As disciples of J.J. Abrams know by now, he is a filmmaker who enjoys shrouding his films in mystery. Ideally, all filmmakers should, as the advent of social media and entertainment websites who cover every new development, right down to the design of Batman's new utility belt, are kind of ruining the magic of seeing everything unfold--even the smallest details--on the silver screen. This was what made 2008's Cloverfield, about a group of friends in New York experiencing their city being destroyed by a Godzilla-like monster, so startling. It wasn't just that the film was effectively crafted, draping what was essentially a ground-zero re-imagination of the sudden shock, horror, and immediate aftereffects of 9/11 with good, old fashioned monster movie mayhem, but the extremely subtle and vague ad campaign heightened the sense of mystique of what on earth Cloverfield was all about. The trailer featured people pooling in the streets hearing loud noises from afar before a large object is spotted hurtling from the sky and bouncing down their street, revealing itself to be the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty, set to an unseen someone screaming their own head off. This coupled with some clever internet viral marketing helped usher Cloverfield into both box office success and cinema history.
For years, Abrams, director Matt Reeves, and writer Drew Goddard fielded inquiries about when Cloverfield 2 would be made, and they all fell back on the typical response of being open to it, but only if they were confident they'd cracked a concept worth exploring. Six years later, that sequel/not-really-sequel revealed itself to the world as not only being in the planning stages, but already having been shot, assembled, and ready for its big premiere. What has arrived is an experience that's clever, thrilling, sadly realistic, but conflicting and at odds with its lineage, all at once.
If Cloverfield was an attempt to appropriate 9/11 in an effort to make audiences experience a version of it for themselves, then 10 Cloverfield Lane takes the logical next step in showing what that kind of experience does to the human psyche, while borrowing elements from Night of the Living Dead, Misery, and an eerie scene from Spielberg's adaptation of The War of the Worlds. Doomsdayers are real people. They, too, have underground bunkers stocked with non-perishable foods, drinking water, and a cache of firearms. While these people have always existed among us, their numbers saw an increase following 9/11, and another following the election of Barack Obama. Entire "reality" television series have been created to cast a light on both these people and their mindsets. And 10 Cloverfield Lane does a pretty fantastic job of looking at one of these doomsdayers.
John Goodman as Howard, said doomsdayer, has never before played a character like this, not to mention it's been a while since he's enjoyed such a prominent role. He plays simmering instability rather well, but is also, effortlessly, able to fall back on vulnerable, sympathetic, and even caring. Who starts off the film as "the villain" transitions into something less clear and defined, as in his heart he believes he's doing the right thing, and his performance reflects that. It's only when he becomes the more typical movie monster when the celebrated actor has a less firm grasp on the role and starts to fall back on what we've seen countless times before.
Uneasy alliances between characters have always been a fascinating dynamic to explore, in that people who start off as foes become friends, and even grow to depend on each other, and for the most part, 10 Cloverfield Lane really nails that dynamic down, but while also leaving just the tiniest shadow of a doubt so that the audience never fully relaxes into their seats. The bond Howard shares with his "roommates," Michelle and Emmett, exists either as a formality or as a genuine human connection. With Howard, it's hard to tell, but it's our need as human beings to emotionally insist on the latter.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who has struggled to find strong, action-oriented characters in genre films worth a damn, finds a believable heroine in Michelle, who transitions from someone fleeing a broken relationship with her boyfriend, Ben (played by an off-screen Bradley Cooper) to a full-blown heroine. Between this and a pivotal scene during which she shares one of her greatest regrets, it becomes clear that Michelle doesn't just want but needs to be a stronger person. Winstead easily enables this transition for her, as she deals with conflicts both at eye-level as well as above her--very, very above her.
John Gallagher Jr. as Emmett is on hand to provide some of the usual comedy relief on which the Cloverfield series apparently depends. Not quite as rapid-fire ridiculous as T.J. Miller in the first film, Emmett's presence is more equally balanced between poignancy and neutrality with the usual tension-lightening oddball comment. The use of this kind of character is better rendered this time out, offering more than just off-screen wryness, and it's through Gallagher's easy likability that this is possible.
10 Cloverfield Lane's only failing, but it's a significant one, is with its condensed final act, in which the exterior threat which has made the outside world so uninhabitable is finally revealed. Ironically, it's Abrams' insistence on utter secrecy that takes all the impact out of the reveal. For all of 10 Cloverfield Lane, the audience is waiting to see the monster (or its mini-monsters) from Cloverfield, being that the title confirms the former exists in the latter's universe. Even as we settle into the underground bunker story and allow ourselves to invest in this conflict, we can't shake already knowing what the larger conflict above them is, so when Michelle faces that conflict head-on, it doesn't come as a surprise but an inevitability. For someone as smart and insistent on surprise as J.J. Abrams, the best thing he could have done was call 10 Cloverfield Lane anything else--10 Howard Lane, 10 Paranoia Lane--to keep the invading threat a secret. Not only would this have added a new layer to Goodman's mysterious Howard, being that he repeatedly claimed the outside threat were "martians" (which was eagerly dismissed by his fellow occupants), but Abrams still could have tied this new film to the previous, kept his mailbox reveal, and packed an ever bigger surprise wallop to his faithful audience who weren't necessarily expecting "martians."
10 Cloverfield Lane's biggest issue is its title. With the word "Cloverfield" comes a certain expectation, and by proxy, takes away the impact of the big reveal. But everything leading up to that is expertly executed, especially when taking into consideration that this was director Dan Trachtenberg's directorial debut. Cleverly, and admittedly very ballsy, the filmmakers have placed a very intimate and very different kind of universe it into a very broad and very specifically genred universe. Unfortunately, it's this outside-the-box thinking that somewhat handicaps the film, causing it to end in a way that feels foreign and somewhat inappropriate. Having said that, 10 Cloverfield Lane still gets an easy recommendation.