10 Cloverfield Lane (PG-13) ★★★

10 Cloverfield Lane
Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman in ’10 Cloverfield Lane.’ Photo credit: Paramount Pictures.

What I remember most about 2008’s Cloverfield doesn’t have anything to do with its alien-invasion plot. Nope, what’s still clearest in my mind is the fact that I was worried I was going to hurl all over the person sitting next to me because the film’s “found-footage” handheld-camera shakiness was way too much for my stomach to handle.

Thankfully, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a very different type of movie. In fact, the majority of the film doesn’t even have any direct connection to its kinda-sorta predecessor. Instead of watching self-absorbed twentysomethings film their friends’ demises as Manhattan comes under extraterrestrial siege, we instead meet Michelle (the always-excellent Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an aspiring clothing designer who’s going through some sort of breakup. She packs a box of things, leaves her apartment (and an engagement ring) behind, has a short call with “Ben” (look up whose voice it is after you’ve seen the movie) and starts driving… driving… driving across the fields of Louisiana—until she’s suddenly knocked sideways and crashing and tumbling across one of the most jarring title sequences in recent memory.

When Michelle wakes up, she finds that having just been in a car wreck is the least of her worries. She’s chained to a wall in a bare underground room, and soon meets the man who put her there: the solemn, imposing Howard (John Goodman). Howard claims there’s been some sort of horrific “event” outside that’s made the air toxic and killed everyone, and by choosing to bring her into his doomsday bunker he has in fact saved her life. We soon learn that the only other person in the bunker, Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), actually fought his way in. Still, not everything seems quite right about Howard and his story, and as time passes, Michelle is given good reason to wonder whether or not whatever’s happened outside is as dangerous as what may happen inside.

One of the things I applaud about 10 Cloverfield Lane is that its characters (mostly) don’t do stupid things; I must say “Bravo!” to the screenwriting team of Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and Damien Chazelle for keeping it real. Many movies make me want to tear my hair out and yell things at the screen like “Don’t go down THERE!” or “Why would you do THAT?!?!” or “That is obviously NOT A SMART MOVE!!!” But in this film, Michelle is constantly thinking on her feet, sorting through each bit of new information she gets about Howard and her overall situation, and then actually doing something about it that makes sense. Even in completely dialogue-free scenes, Winstead does much to endear the audience to her character—I felt like I could see the wheels turning in Michelle’s head as she crafted her next move. For example, as soon as she woke up in the bunker and took in her new surroundings, she started planning a way to escape and doing things I’d like to believe I would’ve tried. That made me want to root for her and got me engaged in the film in a way that’s just not possible to do when you think the protagonist is a moron.

Another thing I appreciated was that first-time director Dan Trachtenberg was able to make a movie that scared the bejeezus out of me, yet never resorted to gory violence or blood-‘n-guts just for shock value. 10 Cloverfield Lane is similar to Room or Misery in the sense of dread and suspense and foreboding that Trachtenberg conjures up. Much of that unease also has to do with Goodman’s masterful interpretation of Howard. He doesn’t play Howard as outright creepy or off-his-rocker loony—at least not most of the time. He gives us just enough to keep us on our toes, constantly wondering if Howard really does intend to ride out the Apocalypse with his two, um, “guests”… or if he has something much more sinister up his sleeve. This is-he-or-isn’t-he-totally-bonkers mystery is brought to a head in an incredibly tense scene where the three characters are playing a guessing game that threatens to expose a few secrets. It’s also more subtly referenced by character actions that would normally not seem like a big deal, such as Howard deciding to clean himself up and shave.

As J.J. Abrams and his frequent producing partner Bryan Burk were involved with 10 Cloverfield Lane, you can rest assured that there’s a Slusho! sighting within the first five minutes; you could also argue that Howard’s bunker might remind Lost fans a little bit of Desmond’s chambers in “the hatch.” The connection to Cloverfield (which Abrams and Burk also produced) was added late in the overall development cycle, which might be why the final act of the film feels like the characters have suddenly been dropped into another movie. In a matter of minutes, 10 Cloverfield Lane goes from being one type of film to a completely, COMPLETELY different one. I continued to enjoy it, but would be lying if I said I didn’t prefer the quieter cat-and-mouse games between Howard, Michelle and Emmett to what happens at the end.

Speaking of the end, it wasn’t until the final moments of the film that it dawned on me what a “strong female character” Michelle is. And it’s a very positive thing that I wasn’t really thinking of Michelle in those terms for most of the movie, because I can’t stand when that sort of thing is shoved in the audience’s collective face. If 10 Cloverfield Lane’s strength—which in turn may also be its director’s strength—could be summed up in one word, it would be “subtlety.”

The Bottom-Line? 10 Cloverfield Lane is a thinking-person’s thriller with outstanding performances you won’t soon forget—best experienced in a theater for full effect.

Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Michelle), John Goodman (Howard) and John Gallagher, Jr. (Emmett)

Credits: Directed by Dan Trachtenberg; written by Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and Damien Chazelle

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

Erika Olson © March 11, 2016