10 Cloverfield Lane trades shaky cam shenanigans for old school terror in a small film that presents an even larger threat than its predecessor
Before we get started, 10 Cloverfield Lane is not a sequel to 2008’s Cloverfield.
Having said that, the films clearly live in the same universe, and even though the first in this new anthology series gave audiences a big monster to deal with, the monsters in 10 Cloverfield Lane are much smaller, and yet so much more familiar.
The choice not to make a straight up sequel to the original may seem like an odd choice, but in reality, it makes for not only entertaining viewing in its own right, but by only keeping the general, basic theme, director Dan Trachtenberg and screenwriters Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle succeed in crafting a world that gives the events of the first film an even greater gravity.
At it’s heart, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a character-driven drama that hearkens back to psychological thrillers from a period of film we just don’t see anymore. Instead of special effects, we get special acting, and while that might sound a bit corny, the truth is that the acting is absolutely the prime special effect and the thing that separates this film from being something that cashes in on long-delayed hype.
With only three main actors, quality of performance is naturally going to be under a microscope, and not only do the performances work, they elevate the film.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) serves as the film’s anchor, Michelle. The film starts on her having what appears to be a frantic conversation with her boyfriend (an unseen Bradley Cooper) that seems to depict the coming end of their relationship.
Once hanging up on him, she’s immediately sideswiped by another car, sending her car careening through a barrier into a ditch. Let’s take just a moment to praise the sound editing in this film, something which I don’t normally do, but the way in which Trachtenberg uses sound as an added element of tension is pretty damn good, and Michelle’s accident is the first of many examples.
When Michelle wakes, she finds herself chained to the wall, with an IV drip stuck into her arm. One of Winstead’s most prominent features are her anime-like eyes, something she uses throughout the film to express just about every emotion, particularly fear and suspicion.
Soon we meet her captor/savior Howard (an excellent John Goodman) who appears from the other side of a bolted bomb shelter door, and immediately he presents a clear menace mixed with a sense of safety that would naturally come from Michelle learning that in the time since her accident, the world has fallen to an attack from unknown assailants.
Rounding out the cast is Emmet (John Gallagher Jr.) a fellow survivor whose main purpose seems to serve as a ballast for Howard, giving the audience and Michelle just enough to make him look like his intentions may be pure, even as he comes of as more than a little unbalanced.
But even as Emmet humanizes Howard by back his story of invasion, he also serves as a prime target for Howard’s rage. This is something that plays itself out with a heavy dollop of tension throughout the film, and the way it keeps the audience on edge is one of the highlights of 10 Cloverfield Lane.
While we’re lulled into a false sense of security following a scene where Michelle, who never fully trusts Howard, attempts to break out of the underground bunker, something never seems totally right even as the two begin to bond, and if there was anything to criticize about the film it would be that this tone should’ve been allowed to breathe just a little longer.
The reason that’s important is because the one thing the audience is never made sure of is just how much time passes between Michelle waking up in the bunker and when she is forced to finally escape.
The time issue is alluded to early on by Emmit, who mentions how time is hard to track when there’s nothing to see outside of walls, but for the audience, a good narrative needs to have some idea of how much time passes, especially when the lead character wakes up with a knee injury, and yet later finds herself running around.
Despite that lapse, there is much to enjoy about 10 Cloverfield Lane, and while Winstead is huge in her role, the real star here is Goodman. Through Howard, he emotes chilling rage and a slightly-lovable goofy demeanor that keeps things tense, even when it seems safe to relax.
Even though he comes off as insanely creepy, it’s hard not to want to like Howard, and as soon as that seems like a possibility, something pops up that only solidifies the man’s true nature, making him every bit as dangerous as the perceived threats outside the bunker walls.
In that, Trachtenberg and the writers create an atmosphere that feels Hitchcockian in nature, with the heroine and villain locked in a game of cat and mouse that keeps us on the edge of our seats until the very end.
And when that end comes…we’re reminded of the reason why the film exists in the first place:
It’s pretty obvious from the trailers and the very connection to the original film that we would get a glimpse of the threat on the outside world, and as earlier mentioned, while this is not a continuance of the first film, there are monsters out there, and they may be even worse than the original Cloverfield monster.
That’s what ultimately makes 10 Cloverfield Lane such an unexpected gem. Not only does it seamlessly meld different genres, what comes out as a result stands very well on its own as well as succeeds at world building with very little in the way of explanation.
Producer JJ Abrams is pretty open about his desire to see more films within the Cloverfield universe, and 10 Cloverfield Lane is an entry that continues the story, but also allows practically anything to follow it. There could be a direct sequel, there could be a prequel showing how everything started, and none of it has to tie directly into either of the two previous films.
Most importantly, Abrams favorite tool, the Mystery Box, can be employed to great effect within this new shared universe. Misdirection is a huge part of why 10 Cloverfield Lane works, and future installments can only excite audiences further before having their expectations blown away, hopefully with even greater success.
Hashim R. Hathaway (Uncle Shimbo) is the host of the Never Daunted Radio Network, and proud father to NeverDaunted.Net. You can reach him on Twitter @NeverDauntedNet