What’s scarier: the monsters outside in the darkness — the ones we cannot see, or the monsters we can see, standing right next to us? That central question is at the heart of 10 Cloverfield Lane, the new film from producer J.J. Abrams and director Dan Trachtenberg. Touted as a “sequel” or at least a “spiritual successor” to 2008’s found footage giant monster movie, Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane explores a different avenue, one that is just as scary as a huge monster attacking New York, but this time, macro-presented in the fallout shelter of a doomsday prepper named Howard (John Goodman), and his two “wards of circumstance” Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) and Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). And the end result is way more terrifying than watching the head of the Statue of Liberty get ripped off through the shaky lens of a camera held by T.J. Miller.
The film opens with young aspiring fashion designer Michelle (Winstead) hastily packing up and leaving her off-screen boyfriend (who has a very famous voice in cameo), as the radio reports of widespread power outages and other nefarious hints that things in the world may not be right. Before she can get clear, she is ran off the road in a loud, violent car crash and she wakes on a mattress in a cinderblock-walled room, cuffed to a pipe and attached to an IV. As she gets her bearings, the audience also begins to see the bigger picture.
The world has supposedly ended, due to some kind of chemical attack, and Michelle was apparently saved by Howard (Goodman), who found her wrecked car and brought her unconscious body to his fallout shelter. But did all that actually happen, or is it some sick ploy by a maniac? Michelle meets Emmett (Gallagher, Jr.) who supposedly helped build the shelter, and then found safety there as the attack occurred. Emmett and Michelle begin to bond, with Howard serving as the stern father figure.
Director Trachtenberg and screenwriters Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle, based on a story by Campbell and Stuecken, do an admirable job of playing with the audiences’ minds here. We are left to wonder what is real and what isn’t, even when evidence arrives that proves what Howard and Emmett is saying is true, there is still the miasma of doubt clouding the “family” dynamic inside the shelter.
This proverbial Sword of Damocles hanging over the audience finally falls in the third act and everything becomes violently clear. And then 10 Cloverfield Lane takes yet another turn — and becomes something completely different, which both works and doesn’t. All of the slow build tension and the doubt that was used like a surgeons scalpel in the first two acts of the film is tossed out the window for an action movie ending, and the sharp recalcitrance of the last 10 minutes of the film could turn some people off.
The performances in 10 Cloverfield Lane need to be singled out — especially by John Goodman, who continues to absolutely shine as an actor. He was the best thing about 2014’s The Gambler, and he’s also the best thing going here. The layers that he brings to Howard carry 10 Cloverfield Lane, and in the hands of a lesser actor, the whole production could have easily fallen apart. Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle is equal parts wounded bird, and fierce survivor, and she conveys that persona, sometimes with just a simple facial expression. Solid work by all.
As a film, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a rollercoaster ride of twists and turns, where the audience’s mind is put through a ringer. It really has nothing to do with Cloverfield, unless you want to speculate some things that could also be reaching. To be fair, this was never presented as a sequel, and is only hinted at being in the same world as the previous film. Regardless if it is riding on coattails or not, 10 Cloverfield Lane stands on its own as a monster movie of another kind. And the audience is left to wonder who — or what — that monster really is.
10 Cloverfield Lane is rated PG-13 and is in theaters now.
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