Seemingly coming out of nowhere, the previously top-secret J.J. Abrams project turned marketing marvel 10 Cloverfield Lane captivates audiences by hitting on all cylinders and proving interpretive simplicity makes for a first-rate movie-going experience. Concise storytelling and superb acting push the mysterious Cloverfield relative well beyond the expectations of a delayed follow-up to an above-average monster movie. Executing every objective the filmmakers evidently intended to hit, this isn’t a perfect movie, but it stands firmly on its own and seldom makes a misstep.
Driving along a rural Louisiana highway after frantically abandoning her fiancé Ben (Bradley Cooper), Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) turns on the radio to hear a report of continuous blackouts along the southern seaboard. While she’s distracted by Ben’s incoming calls and the reports on the radio, a passing truck strikes Michelle’s vehicle and she’s knocked unconscious as her vehicle flips off the road. She wakes up chained to a wall, IV in her arm, brace on her leg, in a locked room within an underground fallout bunker built and tended by Howard (John Goodman), a grizzly former Navy man and satellite engineer turned doomsday survival-enthusiast. Howard informs Michelle that a widespread attack, likely nuclear or chemical, is underway and the world aboveground is no longer safe. Confused and incredulous, Michelle meets affable local man Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), fellow occupant, and co-constructor, of the bunker with his own reservations about the world inside and outside the bunker. Not knowing who she can trust and unwilling to live her life in a cramped underground shelter based on Howard’s word, Michelle plans her perilous escape.
Director Dan Trachtenberg and Writers Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle turned out a small cast of impressive and well-rooted characters with real personalities, no matter how unflattering they might be. Each character plays a specific and significant role in the plot, fitting together like perfectly cut puzzle pieces revealing the truth as they assemble. One of the only oversights by the writers, and one of very few blemishes in the film, is Michelle’s apparent immunity to serious physical damage. She manages to come away relatively unscathed, apart from a semi-sprained knee, from some exceptional vehicular impacts—not that being extremely fortunate isn’t a possibility.
John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead both shine in their respective roles as they work against each other and keep the audience guessing whom they can trust. Goodman’s hulking stature plays directly into the intimidating traits of his frighteningly unstable character, but his facial expressions and delivery of dialogue are among the most splendid details of the film. He commands attention every moment he’s on screen and his nuanced fluctuations between playful and terrifying moods make for an unsettlingly disturbing performance. Mary Elizabeth Winstead delivers a pitch-perfect portrayal of the panicky and dismayed Michelle as she fights her way through doubt and bewilderment. Her character’s subtle progression might not be picked up by the average moviegoer, but she skillfully expresses each emotion along the way. John Gallagher Jr. also delivers a strong performance as he effortlessly brings life to Emmett’s skeptical and endearing nature. He maintains a certain boyish glint throughout the film that makes Emmett one of the most likeable characters of any movie so far this year.
Although 10 Cloverfield Lane has been dubbed a “spiritual successor” to 2008’s Cloverfield, it would be difficult to spot any connection between the two films without searching for it. The two films are incredibly different movie experiences. The 2008 predecessor is a shaky, nausea-inducing found-footage American rendition of Godzilla, while this entry is a young woman’s claustrophobic personal journey of growth, more in line with the pages of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine than the first film.
With almost nothing in common between the two films, aside from the name, it appears that the Cloverfield universe is more of an anthological umbrella under which to tell frightening sci-fi stories—like a science fiction-inspired version of Tales from the Crypt. This could explain the problems with the timelines of the two films. Michelle has a newer model of the iPhone, which wasn’t in production during the time of the first film. And if technology isn’t enough of an indicator in a detail-oriented film, a sticker seen on a vehicle—presumably indicating when to schedule the next oil change—is dated for 2015, which is several years after the events of the first film. It stands to reason that an event such as a sea monster devastating New York City not 10 years prior would come up in conversation regarding a possible new assault from an unknown origin, but there is no such mention.
From camerawork and staging to sound mixing and special effects, the technical aspects of the film equal all its other remarkable qualities. Cinematographer Jeff Cutter expertly frames scenes to relay a sense of claustrophobia within the bunker and to emphasize the overwhelming presence of Howard as he struts around the bunker, cycling through waves of lunacy. A wide range of carefully considered and well-mastered sounds permeate from heavy steel doors, air ducts, panicked persons and far more fantastic sources. While the film isn’t littered with special effects, like so many other J.J. Abrams projects, the prudent usage manages to be poignant and distressing.
While the main topic of discussion surrounding the film will surely center on the twist and ending, the foremost highlight resides in the storytelling. By the end of the film, the trained eye will be able to trace all particulars of the plot to traditional and reasonable origins of story structure. From beginning to end, the story arc is solid, complete and concise, leaving some room for speculation, but enough breadcrumbs to find the way, even with an ending some are calling “completely open to interpretation.” Character progressions feel organic and fully materialize by the film’s conclusion. The tension gradually heats up to a boiling point and resolves tremendously well without blowing the lid off all the strong work laid before it. With stable, well-written third acts becoming increasingly rare, this film entertains and pleases all the way to the closing credits.