“10 Cloverfield Lane” is a film that is best experienced rather than explained, so if you care about having a surprising and fulfilling experience then stop reading this review, go watch it, and come back. I will do my best to tippy-toe around the corners of the narrative, but be prepared to learn some plot details that were cloaked by a remarkably secretive marketing campaign, something Bad Robots Studios excels at.
J.J Abrams “Godzilla” meets “Twilight Zone” universe has finally revealed it's identity on a large scale, speaking out to the notion of a cinematic universe or any correlation between the films. “10 Cloverfield Lane” is not blood-related kin to “Cloverfield,” the handheld monster feature that shocked the film world, it’s more of a distant cousin or relative that shares the same genetic makeup but stands on its own two feet.
This is a taut, lean, mean, frightening, and relentlessly paced thriller that is carried by both phenomenal performances and an astounding directorial debut from Dan Trachtenberg. Fabricating a story centering around Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young fashion designer who leaves in a rush from her apartment, seemingly backing out of a marriage we suspect, as the camera lingers on a lonely wedding ring. After a phone call with her fiance, she’s suddenly rammed off the road in a grippingly enthralling car crash.
Later, she wakes up in a basement. There is no windows, no sign of outer life. She has an IV providing her with fluids, she has a knee brace that is handcuffed to a bed rail, and a large stranger of a man greets her. The warmth and cheerful John Goodman strolls onto the scene, but he’s depicting a quirky and creepily charming doomsday prepper named Howard this time around.
He seems like a germaphobe, a rule follower as well, refusing to allow curse words to fly at the dinner table. He runs a tight ship as he’s prepared a doomsday box, telling Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and us that there has been an attack, one that has left the air chemically intoxicated. Capable of burning the flesh right off our bones. Along with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), there is a young man named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) who helped Howard (John Goodman) construct this apocalyptic shelter.
From there, we question what is fact and what is fiction. “Cloverfield” fans will spend their time ciphering through snippets of dialogue and background easter eggs, hoping to find some direct correlation with the previous film. I, on the other hand, have a theory about alternating universes which seems to hold more water at this point, because “10 Cloverfield Lane” is not as much a sequel as much as it is a spin-off from “Cloverfield.”
Never admitting to a monster attacking New York and any of the events of the last film, maintaining a constant distinction from the beast from under the sea. Allowing Trachtenberg to create a close-knit, intimately designed thriller that is aesthetically proficient. Working alongside cinematographer Jeff Cutter (“Orphan” & “Yellow”), Trachtenberg moves the camera continuously, giving us an understanding of the layout of this little entrapment of living space. We know where everything is as if we could redesign it ourselves, giving us an idea of how small and enclosed the area around our characters must feel, a signifier of brilliance from Trachtenberg.
He builds a tension-riddled atmosphere that matches the same tone as the previous film. Matching the likes of an Alfred Hitchcock film, “10 Cloverfield Lane” constructs itself like a cat and mouse game that keeps us guessing as to what we should believe. The colors maintain a dull vividness of colors almost, ranging from turquoise green to baby sky blue to a light shade of pink. Painting a film that not only supports investment through intricate screenwriting but attentive color design as well.
Someone that assists in that constant second-guessing is John Goodman. He makes your skin crawl, never becoming an outright lunatic. He’s on that tipping point between insanity and plain weirdness, blurring the lines between a man that believes in conspiracy theories and a man that is crazy enough to think they’re real enough to prepare for them. He comes off as charming at times, as a man believing that he’s doing the right thing, even becoming someone that we begin to resonate with, eventually those fluffy feelings that Goodman provides wear off when secrets come to light.
Winstead cannot go unnoticed either; she matches the brilliance of Goodman. Remaining in character at all times, never allowing a dose of implausibility or negligence to enter into her character’s dynamic. She’s empowering and smart, the three-man team of writers assists in that, but Winstead brings this character to life. She’s our conduit, our eyes to the story being unveiled, continuously responding to each hindrance and obstacle in ways that are witty, believable, and reliably convincing.
John Gallagher Jr. is excellent as well in his first appearance since his stay on Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom," but the writing positions him as a building block for the narrative to continue, almost wasting his character like a utility tool. This, along with an abruptly interluded third act, makes “10 Cloverfield Lane” stagger to the finish line. Stumbling and tripping over implicit promises made to the audience, almost forcing itself to become something unnecessary.
Though appreciable, the third act finale of “10 Cloverfield Lane” is a bit over the top and cuts like a knife through the tension manifested in the first two halves of the film. The strong performances, outstanding directorial efforts, and the intricate screenwriting assist in making this film be able to overcome the batty sci-fi turn that Damien Chazelle, Josh Campbell, and Matthew Stuecken produce.
They also produce a claustrophobic, tense, and tightly crafted thriller beforehand, one that excels because of the revelations that were hidden by masterful marketing. The future of the universe of alternating timelines, or dimension, or universes, or whatever the answer is to the questions that are sure to be posed by the fandom of “Cloverfield,” seems to hold well. With Abrams on-board, I’m not sure there is a limit to the potential of this universe. A superb alternative to the blockbuster world of superheroes for film fans to dive into. Who doesn't love counter-programming, right?
Editor's Note: This review was originally published on Mar 13, 2016 to critiquingcinema.com and has been re-written for qualitative purposes.