In today’s climate of bombastic superheroes and franchise reboots, it’s getting harder and harder to to shock and surprise audiences with an original story. What’s interesting about 10 Cloverfield Lane though is that it’s not immediately clear if it resides in that category. It shares a namesake with 2008’s found-footage thriller, Cloverfield, but it utilizes none of the stylistic choices of its apparent predecessor. It operates under J.J. Abrams’s Bad Robot production company, but features a relative newcomer in director Dan Trachtenberg. And even when the credits role, we’re still not entirely sure whether we just saw a sequel or a standalone story, and you can bet Abrams and friends would have it no other way.
The film itself is a masterfully executed bottle episode, stretched out over an intensely stressful two-hour runtime. Set almost entirely in a fallout bunker, it plays on the emotions of an audience unsure of who to trust among our three main characters. First, we have Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), our de facto main character who wakes up in the bunker chained to a wall after a violent car accident. Then we have Howard (John Goodman), the man who claims to have pulled Michelle from the wreckage to save her life, telling her the world has ended and that the air outside is toxic. Finally there’s Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), the farmboy who fought his way into the bunker after helping Howard build it, who himself almost seems too friendly to be real.
The interactions among all three characters constantly challenge our perception of safety, swinging us back and forth between “holy crap John Goodman is going to kill everyone isn’t he” and “why can’t everyone just calm down and finish that puzzle of the cat with a snorkel?” We’re never entirely sure who the true monsters are, initially trusting Goodman’s sincere performance as Michelle’s savior. That veneer of sincerity shows immediate cracks, and it’s not long before Michelle is breaking a bottle over Howard’s head and making a mad dash for the exit on a broken leg.
All that is contained within the first 30 minutes, and there’s plenty more to unravel in the ensuing 90 minutes. Goodman’s star burns brightest, balancing a thin smile with some deeply disturbed motivations. Even so, it’s not long before even we begin to trust Howard. As an audience, you’re left practically begging Michelle to relax and accept that perhaps Howard and Emmett truly hold her best interests at heart. Trachtenberg’s careful direction though makes it so you constantly feel ill-at-ease in the midst of this, even if you can’t quite put your finger on it at any given moment.
If there’s one crutch Trachtenberg leans on too heavily, it’s the use of his musical score as a gateway into jump scare after jump scare. Lesser movies make frequent use of building a soundtrack to deafening volumes, cutting the sound, and then having something shocking happen, punctuated by a startling “BANG.” 10 Cloverfield Lane uses this device almost ad nauseam, and at times it feels unnecessary in a film that already succeeds in building tension without resorting to cheap scares. The most thrilling aspects by far aren’t the moments when you’re shocked out of your seat by a loud noise, making for a curious choice by Trachtenberg to stoop to horror clichés.
The true beauty of 10 Cloverfield Lane is contained within its three-act premise. It begins with Michelle waking up in the bunker, ramps up to the gradual trust she begins to build with Howard, and wraps with a third act we won’t spoil in the interest of letting you see for yourself (seriously, avoid all spoilers on this, you’ll thank us later). A large majority of scenes are shot in either close-up or extreme close-up, feeding into the claustrophobia of the bunker in the first two acts, and making us feel just as trapped as Michelle does when she wakes up in chains.
Even now, it’s not entirely clear if including the Cloverfield namesake in the title was a clever marketing ploy, or an actual hint at a shared universe between the two films. Given that 10 Cloverfield Lane originally crossed J.J. Abrams’s desk as an unrelated spec script, we’re apt to lean on the former of those two possibilities. Abrams practically admits to it himself in a Rolling Stone interview, noting how “it’s a wholly original story with different characters, different monsters, different everything.” Marketing ploy or not, it’s a thrilling, deeply disturbing ride through the psychology of survival, and if anything, that’s made more impressive by operating as its own unique story.
10 Cloverfield Lane releases nationwide on March 11, 2016.
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