Anyone who buys a ticket for 10 Cloverfield Lane expecting another found-footage, monster-fueled rampage can count themselves as a victim of producer J.J. Abrams' never-ending Hype Machine.
But don't fret, cinemagoer! You're in for a treat far beyond what a second 21st-century Godzilla reimagining could bring to the table. In fact, the only subpar parts of Dan Trachtenberg's feature film debut are the ones that directly ape Matt Reeves' 2008 hit. Everything else is a sweaty palmed trip into unsettling uncertainty.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman star, she as a young woman who gets into a horrible car crash and he as her savior who turns out to be a short-fused conspiracy theorist with a well-stocked underground bunker in Louisiana. Michelle (Winstead) awakens from the accident chained to the wall and rightfully panics; Howard (Goodman) ominously shares that the world outside has ended, the air is toxic, and she has no choice but to hunker down with him for the foreseeable future.
It's easy to doubt Howard's proclamations, and the script (by Whiplash auteur Damien Chazelle, Matt Stuecken, and Josh Campbell) stokes those fires for the first half-hour or so. But then Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), a fellow bunker resident who's far more level-headed, insists that Howard is telling the truth. And a brief escape attempt assures Michelle that, while the situation outside remains curious, something has certainly gone wrong.
From there we brilliantly transition from a tense hostage situation into a weirdly charming domestic tale, complete with a montage set to “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tommy James & The Shondells. This is the beauty of Trachtenberg’s work here; he allows for the appropriate moment or two of perverse smiles, where it seems possible that this odd trio could really hit it off. We all know something will go sour, of course, but the best thriller and horror directors understand how to dangle that carrot, to create the impression of an oasis before yanking it away. Even if we know its coming—and like The Cabin in the Woods, 10 Cloverfield Lane is very aware of its genre and the usual beats—providing that optimism creates most of the fun (and the fear).
It helps that both Winstead and the writers build such a subtle yet genuine appreciation for Michelle—who is far from a damsel in distress but still at a logical, profound disadvantage—that we want those palm trees and that blue water to be real. There are none of the “he kidnapped the wrong girl” overtones you might expect with a strong female lead; instead, Winstead calmly and coolly moves forward with a confidence that makes her revolt believable and even helps to lessen the ending’s deep flaws. These are basic, core elements, but necessary for the type of story Trachtenberg is telling (and impressive for a first-time director).
None of us this would work for a second without Goodman. He’s always been a menacing presence, used for comedic effect (The Big Lebowski) and genuine danger (The Gambler), but this is a virtuoso mix of paternalism, entitlement, and dark humor that creates a unique, and unhinged, personality. He has the movie’s funniest lines, and its most terrifying threats. And its to the creative team’s credit that his ramblings are proven true—at least somewhat—in the early going. So you know he’s not crazy, but his motives remain questionable. Is he opportunistic, insane, or just wildly overbearing? Goodman makes them all feasible options.
My only complaint is how poorly 10 Cloverfield Lane sticks the landing. Part of the intrigue is finding out how much of what Howard says is true, so I’ll be as ambiguous as possible. But at the same time, I can’t help but express regret at just how little ambiguity Trachtenberg and his writers infuse into the final 10 minutes. It wouldn’t surprise me if, as Abrams saw what they’d created, he felt a need to go back and wrap it up with a closer tie-in to its namesake. But regardless, whether a calculated decision or a knee-jerk one, it’s a failure.
If this is meant to be part of an anthology and not a “sequel,” as the creative team keeps insisting, then they should’ve taken notes on how every Twilight Zone and Black Mirror episode end. Keep people guessing; keep them wanting more, especially when you’ve created a little gem with “expertly withholding information” as its calling card. Changing the mood and tone on your way out the door is a curious decision, and the overly neat way Trachtenberg ties everything up takes away from an otherwise terrific creation.