Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

10 Cloverfield Lane is an exciting little thriller with a curious connection to 2008’s found-footage monster-flick hit, Cloverfield. Produced by J.J. Abrams and filmed in relative secrecy, 10 Cloverfield Lane is another mystery box that lures viewers in with a tantalizing premise and then pivots away from resolving that mystery, instead focusing on character. The obvious mystery here is whether 10 Cloverfield Lane is truly a sequel to Cloverfield—whether it exists in the same universe or merely contains the same qualities of mystery and suspense as that film. The film’s climax offers some resolution to this question, but doesn’t entirely satisfy it, so viewers going into 10 Cloverfield Lane looking for definitive answers will be disappointed. In reality, the question is beside the point. Whether it connects to Cloverfield or not, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a promising debut for director Dan Trachtenberg, and a refreshingly modest pseudo-sequel in a marketplace that assumes bigger is always better.

Based off a spec script by Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken entitled The Cellar, and spruced up by Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle, 10 Cloverfield Lane follows only three characters and takes place almost entirely in an underground bunker in Louisiana. After getting in a car accident, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up locked to a pipe in a bunker. She thinks she has been kidnapped, and she’s not entirely wrong, but Howard (John Goodman), the man who brought her there, claims he saved her from an apocalyptic event that has poisoned the surface. Sharing the bunker with Howard’s farmhand Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), Howard claims they are the last people left on Earth. Michelle doesn’t trust him, but she’s faced with either escaping the bunker and risking death or staying there knowing there’s a possibility she’s a prisoner.

10 CloverfieldLane is deliberately crafted as a micro-budget feature and plays like a potboiler in which the tensions between the three characters start high and get higher over the course of the film. It could’ve been a stage play, but credit to Dan Trachtenberg for never filming it like one. 10 Cloverfield Lane is claustrophobic narratively and thematically, but not visually. The camera has room to breath. Trachtenberg doesn’t shoot the film like it’s on a proscenium stage, but he also doesn’t artificially jump out of the setting to open up the world. The camerawork is inventive and allows us a three-dimensional grasp of the space as opposed to the flatness of a theatrical production.

It’s also not amateurish. Trachtenberg understands visual storytelling and the purpose of classical camerawork. He knows how to ratchet up tension by slowly getting closer to actors’ faces during simple shot, reverse-shots, like during a particularly awkward dinner scene early in the film. He also knows that establishing shots can reveal information and play to different emotions depending on the context of the editing. These are simple concepts, but Hollywood directors often screw them up.

10 Cloverfield Lane also shows that Trachtenberg knows how to coax good performances out of actors. All three of the leads are solid, but Goodman especially so. He conveys a mixture of paternal wisdom and menace that makes him both an impressive and distressing character. His soft-spoken anger is as terrifying as his bellowing roar. In one scene, the characters play a game of Taboo, and Goodman’s shift from puzzlement to anger never crosses the line into caricature.

As for the film’s mysteries and their resolution, the conclusion is narratively satisfying, even if it’s thematically wobbly. The entire 103-minute film plays like an extended episode of TheTwilight Zone, and a pretty good one at that. The basic premise is clever and the way the narrative escalates never robs the idea of its potency, even if it stacks up one too many extravagances in the end that peel away some of the depth.

What’s most satisfying about 10 Cloverfield Lane is not so much the mysteries, but the attention paid to the filmmaking and the character development. It shows a director and creative team who are smarter than the average sort behind Hollywood sequels and reboots. Don’t be surprised when Trachtenberg ends up directing a future Star Wars or Jurassic Park installment. Disney or Universal could do a whole lot worse.

7 out of 10

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016, USA)

Directed by Dan Trachtenberg; written by Josh Campbell & Matt Stuecken and Damien Chazelle; starring John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.