Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher, Jr.
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
WARNING: This review contains spoilers for spoilers
10 Cloverfield Lane, the latest installment in the ever-revolving door of JJ Abrams mystery marketing, could have used some Jacob Tremblay. Of course, the pint-sized co-star from last year's Oscar-nominated Room, in which mother and son are held captive inside a shed by a sociopathic rapist, would probably beat everyone in a game of Monopoly; an activity, incidentally, that the three leads here frequently indulge in order to pass the time. The film could also have benefited from an extended dance sequence from John Goodman, who at one point threatens to unleash some killer moves after arranging his jukebox playlist, but instead only teases the audience with a few well-placed shakes and shimmies. Even mentioning that Goodman's screwy bomb shelter architect nearly dances, however, could be considered a spoiler for a movie that's practically built around our cultural obsession with spoilers. This is where we are in terms of Abrams' carefully calculated takeover of ad campaigns. He's the guy who teases us with cryptic clues, minimal trailers, and secretive world-building in order to package a product which rarely ever lives up to the hype. It also should be noted that 10 Cloverfield Lane bears only a passing resemblance to the original 2008 found-footage monster movie Cloverfield. It's used here more as brand awareness to get butts in the seats, although there are tangential allusions to the world of that first entry.
It seems silly to refrain from talking in-depth about a film simply because of spoiler-aversion, but this is the type of thing which purposefully obscures it's true nature, not just in terms of marketing, but also within the DNA of the script, written by Josh Campell, Matthew Stucken, and Whiplash director Damien Chazelle. Everything here is predicated on a puzzle box structure which slowly reveals itself; dropping small clues, reversals, and twists along the way en route to the third act's big reveal, all of which could be read as a positive for fans of feature-length Twilight Zone episodes. For the rest of us, however, the presented scenario; three characters stuck together inside an underground bunker while some kind of apocalyptic disaster, (whether nuclear, geological, or alien) rages on in the outside world above them, is never developed beyond the dictates of the contrived narrative. Instead of being a "taut psychological thriller", as many pull quotes will surely proclaim, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a modest chamber piece with solid performances, efficiently workmanlike direction, and a wham-bang sci-fi ending which will court both love and hate. At least it goes there. This isn't a movie afraid to look dopey.
The story centers around a young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who wakes up after a gnarly auto accident to find herself chained up inside a bunker. Howard (John Goodman), is the wacko conspiracy theorist who supposedly saved her life after the nebulous "attack" occurred above ground, and there's a third occupant, Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr.) a dim-witted slacker who believes Howard is a genius who rescued them all from certain destruction. The film's superb, nearly wordless opening; complete with a Bernard Herman-esque score from Bear McCreary, in which Michelle frantically gathers her things in order to run away from a doting fiance, suggests a setup in which subtext will be paramount, but these early moments are later revealed to be a tease. After the car crash, director Dan Trachtenberg (making his feature debut) layers on the camera tricks, pulsating sound design, and claustrophobic atmosphere in order to keep the audience off guard, but despite his best efforts, he cannot overcome the shortcomings of the screenplay. It does help that Winstead is adept at suggesting Michelle's fear, paranoia, and quick-witted intellect, and that Goodman is so deliciously unhinged as the possible monster in human form. Still, they are simply playing character 'types' here, and Gallagher, Jr. especially gets the raw end of bad writing; unable to make Emmett's guileless innocence and awe-shucks stupidity translate as anything more than a prop for the mechanics of the screenplay. This is all too bad, because, at it's heart, 10 Cloverfield Lane is at least attempting to focus on character interplay rather than CGI bombast. It's more Hitchcock than Independence Day. More Room than Battle: Los Angeles. It's also a bit of a cheat; clearly a B-movie operating under the illusion that the scariest thing in the world isn't creatures from another world, but those who design apocalypse shelters and force others to play intense rounds of "Bible Pictionary."
The film labors hard to keep us in the dark about Howard's true intentions. Is he simply cracked? A clever liar? A possible murder? A pedophile? The one eccentric guy in the whole world whose actually right? Maybe he's all of these things or none of them. It doesn't really matter, though, since the character is a construct used in order to fulfill Michelle's telegraphed 'arc' of standing up for herself and not running away from her problems. This is introduced early during that wordless opening, and then reintroduced during a clunky monologue opposite Gallagher, Jr, in which she inexplicably talks about her past in a way only a movie character would in order to, you know…advance the plot. All is nearly saved, though, by the final 20 minutes, in which Trachtenberg does a dead-on Abrams impersonation performing a Spielberg greatest hits demo reel. Surely, many will complain that the concluding events are jarring given the tightly contained thriller which has transpired, but this presupposes that Abrams and company weren't making a silly B-movie after all. In fact, the incredibly dopey but ultimately thrilling ending here is just another variation on what Abrams has been selling for awhile now, dressed up in spoiler-tastic language goosing audiences into pondering just what all the fuss is about. Ultimately, the notion that the most terrifying creatures are of the human variety is more laughable than lobbing a molotov cocktail into the gaping mouth of a worm-like alien parasite. Thank goodness, then, for the prospect of future ventures featuring Winstead going full Ripley and kicking extraterrestrial ass.