Back in 2007, a trailer for the film Cloverfield was attached to the Transformers film. It contained little plot information and, more intriguingly, had no title, sparking widespread speculation online that helped the film become a box office success. Fast forward to January 2016 when out of nowhere, a trailer drops for 10 Cloverfield Lane, a surprise sequel arriving in theatres in just eight short weeks. 10 Cloverfield Lane was going to be a surprise either way, the fact that’s a pleasant one makes the shock all the more welcome.
To call 10 Cloverfield Lane a sequel to 2008’s found footage monster movie would be misleading, and anyone coming in expecting that will be, if not disappointed, at least confused. The plot is refreshingly lean here. After a car accident drives Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), she wakes up to find herself held captive in an underground bomb shelter with Howard (John Goodman, The Big Lebowski) and Emmitt (John Gallagher Jr., Short Term 12). According to Howard, there’s been an attack that’s poisoned the air and they’re going to be stuck underground for at least a year. But as Michelle and Emmitt begin to suspect that Howard isn’t exactly who he says he is, they realize that their shelter isn’t a safe haven, it’s a time bomb.
As with the previous Cloverfield film, the less you know about it going in, the better. But that’s really where the comparisons end. The 2008 film was an impressively ambitious film with a fascinating monster, but it had some serious story issues and the characters had little depth to speak of, reducing the action down to a rambling chase through New York City. While the scope of 10 Cloverfield Lane is much narrower, the film doesn’t feel diminished, but rather honed to a razor edge. The overwhelming flash and mania of the original might be gone, but its traded up for a dramatic sense of tension that runs straight through the film.
The film was adapted from a 2012 spec script by John Campbell and Matt Stuecken titled The Cellar. Damien Chazelle, the Oscar nominated writer of Whiplash was brought into tighten things up and the result is a taut, nail biter with enough twists and turns to keep you off balanced until the very end. First time director Dan Trachtenberg, who garnered some attention with his excellent fan film, Portal: No Escape, has created an impressively calibrated film, constructing a narrative explosive and then patiently waits for it to explode.
Unlike the first film’s dimwitted protagonists, Michelle is a smart and fierce survivor. Her skepticism and mistrust is matched by Emmitt’s tragically simple and good-natured perspective, and the friendship they form feels genuine. Goodman might not be a 300-foot monster, but he is every bit as terrifying as he tries to juggle his roles as father and prison warden. This isn’t a film where you shout for characters to run the other way. Michelle and Emmitt are stuck between the devil they know and they devil they don’t, which makes for a much more complicated struggle. What do you do when the man you’re most afraid of might be saving your life?
10 Cloverfield Lane eschews the found footage format of the original in favor of traditional filmmaking, leaving room for some solid cinematography by Jeff Cutter (A Nightmare on Elm Street) that gives life to Ramsey Avery’s excellent production design. Howard’s bunker mirrors the man himself- half prison chamber, half happy home. The editing by Stefan Grube deftly balances icy calm with frantic movement and Bear McCreary’s score ties the film into one tense, satisfying package.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
2008’s Cloverfield never quite lived up to its brilliant marketing campaign. 10 Cloverfield Lane surpasses it. Producer J.J. Abrams clearly has some big ideas for the Cloverfield universe, and this film fits right into it, and takes it to some interesting directions. Even without the Cloverfield name attached, Dan Trachtenberg has crafted a thrilling film. The performances are great and technical credits are solid all around. 10 Cloverfield Lane lives up to its name and will have audiences talking about the film long after they’ve left the theatre.