we knew was pretty scant: it stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman, it’s set in an underground bunker, and it’s produced by J.J. Abrams and directed by a basically unknown protege (Dan Trachtenberg, whose biggest prior credit was a Portal fan film). This is a pretty similar setup to what the original Cloverfield had, an unknown quantity riding a “so, what the hell is it?” marketing wave that pretty much defines the Bad Robot brand.
So. What the hell is it?
Well, if you’re expecting the film to tie into the 2008 Cloverfield, you’re out of luck. There’s no surprise cameo from T.J. Miller or a glass pod containing an alien flea or a winking reference to a video camera. But that’s fine, because what we get is substantially more interesting. The connective tissue between Cloverfield 2008 and Cloverfield 2016 is thematic rather than literal, with both movies using a tried and true alien movie backdrop to tell a story that’s more invested in its human characters than it is sci-fi armageddon. While 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s special effects aren’t nearly as interesting (or innovative) as its predecessor’s, it makes up for it in spades in its script and performances.
The story, in a nutshell: Michelle (Winstead) tries to put an ex-boyfriend in her rear-view, flees across Louisiana and ends up in a rollover car wreck. She wakes up in an underground bomb shelter where former career Navy man-turned-creepy survivalist Howard (Goodman) tells her that she and bearded local contractor Emmet (John Gallagher Jr.) are the only other two survivors of a mysterious doomsday event that’s rendered the air outside toxic. Suffice it to say, there’s a little more to it.
Mechanically, the film moves at a brisk clip and keeps us just enough in the dark. 10CL expertly layers its twists so that we’re constantly asking ourselves new questions. When Michelle discovers a disfigured woman outside the shelter suicidally desperate to get inside, or a bloody earring inside the fallout shelter, you can feel the film take on another intriguing angle. These aren’t twists for the sake of twists, but calculated movements on a map.
The bulk of 10 Cloverfield Lane could very easily be staged as a play, it’s essentially a locked room thriller where the mystery is “what the fuck is wrong with John Goodman?” Trachtenberg, wisely, puts the heavy lifting of the film on the shoulders of a very strong cast. The movie opens with Winstead on the phone preparing to leave her boyfriend, whether she’s breaking up with him or talking to someone else is unclear because the scene is presented entirely without audio. This opener serves to ease the audience into a performance that is in fact largely silent and dependent on subtle glances and reactions. Winstead does a great job with these kinds of demands; it feels like a natural extrapolation of the arched eyebrows and pithy silences she brought so well to Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. Michelle spends the bulk of 10 Cloverfield Lane being terrorized and held captive by a lunatic, but Winstead’s dry performance keeps the experience from feeling like a snuff film. It feels like we’re along for the ride with her rather than watching from the outside, as she fends off human and inhuman threats.
Along similar lines, John Goodman is an absolute blast to watch in this flick. Goodman, a veteran character actor who still feels underrated despite starring in at least three different Coen Brothers movies, puts on an acting master class here. Howard veers wildly between pathetic sympathy and white knuckle menace, with his way too long stares and genuine unpredictability a way scarier threat than the gun he holds onto. 10CL‘s screenplay is at its best when it’s toying with our perception of Howard, casting him as a father grieving for his daughter one minute and a terrifying psychopath the next. Howard’s monstrousness is far scarier than any alien lurking outside the protection of the fallout bunker, because it’s an extremely mundane and familiar evil.
Serving as the mediator between Goodman and Winstead’s ping pong ball performances is John Gallagher Jr., whose affable Emmet is more or less a very charming plot device ensuring those two characters don’t immediately try to kill each other. Gallagher’s “nice but dumb” middleman brings greatly appreciated levity to the bunker scenes but is also unfortunately saddled with the film’s weakest writing. (In a moment of LOSTian literalism, we find out Emmet’s tragic backstory as a scholarship track star who—bonggggg—couldn’t outrun his bad grades.) Emmet’s eventual removal from the story carries serious emotional heft, but mainly serves to knock our ass into act three.
If there’s a point where 10 Cloverfield Lane loses sight of itself, it’s when Michelle finally escapes the bunker and discovers—yup—there are CGI aliens outside. The last ten minutes of the film could double as a pretty decent Super Bowl commercial for a sporty but sensible four wheel drive vehicle where Mary Elizabeth Winstead takes on intergalactic monsters. This sequence has a number of really great flourishes (an alien lurks just out of focus as Michelle runs across a field, there’s a hilarious use of a whiskey bottle as Chekov’s Gun), but it might as well come from a different film entirely. On the other hand, the special effects monsters we get—a “hound” creature with a probing tongue-mouth, an unsettling “bio-ship” with a screaming, gaping maw—are just as cool as the spider-legged kaiju of the original film.
Ultimately, 10 Cloverfield Lane is the good kind of surprise, the kind of clever and grounded science fiction that doesn’t often benefit from viral hype. Trachtenberg and Abrams just had to trick you through the door by wrapping the film in a slice of American cheese so you’d eat it.
10 Cloverfield Lane hits theaters today.