Film Review: ‘10 Cloverfield Lane’

John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead star in this sensationally effective semi-sequel to 2008's found-footage hit.

Watching “Cloverfield,” the 2008 found-footage disaster movie about an alien invader on the streets of New York, it was hard to root for human characters who generally seemed bent on taking the stupidest course of action possible, and recording their stupidity for future generations to witness. But boy, do you root for Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the far-from-stupid young woman trapped in an underground bunker in “10 Cloverfield Lane,” a sensationally effective semi-sequel that bears virtually no narrative or stylistic resemblance to its predecessor: The camera holds steady this time, locked in close quarters with a monster who turns out to be all-too-pitiably human (played by a marvelously unnerving John Goodman). Which is not say there are no extraterrestrial terrors lurking in this taut, three-character chamber piece — think “Room” by way of “War of the Worlds” — only that the tension is rooted in psychology rather than gimmickry, and evinces a command of craft that feels old-fashioned in the most refreshing possible sense.

Marking a rock-solid feature debut for director Dan Trachtenberg and screenwriters Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken (both credited for the story along with “Whiplash” writer-director Damien Chazelle), “10 Cloverfield Lane” is the rare follow-up that wasn’t even conceived with the first movie in mind. Developed for Paramount’s now-defunct Insurge Pictures genre label under the working titles “The Cellar” and “Valencia,” the film initially told a self-contained story before it was ingeniously reverse-engineered into an offshoot of the “Cloverfield” universe, all done under the sort of secrecy we’ve come to expect from the imprimatur of J.J. Abrams. (He’s credited here as a producer, while three collaborators from the first “Cloverfield” — director Matt Reeves, writer Drew Goddard and producer Bryan Burk — are listed as executive producers.)

It’s a terribly clever marketing move that will likely maximize the commercial intake of a picture that cost less than $10 million to make (and whose conveniently number-forward title will ensure excellent placement in VOD queues). Still, the studio may court some blowback from die-hard fans of the original film (which grossed $170 million worldwide on a $25 million budget), who may well reject Trachtenberg’s movie as a cynical cash grab, or take issue with the fact that it was shot on a tripod. It’d be easy enough to concur, if not for the simple fact that “10 Cloverfield Lane” is vastly smarter and more satisfying than its predecessor; every cynical cash grab should turn out this good.

In an opening sequence that eerily echoes Marion Crane’s flight from justice in “Psycho,” an emotionally distraught Louisiana woman named Michelle (Winstead) packs her bags and drives out into the night. Along the way, she’s hectored by an angry boyfriend on the phone, and also by Bear McCreary’s frenzied score, which rises to a pitch of shrieking intensity shortly before her car skids off the road and flips over. When Michelle regains consciousness, she finds herself in a bunker several feet below ground, where she is fed and tended to by her grizzled, heavy-set man named Howard (Goodman). He urges her not to fight him or try to escape from the bunker, which represents her only hope of survival.

Shortly after the car accident, Howard says, some sort of mass chemical attack took place, killing everyone and rendering the air unbreathable — though not before he managed to rescue Michelle and bring her back to the bunker, along with his genial young neighbor, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). Sealed off from the outside world thanks to an airtight door and no cell-phone reception, these three individuals — possibly the last vestiges of humanity — begin the long, uneasy task of sweating out the apocalypse. Certainly there are worse places in which to do it: The well-furnished bunker (outfitted with just the right ratio of cozy to musty by production designer Ramsey Avery) has electricity and running water; the shelves are lined with books, games and movies; and there’s enough food in the pantry to last them until the air clears.

But comforts and utilities only go so far, as Trachtenberg and his cinematographer Jeff Cutter — whose camera navigates the space with effortless ease, even when it has to squeeze inside an air shaft or down a garbage chute — treat their solitary location as both a physical refuge and a psychological trap. The lengthy midsection of “10 Cloverfield Lane” is a work of expertly modulated unease that alternates between claustrophobic suspense and doomsday panic; it’s the rare thriller in which the horror of what might be out there seems less threatening than the possibility that there may be no horror at all. For although there is persuasive, even irrefutable evidence that a cataclysmic attack has indeed taken place, the movie never allows us to forget the possibility that Howard might be a paranoid, delusional psychopath — someone who just happened to have a fully stocked shelter ready to go in case the world decided to end.

That sense of menace stems less from the occasional contortions of the script than from Goodman’s terrifying, richly fleshed-out performance. A brilliant character actor who has been on a hot streak of late — he was a memorable gargoyle in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and brought his boisterous comic gusto to bear on “Argo,” “The Gambler” and “Trumbo” — Goodman makes Howard a memorably complicated villain. Michelle and Emmett are indebted to the man for his resourcefulness and foresight, and there are moments when Howard drops his guard to reveal a glimpse of a more reasonable, even likable person beneath the clenched, controlling surface.

But those moments don’t last, and even Howard’s hospitality feels conditional, tinged with spite, entitlement and barely suppressed rage. The more Michelle comes to grasp the nature of his particular pathology, the more she comprehends her need to escape, even if it means confronting whatever might be waiting on the other side of the door. Winstead, a seasoned scream queen and one of the most undervalued leading ladies around, emphasizes the character’s quicksilver intelligence and refusal to give up no matter how bad things get (which is often very, very bad), and she gives the second half of “10 Cloverfield Lane” its thrilling momentum as Michelle takes matters into her own hands.

Gallagher, so good opposite Brie Larson in “Short Term 12,” at once varies and complicates the dynamic between the two leads, even if Emmett’s role is necessarily the least developed of the three. Still, the psychological grounding that Trachtenberg achieves here provide more-than-sufficient ballast for the harrowing final moments, which send the movie in an appreciably wilder, more unhinged direction; rarely has “out of the frying pan and into the fire” felt more apt as a description. It would be unfair to say more, or to note exactly how “10 Cloverfield Lane” connects with “Cloverfield” — a question that matters more from a branding perspective, anyway, than a dramatic one. By the end of this tense and unexpectedly human-scaled movie, all that high-concept disaster porn feels like even more of a distant memory.

Film Review: ‘10 Cloverfield Lane’

Reviewed at Paramount Studios, Los Angeles, March 4, 2016. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 103 MIN.

Production

A Paramount release and presentation of a Bad Robot production. Produced by J.J. Abrams, Lindsey Weber. Executive producers, Bryan Burk, Drew Goddard, Matt Reeves.

Crew

Directed by Dan Trachtenberg. Screenplay, Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken; story, Campbell, Stuecken, Damien Chazelle. Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Jeff Cutter; editor, Stefan Grube; music, Bear McCreary; production designer, Ramsey Avery; set designers, Trinh Vu, Dave Kelsey; costume designer, Meagan McLaughlin; sound (Dolby Digital/Datasat), Michael B. Koff; supervising sound editor, Robert Stambler; re-recording mixers, LA, Will Files; special effects supervisor, Matthew James Kutcher; special effects coordinator, Eric Roberts; visual effects supervisor, Luke McDonald; visual effects producer, Michael W. Silver; visual effects, Kelvin Optical; stunt coordinator, Lex Geddings; assistant director, Jason Blumenfeld; second unit director, Paul B. Uddo.

With

John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.

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  1. Barry Sharf says:

    I don’t like this movie. I’ve wasted my time and money by watching this movie.

  2. Enix says:

    The movie wasn’t written to be a semi-sequel or related to cloverfield in any way.
    The movie was originally to be called The Cellar but the studios in charge decided to use the cloverfield name during promotion.

  3. Bliz says:

    Everything about this movie was awful….bad direction, terrible acting especially lead actress, filled with cliches, boring story, ugly production, and stupid twist…one of the most useless unnecessary sequels ever made–worse than trolls 2

  4. Trevor says:

    This review spoils the movie in the first paragraph. ‘Room’ mixed with ‘war of the worlds’, I mean come on. And for you to point out that Goodman IS the bad guy. The most entertaining part of this movie was trying to figure out was he good, bad or crazy

    • Bliz says:

      U seriously were that dumb and bored that you had to play game with your self trying to figure out goodman was obviously a bad guy? Lamer than the movie are viewers like you

    • Hans says:

      Who reads movie reviews until after they’ve seen the movie? I never have. I want analysis.

  5. thonguyen86 says:

    Interesting movie , i like it

  6. Very good trailer 10 Cloverfield Lane

  7. Blanketyblank says:

    You gave away too much in the first paragraph. Then you slam the enormously entertaining and well done Room. Just a bad review.

  8. Ben Durden says:

    I left that movie feeling embarrassed I had paid for it. What a total waste of time and money

  9. Collin says:

    One of the best and most perfectly executed yet simple scenes is when they are playing trivial pursuit and John Goodman’s word is Santa, and he goes on about “I know what you’re up to… I see what you are doing… I’m watching you!” AAAHHH! That was the tensest I have felt in a long time.

  10. Dan says:

    I have a real problem with the plot gaps in this movie. The earring, the girls’ pictures, shooting Emmett, too twisting without explanation.

    • Richie says:

      **Spoilers here–only read after watching the movie** My take on the movie is this.

      John Goodman was a psychopath who used to keep a girl locked in his bomb shelter. She tried to get away and he killed her. Now Aliens have attacked and guess what, he may be crazy but he has a bomb shelter…

      Michelle is going to be the replacement girl who happens to remind him of his daughter. Because of the alien attack he doesn’t have time to be neat about it, he just runs her off the road and abducts her.

      So for me, all those ‘plot gaps’ are consistent with John Goodman’s character being a psychopath who used to have a girl locked in his bomb shelter.

      Half the fun while watching the movie was trying to figure out whether Goodman was Crazy or if Aliens have really attacked… Turns out the answer’s ‘yes’

  11. Vincent J. Patti says:

    I’m a bit surprised at Mr. Chang’s idea that “Cloverfield” fans (like myself) would take umbrage with “10 Cloverfield Lane” for being a tribute to Cloverfield and making money off of this. If that were the case, I do not believe that “10” would be able to boast half of it’s artistry and craftsmanship from writing to post-production. That it was filmed “on a tripod” – I say, who cares! There is fresh imagination, suspense and thrills in both films (and these are films more than movies) much deserving of our praise and desire to see again or perhaps several times. Yes, Mr. Goodman impresses. He frightened the bejesus out of me.

  12. realmsman says:

    What an over-indulgent, unnecessarily vocabulary-injected, pretentious piece of drivel. Find a movie critic who doesn’t sound like he’s trying to impress his Journalism professor.

    • Luke Niemiec says:

      Also, someone or something who uses too many big words is referred to as a “sesquipedalian”. Hope that helps ;)

    • Luke Niemiec says:

      Dude, if you found any of the words in that article too complicated, then maybe a trip back to high school would help. There’s nothing here that would be beyond the comprehension of an average 16 year-old and it conveyed the opinion of the critic very well.

  13. H.M.L. says:

    Very good trailer. And it doesn’t have the usual spoilers, that have made me avoid trailers for a long time.

  14. Jake Spencer says:

    Alien Invader? It’s a giant monster

  15. CloverFan86 says:

    Daniel Casey was the uncredited writer. Stuecken & Campbell don’t deserve the kudos.

  16. raven says:

    well I know about the scenery and how the cast was in other movies but this review told me ZERO about this movie.

    • Rex says:

      Seriously? Are you high? And of course, I’m sure if it revealed even a smidgen too much, you’d be the first one on here tearing Variety a new one for popping your little bubble. This review tells you EVERYTHING you should want to know without actually spoiling anything. What the hell do you want? The script typed verbatim out for you?

  17. brian Zebra says:

    If it doesn’t have a giant monster rampaging through the streets, destroying beloved landmarks and killing tens of thousands, then I am really not interested.

    • 10 Cloverfield Lane looked better in the trailers. Just saw it today & it was a disappointment. Good acting, but the movie is a bore. Doesn’t deserve to be connected with the fun monster epic Cloverfield.

    • AbraCadabra says:

      Nah, I agree with Zebra here. The only reason I watched the first one was because I wanted a monster movie. I got it, I guess, but the ratio of monster vs movie wasn’t good enough for my tastes.
      If this one doesn’t involve monsters – the skyscraper tall, destructive kind – then I’m not interested and mildly irritated that they used the name for a monster movie as though it were a sequel but won’t involve monsters. They’re under no obligation, I realize, but still seems like a slightly underhanded marketing ploy.

    • Jim Beck says:

      Don’t worry — a new Transformers movie is coming out soon to satisfy the mindless Trump supporters.

  18. All I know, is if when she opens the door we don’t see Sully from Monsters inc standing there I’ll be disappointed.

  19. lucky day says:

    Oh boy, exactly what I wanted to hear.
    & thanks for not giving much away in the review

  20. jdog says:

    Can’t wait! Looks fantastic!

  21. Brock says:

    I would pay to see the always excellent John Goodman recite the alphabet. Can’t wait ’til Thursday! I smell a big hit! Bravo, Paramount!

  22. Will says:

    The original Cloverfield came out in January 2008

  23. Movie lover says:

    Cloverfield was a tense, exciting film. I´m looking forward to this new film that connects to that universe in an obviously intriguing way. Kudos to the filmmakers who keep the mystery alive in a time when trailers usually tell everything.

  24. Wendy Caufield says:

    I do not agree with Jen.

  25. jen says:

    Cloverfield was an painful joke to watch. Why in the world do we want to see a second 10 Cloverfield movie? We don’t.

    • Ken says:

      Actually, we do.

    • Jim Beck says:

      I’m not a big fan of Cloverfield, but it did try something different… and didn’t have an ending that was wrapped in a pretty bow. Pretty much, the world is doomed. lol But this movie seems to be completely different, so anything that people didn’t like about Cloverfield could very well be gone from this movie. Plus, Goodman and Winstead? I’m in!

    • raven says:

      agree 100%. the best part of Cloverfield was the hype machine behind it. the movie was an empty bag of stink.

    • Blah says:

      Look guys! A different person! Let’s ignore this person

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