First things first, 10 Cloverfield Lane is not a sequel (or prequel, or side-quel) to Cloverfield. The films share some themes and details but they’re all tertiary, evidence of the script’s late conversion into a patented J.J. Abrams Mystery Box. It seems that the shared titles are anthological, akin to Abrams’ Twilight Zone of low budget genre films. It’s a little bit bait-and-switch and I was prepared to hate the fact that Abrams’ sold me a false bill of goods. Fortunately, enough of Dan Trachtenberg’s directorial debut is good that it mitigates that disappointment as well as inevitable story weaknesses.
Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is in a troubled engagement (the film’s opening, a wordless montage of her packing her bags and leaving without her ring, immediately establishes Trachtenberg’s prowess for visual storytelling and mise-en-scene). While driving, Michelle is run off the road and awakens in the underground bunker of survivalist Howard Stambler (John Goodman), a paranoid former Navy man and satellite engineer.
He claims to have saved her from the wreck and brought her to his home because an apocalyptic attack has left the outside world inhospitable. While Howard is clearly troubled from the start, Michelle, along with fellow survivor Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), learn he may be right about the attack, paving the way for escalating tensions as time passes and secrets emerge.
The film largely succeeds on the strength of the performers. Goodman is brilliant in everything he’s a part of (The Flintstones nonwithstanding) and it’s the case here. While I wish the script had layered more subtlety, especially at the beginning, about Howard’s mental state, Goodman is so good that he allows flickers of humanity to shine through even after, just enough to make us doubt ourselves about this man, who seems to have been proven right about everything.
Winstead is a lady MacGyver. There’s an early scene, when she initially discovers her predicament and she starts crying before steeling and using her own IV as a tool. Her relationship with her savior Howard (or rather, his fixation on her as substitute for his mysteriously-absent daughter Megan) forms the spine of the story, combining feminism and Freud into a mediation Michelle’s feminine empowerment over patriarchy and male impotence.
Gallagher is very good despite being dealt the “third wheel” role. Both the writing and his acting elevate the role above plot function or comic relief and he adds weight to the proceedings, caught between the two leads as an object of Howard’s scorn and Michelle’s affection (though thankfully an unnecessary love story is avoided).
It’s an accomplished debut for Trachtenberg, who got on peoples’ radars, including Abrams’, through a fan film based on the video game series Portal. He makes the most of the bunker’s confined, claustrophobic setting and packs information into most every frame. It isn’t until Act III when Michelle executes her escape that Trachtenberg spends much of his $5 million budget and therein lies what I hate to admit is the film’s weakness.
It’s pretty easy to see where the rewritten elements were added to appease and connect the film to the previous one, because it’s when all the money shows up on screen in the form of CGI. I can confirm there are monsters for fixers like me, but after the ratcheting tension in the bunker, even I felt like the balloon had let the air out, along with common sense and reason. Even if the genre elements feel tacked on and leave something to be desired, the film’s final shot is flat-out amazing.
See, 10 Cloverfield Lane began as The Cellar (and as Valencia during production), an acclaimed spec script with no relation to Cloverfield. Upon development, it was producer Abrams’ idea to make this part of the Cloverfield universe or anthology or brand or whatever the hell he wants to call it, ostensibly to help get the film made in a franchise-driven marketplace.
An actual Cloverfield 2 had only been bandied about by fans and by the off-the-cuff remarks of the creative team, including director Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) writer Drew Goddard (The Martian), Abrams, his producing partner Bryan Burk. Ultimately, it seemed none of them had any idea what they wanted to do and so lacked any motivation or enthusiasm to develop it.
Now, with this film’s release, Abrams has been teasing, in varying terminology, about the series and a potential third film. “This is just this movie, and it’s only two films that we’re talking about right now,” Abrams told EW on the film’s press day. “[But] there is something else that we’d like to do, and hopefully we’ll get a shot.”
If Abrams can keep delivering genre films this good, I will consider a potential Cloverfield sequel or return of the Clover monster a bonus rather than a requirement. Considering my resistance to his exploitation of this brand, I’d say that’s my stamp of approval for 10 Cloverfield Lane.