For starters, don’t go see 10 Cloverfield Lane thinking that you know what it’s about — you don’t. The only tenuous connections between this film and Cloverfield, the 2008 found-footage kaiju flick produced by J.J. Abrams, amount to a distant shot of something falling from the sky and a street address. From a plotting perspective, the connections end there.
Instead, Abrams, back as a producer, describes this new movie as a “blood relative” of the first film, and even that fact was held secret until just a few months ago. Directed by Dan Trachtenberg and adapted from a script by Matthew Stuecken and Josh Campbell originally entitled The Cellar (with Damien Chazelle doing some rewrites), 10 Cloverfield Lane succeeds in establishing interesting characters and situations early on and then turning them upside down by the film’s end. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle, an aspiring fashion designer who runs out on her new husband after their first fight. After an auto accident, she awakens in a bunker with her broken leg chained to the wall and an I.V. stuck in her arm. Her captor? A mysterious man named Howard, played by John Goodman.
The film starts throwing curveballs almost immediately, as Michelle quickly demonstrates a strength and situational awareness far from the initially fickle and impulsive character the audience is originally introduced to. Meanwhile, the movie keeps you guessing as to whether Howard is an forward-thinking survivalist abandoned by his family, a paranoid conspiracy theorist with homicidal tendencies … or both. Regardless, let it be known that no actor gives “crazy eyes” better than Goodman.
There’s a third primary character, Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr.), who mostly just serves as a foil to Howard’s plans. Gallagher fails to make us care about the character’s backstory of a failed high school track star, but it’s not much of an issue as the real focus of the story is the dyad of Michelle and Howard, especially once the stories about his family and the circumstances surrounding in their shared imprisonment begin to unravel.
The use of ambient sounds from the outside world keep both bunker inhabitants and moviegoers guessing about what is really going on in the outside world. It would have been easy for the filmmakers to rely on familiar tropes in 10 Cloverfield Lane, but instead they artfully throw convention in the face of any viewer who thinks they know what’s coming next. At one point, during a climactic scene, Michelle yells out an exasperated “c’mon!” With plot twists and off-beat pacing filling the film’s all too short run time, the audience knows how she feels.