10 Cloverfield Lane is a very terrifying, and very satisfying movie experience.
In the scoop-crazy, spoiler-filled minefield of modern movie culture, any time a film can arrive on the scene and surprise us, that’s a pretty big accomplishment.
Not only did 10 Cloverfield Lane seemingly appear out of nowhere back in January, dropping a trailer no one expected for a movie sequel few people even knew was in the works, but now that the film is in theaters, it’s become clear that those weren’t the only surprises the project has in store for curious audiences. Fortunately, like so many of the other projects to come out of JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions, 10 Cloverfield Lane has managed to retain much of its mystery heading into its opening weekend — and audiences would do well to avoid any sort of spoilers this time around.
Reviewing films that rely on a sense of mystery is a tricky dance that critics have performed with some frequency when it comes to the Bad Robot films, beginning with 2008’s Cloverfield and running right through both Star Trek movies and 2011’s Super 8, and most recently with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. However, 10 Cloverfield Lane could very well be the Bad Robot movie that benefits the most from a spoiler-free viewing experience.
Fortunately, it’s also a movie that can be described well in vague — and generally positive — terms.
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg from a script initially penned by Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken, then rewritten by Oscar-nominated Whiplash writer/director Damien Chazelle, 10 Cloverfield Lane follows a young woman played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) who wakes up after a terrible car crash to find herself trapped in an underground bunker with an eccentric doomsday prepper played by John Goodman and a young man played by John Gallagher, Jr. Told that the world outside the bunker has become contaminated after a mysterious, apocalyptic event, Winstead’s character isn’t so sure of the danger on the surface, but must contend with an increasingly tense environment in their shared living space.
Trachtenberg not only lived up to expectations but exceeded them with his first feature.
From a tonal perspective, 10 Cloverfield Lane really does live in the same world as its 2008 predecessor, which chronicled a giant monster’s rampage through New York City through the shaky lens of a survivor’s camera. By keeping the true nature of the monster — human, alien, or otherwise — uncertain, both films keep the tension building as the story unfolds, making the final reveal of the true threat a supremely cathartic experience. In the 2008 film, that catharsis came when audiences finally got a good look at the monster whose arrival made the protagonists’ terrifying ordeal necessary. In Cloverfield Lane, the cathartic moment is different, but no less monstrous.
As Trachtenberg’s feature directorial debut, 10 Cloverfield Lane is the sort of film that should ensure we see more of the filmmaker in the future as studios recognize what he was able to achieve with a relatively low budget. Anyone who’s seen Trachtenberg’s short film Portal: No Escape likely had high hopes for Cloverfield Lane, and it seems safe to say that the filmmaker not only lived up to expectations but exceeded them with his first feature. With much of the film occurring in the bunker, Trachtenberg works the angles well to take the sense of claustrophobia to the next level while also lingering that extra second or two to do the same with the tension between the characters.
Trachtenberg also benefits from fantastic performances by his cast, particularly Goodman in his role as the gun-toting owner of the bunker, Howard. In a perpetual state of ragged, heavy breathing and entirely unpredictable, Howard is the focal point of every scene he appears in, and Goodman does a nice job of adding layers to the character with subtle elements that make him seem like more than just a caricature of conspiracy theorists and survivalists. Winstead also seems comfortable as the film’s skeptic, playing a role that essentially makes her the audience’s representative in the film; she acts accordingly.
The elephant in the room, however, is the question that can’t — and more importantly, shouldn’t — be answered in a review of the film: How does it connect to Cloverfield, if at all?
What the film does brilliantly is to answer that question in a way that feels satisfying, but leaves plenty of room for audiences to form their own theories. Although it doesn’t shy away from offering hints about a story that’s so much bigger than what’s happening inside the bunker, it leaves the most direct suggestions of a connection between the 2008 film and Cloverfield Lane to the film’s most unreliable source.
And like its predecessor, 10 Cloverfield Lane is not just your typical monster movie — human or otherwise. Thanks to its talented director and cast, it’s so much more than that.