Going into 10 Cloverfield Lane I didn’t really know anything about it. I had seen vague, quick trailers on TV but had not really paid them any attention. Within the last month or so, however, I noticed the ads picked up and soon it was harder not to pay attention. Suddenly my interest was piqued. I noticed John Goodman’s involvement, and after a quick search online I found out Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Romona Flowers from Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World) was the lead. But I still didn’t know what it was about, and I liked that.
I hadn’t even made the connection between 10 Cloverfield Lane and 2008’s found-footage thriller hit Cloverfield. That connection and the marketing was all carefully coordinated by brilliant director turned producer J.J. Abrams. He’s been on something of a hot streak lately; After breathing new life into the Star Wars saga, he’s got this and a new installment in the Star Trek reboot saga coming out later this year. He’s proven time and time again that he’s one of the most exciting directors/producers working today. He gets how people want their films, and 10 Cloverfield Lane is the perfect example of how Abrams is able to manufacture hype and have his films live up to it.
In an opening scene reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, we’re introduced to Winstead’s protagonist Michelle. We don’t hear anything she says, but it’s clear that she’s distressed and deciding to pack up and leave. It’s not long before she’s on the road, trying to ignore calls from her equally distressed boyfriend, who we only know as Ben. After denying one of his several calls, Michelle’s car is suddenly struck and falling off of the road. It’s a moment that you could easily see coming, but first time director Dan Trachtenberg hands it to us in a way that shocks you, with help from composer Bear McCreary’s score and some top notch sound editing.
When Michelle wakes up, she finds herself underground in a shelter built by a survivalist named Howard (Goodman). When she asks to be let go or use the phone, he informs her there is nowhere for her to go and no one for her to call. After several escape attempts, Howard and fellow “captive” Emmett (John Gallager from Short Term 12) tell her that there’s been an attack on Earth and they can’t go outside because of the air being contaminated. Whether its aliens, Russians, or North Koreans we, and the characters, don’t know.
And that’s all I’ll say on the plot. The film does exist within the same universe as Cloverfield but doesn’t have much in common with it. Where Cloverfield was a found footage, monster horror film, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a pure psychological thriller . Though Howard did save Michelle, and is keeping her and Emmett alive in a very comfortable and accommodating bunker, Goodman’s perfect performance never lets you trust him. He’s calm, inviting, and vulnerable at moments, but with the flick of a switch Goodman brings out some truly unnerving terror from deep within Howard’s psyche. We, like Emmett and Michelle, are constantly teetering back and forth between truly trusting him.
And what of his story about the attack? Though there’s a scene early on that suggests Howard is telling the truth, we still can’t be sure. The unbearable claustrophobic feel of the bunker doesn’t help clear anything up either. After awhile, things become a little too convenient, and like Michelle, we need to get out of there. Between Goodman’s top notch acting and the brilliant screenplay and direction, we’re kept guessing until the film’s final moments.
This is not your average, mainstream thriller. Made for a modest $15 million, Abrams proves that you don’t need glitzy marketing campaigns or three digit budgets to make magic. There are clear influences from other landmark films, including Psycho and Ridley Scott’s Alien. It combines the best parts of Hollywood and independent filmmaking.
That being said, I don’t think the film could have succeeded without Winstead’s performance. Much like Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, Michelle is a unlikely heroine. She’s shy, meek, but smart and resourceful. By the film’s end, she jumps headfirst into saving herself without letting the fear stop her, much like Ripley’s own characterization from Alien to Aliens. She’s an actress who has been very deserving of a big break for awhile now; She was fantastic in the little-seen Smashed, but this is her biggest, boldest work yet. Though it’s not clear when and if there will be a sequel, I personally would love to see Winstead headline it.
If you’re going into 10 Cloverfield Lane expecting a direct sequel/prequel/etc to Cloverfield, you’re going to be extremely disappointed. But what you’ll find is a gripping, suspense ridden rollercoaster ride with some excellent acting. In the end, that’s the better film anyway.