J.J. Abrams stands by his “mystery box” approach, for better or worse. Better is the masterful marketing campaign for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which fueled audience anticipation that paid off with one of the best (if not the best) films of the franchise. Worse was having the cast claim “He’s not Khan!” again and again when Benedict Cumberbatch was totally Khan in the fan-infuriating “Star Trek Into Darkness.” With that in mind, I approached Bad Robot’s surprise follow-up to the 2008 monster hit “Cloverfield” with cautious optimism. However, I’m happy to report “10 Cloverfield Lane” is a fearless and fun genre-bender packed with scares, laughs and surprises.
It isn’t a sequel — even “spinoff” feels a bit wrong. Abrams, who produced the film, is calling “10 Cloverfield Lane” a “blood relative.” Basically, this thriller contains no “Cloverfield” characters, and only flirts with its established plot and iconography. Essentially it’s a “meanwhile” tale that can live by its own rules while keeping that “Cloverfield” name. Cynics may say it’s an opportunistic attempt to cash in on established cachet. However, when “blood relative” films deliver this level of sharp storytelling, who cares about their crass commercial motives?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as Michelle, a young woman who awakens following a car accident to find herself trapped in an underground doomsday bunker with Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a country bumpkin, and Howard (John Goodman), an intimidating conspiracy theorist who believe the world is coming to a gruesome end above their heads. The script, penned by Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken and a polish by “Whiplash” writer Damien Chazelle, masterfully builds tension in these closed confines by calling into question Howard’s motives and theories. Is the outside world as dangerous as he claims? And even if it is, is it more dangerous than being trapped with a man who carries a gun, demands abject obedience and has been known to chain his guests to walls?
Director Dan Trachtenberg, who drew notice with his “Portal”-inspired short film “No Escape,” handles the psychological-thriller aspect of “10 Cloverfield Lane” with confidence, cranking up the intensity with each curious clue and unanswered question. Then, he punctuates the stifling suspense with moments of brilliant humor; there’s something inherently absurd about playing the game of “Life” while the world above you falls to shambles. “10 Cloverfield Lane” leans into this lunacy, and Trachtenberg’s cast knows how to make the most of every moment.
Winstead is terrific as the resourceful and suspicious Michelle. Through darting eyes and a cool expression, she keenly clues audiences into her character’s unspoken plans. Better yet, she throws herself whole-bodied and convincingly into the demanding stunt work that has her crawling through air ducts, dodging deadly obstacles and outwitting monsters of all sorts. Goodman, long beloved for his humorously blustering bravado in films like “The Big Lebowski” and “Argo,” is downright terrifying here. By pulling back his natural charm so forcefully, he becomes a frightening stranger before our eyes. And Gallagher brings an earnest goofball energy that playfully ping pongs between the two leads, creating a chemistry that sizzles, threatening to explode into a gory horror climax.
For much of the film, “10 Cloverfield Lane” is so confined and character-driven it feels like a stage play smartly adapted to screen. Then comes the big finale teased in the trailer. Here is the only place I regretted its “Cloverfield” tie-in, because throughout the movie you know Howard isn’t entirely wrong; there is something to fear up there. It’s impossible not to know this from the title, but nonetheless it’s a joyfully jarring thing for Michelle to leap out of Howard’s frying pan and into “Cloverfield’s” fire. In those final 10 minutes, “10 Cloverfield Lane” shifts to full-on sci-fi action, complete with the exhilarating spectacle we’ve come to demand from Bad Robot.
Genre purists may gnash their teeth over how “10 Cloverfield Lane” blends physiological thriller, dark comedy, horror and science fiction, but this spirited mixing creates an unique cinematic experience that keeps audience on their toes, refusing to allow them to settle into the comfort of genre expectation.
With a fantastic cast, Trachtenberg gleefully bucks tropes and delivers a thrill ride that refuses to be easily classified. But allow me to try: “10 Cloverfield Lane” is daringly original, deliciously scary and one hell of a good time.
“10 Cloverfield Lane” opens Friday nationwide.