In recent years, the “surprise album” has become a fashionable trend in the music world. High-profile artists like Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, Wilco, U2, Rihanna, Radiohead and many others have dropped new albums without any advance warning; opting for a sudden surge of buzz rather than the steady trickle of a traditional, heavily-promoted release. Dan Trachtenberg's 10 Cloverfield Lane is more or less the cinematic equivalent of one of these albums. Yes, the film's release was preceded by a trailer, but that trailer took everyone by surprise: wait, they made another Cloverfield movie? And it's out in just two months?
To be fair, the people who made the movie didn't even know they were making a Cloverfield movie until they were almost finished. The film began life as a script called The Cellar, which was bought by Paramount, given to producer J.J. Abrams and re-named Valencia. Late in the production process, the filmmakers realized that the movie shared some similarities with the Abrams-produced Cloverfield, and decided to present the movie as a “spiritual sequel” of sorts. No, there are no direct connections between the two movies (none of the characters from Cloverfield re-appear, that giant monster doesn't turn up at any point and the film doesn't even seem to take place in the same universe as its predecessor), but by the time the credits roll, you understand their decision.
This story begins with a young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) driving down a lonely Louisiana highway. Suddenly, a large truck runs her off the road, leaving her injured and unconscious. When Michelle wakes up, she finds herself locked in a room in an underground bunker. Her captor is Howard (John Goodman, Barton Fink), a burly, imposing man who claims that some sort of apocalypse has taken place and that he saved Michelle's life by taking her to his bunker before the evil forces (whoever they are) attacked. Michelle begs to leave, but Howard says that such a decision would have fatal consequences. “The air is infected,” he says. Soon after, Michelle is introduced to Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr., The Newroom), a neighbor Howard claims to have rescued. If Howard is telling the truth, all three of them will be stuck in this fallout shelter for at least another year or two. If he's lying, then Michelle and Emmet are being held by a paranoid psychopath. There's a possibility that both things are true.
A large portion of 10 Cloverfield Lane feels like a tense stage play, as our three characters attempt to size each other up and figure out what's what. Meanwhile, the film's title lingers in the back of our minds: what does the word “Cloverfield” imply, exactly? When we hear ominous thumps and rumblings outside the shelter, our imagination is permitted to run a little wilder than it might have if this were simply called The Cellar or Valencia.
The film's greatest asset is John Goodman's performance; a welcome reminder of what a commanding presence he can be. In a lot of ways, Howard feels like the even-more-unhinged cousin of Walter Sobchak, the iconic character Goodman essayed in The Big Lebowski. This is the sort of man who almost certainly regards Red Dawn as a cautionary tale; the sort of guy so obsessed with preparing for this sort of situation that you begin to suspect that his lifelong dream has finally been fulfilled. He rants about the Russians, the North Koreans and the Martians. He's almost certainly insane, but he's perceptive enough to see that Michelle thinks he's crazy. “Crazy is waiting to build an ark until after it starts raining!” he bellows. Plus, the fact that Howard is a nut job doesn't necessarily mean that he's wrong about what's happening now. Goodman is often relegated to colorful supporting roles these days, and it's a thrill to see him tearing into a lead role this substantial.
Winstead and Gallagher do good work, too, though they're largely tasked with playing various shades of uncertainty. Neither of their characters seem 100% sold on everything Howard is selling, but the percentages vary dramatically at various points throughout the film, as does their game plan. Winstead in particular is awfully good at playing a woman whose cautious skepticism is repeatedly whittled away and rekindled until there's nothing left but bewilderment.
Like a number of other Abrams productions, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a gripping watch that starts to fall apart once you really start digging around. Without getting into spoiler territory, let's just say that a whole lot of what happens during the film's second half doesn't really make sense once you really start to look at it... this is the sort of film that's going to be ripped to shreds by those “30 Things 10 Cloverfield Lane Gets Wrong” articles. Still, few of these things really interfere with the actual experience of watching the movie. First-time helmer Dan Trachtenberg is awfully good at figuring how to wring tension out of every new wrinkle the story offers, and the film is consistently engaging on a cinematic level despite the confined setting. The effective Bear McCreary score helps paper over some of the problems, too, sweeping the viewer into the film's emotional vortex with a combination of old-fashioned Herrmannesque motifs and more modern orchestral thunder.
While the first hour or so of the movie digs into some compelling thematic territory (there were times when it reminded me of Riley Stearns' Faults, which features another excellent Winstead performance), things shift into full-blown popcorn mode by the noisy finale. The closing twenty or thirty minutes are undeniably dumb (Winstead's exclamation of, “Oh, come on!” resonates a little too strongly), but I am obliged to tell the truth: I had a big, goofy grin on my face the whole time. This is an imperfect film, but some strong direction, a riveting Goodman performance and some enthusiastically bonkers moments make it a considerably more satisfying experience than its gimmicky predecessor.
10 Cloverfield Lane
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 103 minutes
Release Year: 2016