10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) / Thriller-Mystery

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic material including frightening sequences of threat with some violence, and brief language
Running Time: 105 min.

Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr.
Small role: Bradley Cooper
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Screenplay: Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, Damien Chazelle
Review published March 12, 2016

In an era full of sequels that few were clamoring for, 10 Cloverfield Lane ends up being one of the rare good ones. Part of the reason why is that it feels like an entirely different film this time around, more akin to a companion piece than an outright sequel, playing in the same universe but without many points of convergence with the 2008 entry.  Even the genre is completely different, with Cloverfield coming across as a horror/sci-fi found footage disaster flick, while 10 Cloverfield Lane plays most of its run time as a straightforward suspense/terror film. 

In truth, the original script by Josh Campbell (4 Minute Mile) and Matthew Stuecken was never intended as a Cloverfield film, existing in its original form as a suspense horror flick called, The Cellar, before it was retooled by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, Grand Piano) and a think tank of Abrams and his cronies into what it is today, stumbling into the connection well into the pre-production process.  From then on, the notion had been to tie in this film to the universe that has been created in 2008, carrying along fans of the original and gaining new ones who would reach back to see it in a new and more interesting light.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead (A Good Day to Die Hard, The Spectacular Now) stars as Michelle, who is leaving her fiancé, Ben (voiced by Bradley Cooper, Joy), after an apparent deal-breaking disagreement that he must feel sorry for, given that he is persistently calling as she's on the rural Louisiana road heading out of town.  That's the last thing she remembers, as Michelle end up in a car accident that sees her roll off the road and take a nasty tumble.  When Michelle awakens, she finds herself in a strange bed with an IV in her, chained to the wall and enclosed in a nearly empty room with a dense-looking metal door that's locked tight. She's soon visited by an armed man named Howard who claims to have saved her life, claiming that they're the only ones left alive in their fallout shelter, and that everyone outside is likely dead or dying due to an apocalyptic event that has poisoned the air.  There's enough in the mini-bunker to keep them fed and secure for years, but is Howard, an avowed conspiracy nut, a benign Samaritan, or is he her captor, trying to keep her from escaping his lair for reasons too horrific to contemplate?

It's a promising debut for first-time feature director Dan Trachtenberg, a guy who used to do podcasts that included, among other things, film reviews.  Trachtenberg keeps the tone eerie, but playful in tinkering with genre conventions in the way that Cloverfield co-creator Drew Goddard's films often do, while the mystery regarding just what's going on as genuinely full of suspense, complete with some unexpected twists, punchy reveals and all-important red herrings.  Playing a bit like an M. Night Shyamalan film back when he could still make suspenseful films, he builds tension through some great camerawork and enveloping music that would make Hitchcock proud, Trachtenberg paves over some of the more glaring conveniences and contrivances that must occur for the story to keep on its trajectory as a thriller, only coming unraveled once you start to put together the pieces and discover the gross manipulations within the plotline. 

J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot Productions is the company responsible for the Cloverfield films, and I suppose it's no coincidence that Abrams also had a big hand in the genre-busting hit television show "LOST", as the left-field episode that re-writes all that has come before was one of the great joys of that ABC show, and that same technique seems to be serving the Cloverfield series quite well.  It's not the first film to subvert genres in its franchise, as Prometheus took another horror/sci-fi franchise into a different direction' interesting that Prometheus had also been written by a creator of "LOST", Damon Lindelof.    

10 Cloverfield Lane is essentially a three-hander chamber piece of sorts (the trailer reveals a third person in the film, but I'll leave that a mystery for those who haven't yet seen the film), but one done in a claustrophobic environment where few secrets can stay hidden for very long.  The acting by the three main players is good treading the line well between dark humor and more straightforward menace in delightfully eerie ways.  If there's anything that deflates the suspense of the film, it's that the title suggests a tie-in with Cloverfield, which means that, if it is truly a sequel, we already know what sorts of events are really taking place outside the shelter, as well as what sorts of dangers will await should any of the shelter inhabitants emerge to the outside world. 

Hampered somewhat by the knowledge of its PG-13 rating, and with the film's title somewhat acting as a double-edged sword as both enticement and spoiler-y expectation, the initially nail-biting story becomes increasingly anticlimactic as it overreaches in its final act, but, in its defense, 10 Cloverfield Lane is more a film that is enjoyable for its journey rather than its destination.  Despite some bumpy roads in its ham-fistedly obvious attempts at some humor and the bending of plot to serve up theatrics to audiences looking for some choice thriller, it's quite a worthwhile escapist adventure to undertake.

Qwipster's rating:

©2016 Vince Leo