10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

10 Cloverfield Lane burst onto the radar with an unannounced trailer a mere two months before its release date.  Produced by J.J. Abrams and his Bad Robot production company, which is known for similar, secretive marketing campaigns, people expected a sequel of some kind to the 2008 film Cloverfield, since they share that word in the title.  Despite the title, Abrams and others involved in the making of the film are quick to point out that it is not a direct sequel, but that it is a “blood relative” to Cloverfield.  Anyone expecting a direct sequel or anything approaching a film that exists in the same universe as Cloverfield will likely be disappointed, but if people watch this film on the merits of its contents, they will find a really well executed thriller.

After being involved in a car accident, Michelle (Mary Eilzabeth Winstead) awakes on a cot on the floor of an unfamiliar room; her forehead bloodied, an IV in her arm, and her leg in a brace and chained to a pipe.  The room is locked from the outside, is sparsely furnished, and has no windows.  A man (John Goodman) enters her room, whom she initially suspects is her abductor, except he hands her the key to her chain and a pair of crutches to help her move around.  He leaves her food and leaves, locking the door behind him.  The man turns out to be an ex-military, conspiracy theorist, doomsday prep nut named Howard who saved her from her accident, and brought her to his underground bunker behind his farm because there was an attack of some kind (perhaps chemical, nuclear, or extraterrestrial) that has wiped out most of the population.  Also in the bunker Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a young man who helped Howard construct the bunker a few years ago, who fought his way to get in when he saw whatever happened outside.  Michelle is initially untrusting of her situation, as there is evidence that Howard is withholding information, and there is the possibility that there is more or less to the story of what happened in the outside world, and while circumstances have forced these three people together, it may be only a matter of time before circumstances force them to have to get out of their cramped quarters.

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To be clear, this is definitely not a sequel to Cloverfield.  Instead, it feels more like a second chapter in a Cloverfield anthology, like The Twilight Zone, only spread out over time and expanded to feature length films.  They share a name in the title, there are sci-fi elements, and maybe one or two other tentative connections, but beyond that, there is not much of a connection.  In fact, I’m sure some people will ding the film for purposefully putting Cloverfield into the title only to be a complete and unnecessary misdirect by the filmmakers and that the sci-fi elements of the story feel tacked on to a pretty good thriller in its own right.  Whether that is a valid critique or not depends on the individual, as I did not mind the loose connection to the Cloverfield brand.  The film indeed was originally just about three people in a bunker, and when Bad Robot picked it up for production, they grafted the Cloverfield-esque elements onto the already-existing story.  I did not mind these additions, but I won’t begrudge anyone for taking the filmmakers to task for being opaque in how this film relates to 2008’s Cloverfield.

10 Cloverfield Lane features a small cast set mostly in a confined area.  This confinement is the type of restraint that lends itself to some of the best thrillers.  For example, part of the reason Alien is so great is that they crew is trapped on the ship.  Crimson Tide effectively executes the premise of being in a submarine that has no communication with the outside world.  Not that this film is in the class of Alien or Crimson Tide, but it uses the confinement of the characters to maximum advantage.  And keeping the cast to a minimum allows the audience to invest quickly in the stories of these characters.  It’s a small film with hints of a bigger event going on just beyond the periphery of these characters.  In that sense, it reminds me of Signs.

The three main actors here give very good, compelling performances.  All three of them are given moments to shine.  Goodman, in particular, is very strong.  In his initial interaction with Michelle where she wakes up, Howard is not very forthcoming about information, or why she is chained up.  Normally, this is something that annoys me in lesser movies, because one or two simple sentences between characters would solve any unease or distrust between them.  But there is a level of social awkwardness to Howard that helps to explain why he is not allaying her initial fears of abduction.  You get the impression from Goodman’s performance that Howard is someone who has chosen a certain level of isolation in his life and has forgotten how some simple social interaction with others can go a long ways.  Goodman plays him with his usual charm, but with just a slightest shift in degree to leave open the suspicion that there may be aspects of Howard that complicate things, making him potentially menacing and dangerous.

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Winstead, who is an actress I think deserves bigger and better roles overall, is given a chance to do some quality acting here.  The movie opens with Michelle leaving a relationship and setting out on her own, something that initially seems like striking out on her own, but as we later learn from her own self-assessment, is more likely due to the fact that her default move when things get hard is to panic and run.  A late-night stop at an unattended gas station and a man pulling up in a massive pickup truck results in a moment of uncertainty flashing across her face.  When she wakes up after her accident thinking she has been abducted, her reaction is one of a woman whose worst nightmare has come to life at the worst possible time.  Later, we can understand her difficulty and reluctance to grasp the situation she finds herself in until she finally sees evidence of it for herself.  In a lot of ways, the movie is about Michelle becoming a person who no longer panics and runs, but someone who decides to do something and take action.

The script is a collaboration between three writers, two of whom (Josh Hecken and Matthew Stuecken) came up with the story and received screenplay help from Damien Chazelle (writer and director of Whiplash).  The story is simple, placing three people who don’t really know each other in a closed environment, and then slowly bringing things to a boil by the end.  The director, Dan Trachtenberg, was given the reins of this film after his short film Portal: No Escape (based on the video game) caught the eye of the Bad Robot people.

I suspect the appeal of the film will rise of fall with how people react to the ending, which is when the sci-fi, Cloverfield elements really come to the forefront.  It’s possible that it could make or break the movie for some people.  I went in expecting a certain level of sci-fi to be involved since it was a “Cloverfield” movie, and was surprised how sparse the sci-fi aspects were for most of the film.  If viewers are able to set aside any preconceptions they have for the movie or that were placed on the movie by naming it 10 Cloverfield Lane, then I think it is a movie that can be enjoyed and appreciated for what it is doing and how it tells its story and is able to stand on its own in this potential new anthology-like treatment of film franchises.

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Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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