Directed by Dan Trachtenberg. Produced by J. J. Abrams and Lindsey Weber. Written by Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle. Release date: March 11, 2016.
A couple of months ago, attached to Michael Bay’s Benghazi movie, a trailer for a movie called 10 Cloverfield Lane made its debut. Previously known as Valencia, the film was shot in relative secret. Unless you listened to me when I mentioned it as one of the films to look forward to this winter, you probably hadn’t even heard of it. But the trailer became an instant viral hit, in large part because fans of Cloverfield have been looking forward to more for years. Anything, even indirectly related, was going to pique interest.
The question, then, became this: What is 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s relationship to Cloverfield? The answer may disappoint fans of the original. Apart from the name and a couple of events and mentions, it’s mostly a marketing tactic used in hopes that you’ll go see it. This is a film that was initially developed as an unrelated film, had a few changes made to it in order to technically, kind of, attach it to well-known property, and then virally marketed just like Cloverfield was. It’s a genius tactic when it comes to the marketing, brought to us by producer J.J. Abrams, and it’s a fantastic way to get people to see a more-or-less new property that otherwise they might not have.
Of course, if the film wasn’t any good, we’d all be running around screaming “cash grab” like chickens after their heads were violently removed from their bodies. The thing is, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a great thriller – for the majority of its running time. Thanks to a smart script, confident direction from Dan Trachtenberg (who helmed a Portal fan film a few years back), and great performances, this is a film that can, quite often, put an audience member on the edge of his or her seat.
The plot sees Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), survive a car crash only to find herself locked in an underground cellar. She was rescued by Howard (John Goodman), who nurses her back to health despite often violent protests; after all, she assumes she’s been kidnapped. The truth is far worse: while she was unconscious, the world ended. The gas outside Howard’s bunker is deadly, and will be for quite some time, she’s told. Michelle, Howard, and a farm hand named Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr.) are trapped.
The “thriller” aspect comes into the believability of this premise. Michelle feels kidnapped, after all, and Howard’s story seems unlikely at best. More often than not, he doesn’t exactly act as a sane man would. And there are hints here and there that lead Michelle to assume that he’s lying, even after seeing things that would lead anyone to believe him. For the majority of 10 Cloverfield Lane, what we’re watching is a tense 3-person play that’s been expertly staged and paced. It gives us a sustained amount of tension, gives us a couple of minutes of levity, and then ramps it back up, never missing a beat.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a white-knuckle thriller for 90% of its running time that’s been marketed in an intelligent way to get you into the theater, even if its literal connections to Cloverfield are almost nonexistent.
The bunker, which we get to explore with a great deal of freedom, feels authentic and almost becomes its own character. The various rooms, the creaks of the floor – all of this is important to creating a brilliant sense of atmosphere, and does so without any of Cloverfield‘s shaky-cam nonsense. We feel tense for almost the entirety of the film in large part because of the location in which it is set, and because of the characters who populate it. They may or may not be working toward the same goal, and they all may be harboring deadly secrets. It’s a watch-and-find-out experience, and it’s a very enjoyable one.
For about 90% of the running time, 10 Cloverfield Lane follows this formula, throwing in the occasional fun twist or surprise to keep things fresh. The talking point leaving the film will be in its ending, which I won’t spoil, but I will say that it changes things up to the extent that it might feel as if it doesn’t fit. I’m not entirely opposed to the ending, but it does take the film in a completely different direction, and that’s not going to be loved by everyone. It’s a tonal shift and not needed, but I didn’t hate it- in large part because it comes after our main story is concluded. It didn’t get in the way of that; it comes afterward.
John Goodman is often such a warm presence in the movies that his chill-to-the-bone performance here is a memorable one, and is a key reason why 10 Cloverfield Lane is as thrilling as it winds up being. We expect one thing, and the film subverts our expectations. Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes for a strong protagonist. She keeps us on edge. John Gallagher, Jr. is a less noticeable third, but he’s amiable, which is about all that was necessary.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a white-knuckle thriller for 90% of its running time that’s been marketed in an intelligent way to get you into the theater, even if its literal connections to Cloverfield are almost nonexistent. It builds and sustains an extraordinary atmosphere, it’s got great acting, particularly from John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, it’s wonderfully paced, and it’s genuinely thrilling and sometimes even scary. Its ending comes somewhat out of left field, but it’s not something I’m too angry about. This is an incredibly fun ride, and one well worth taking – even if its marketing strategy may be a little disingenuous.
Bottom Line: A tense, atmospheric thriller, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a fantastic film for 90% of its running time … and an interesting, if not entirely successful, one for the other 10%.
Recommendation: Regardless of your experience with Cloverfield, this is a thriller you shouldn’t miss.[rating=3.5]