10 Cloverfield Lane is a movie that no one saw coming. It’s been 8 years since Cloverfield was released, and while there might have been some clamoring for a sequel at the time it mostly died out a long time ago. Producer J.J. Abrams moved on to other things, including Super 8, the Star Trek reboot, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And while I mostly enjoyed Cloverfield, I liked it more for its boldness the scope it brought to the found footage genre (and it’s shocking trailer) than for the film itself, so the idea of another film in the series never held much interest to me. But despite all of that, here we are with 10 Cloverfield Lane, not exactly a sequel but a “blood relative” to the original monster movie, surprisingly announced only two months ago and which could not be more different both from its predecessor and the bulk of other offerings from Hollywood today. It’s a tight, intense little film that constantly keeps you guessing, both frightening and empowering, anchored by some fantastic performances, bringing a surprising amount of emotion to what is otherwise a thriller. It’s a memorable spinoff to a largely forgettable film which it manages to surpass in every way, and which may have already delivered one of 2016’s best cinematic experiences.
Michelle dumps her fiancé and drives away from town, ignoring his pleading phone calls. After stopping for gas at night, she drives down a deserted road in the dark and gets into a horrible accident. She wakes up some time later with her wounds bandaged, an IV in her arm, and a brace on her knee, but instead of a hospital she finds herself lying on a mattress in a bare room chained to the wall. It sounds like the start to a slasher movie, and all sorts of horrible thoughts run through her head, but the truth is far from what she expected. Instead of a monster her captor is an average Joe older man named Howard, who claims to have rescued her from the wreck and saved her life. She asks to go to a hospital and let her family know she’s ok, but Howard tells her that’s impossible, because there’s been an attack of some sort and they have to stay in his doomsday bunker for a few years until the air is safe to breathe again.
That’s a lot to take in, and Michelle doesn’t believe a word of it, but the gun Howard wears on her hip makes her keep her feelings to herself. His story is backed up by their other houseguest, Emmett, who saw some sort of horrifyingly bright light and fled to the bunker, forcing his way inside against Howard’s wishes. Michelle is still doubtful, but she eventually sees something that convinces her that there must be some truth to Howard’s story. And so this unlikely trio sets about living together underground in the small, old-fashioned shelter, complete with kitchen, bathroom, generator, and air filtration unit, all thankful to still be alive. But as the days progress and they spend their time playing board games, watching movies, or maintaining the habitat, questions start to rise. What kind of attack was it, and who perpetrated it? Was it chemical, biological, nuclear, or something else entirely? Were they Russian, North Korean, or maybe even some entity we’ve never seen before? Why did Howard build the shelter in the first place? Why does he have so many strange rules about their behavior? Can they really believe what he tells them about the attack? Can they really believe what he tells them about his own personal story? Is there any way to escape from the bunker, and is there anything left to escape to?
Answering any of these questions would give away key moments from the film, but I will tell you that nothing is what it appears, even the things that are what they appear. Rarely has a movie surprised me as much as 10 Cloverfield Lane. I’m not talking about big, Sixth Sense-type twists, but the film is filled with constant misdirection and unexpected moments. The zigs and zags of the story are heightened by the tense atmosphere that saturates the film. Director Dan Trachtenberg has crafted an edge-of-your-seat thriller that derives much of its intensity from messing with your expectations. An emergency repair of a vital system in the shelter which seems destined for disaster becomes revelatory instead, while something as simple as a friendly game feels combative and accusatory. It’s all about the context and delivery of each specific moment, and the writing, directing, acting, and production all combine to keep the audience wondering what will happen next. Everything from the set decoration, which gives the bunker just enough of a 1950s vibe to feel creepy, to the sound design, where a cheerful song from the jukebox is played just a hair too loud for comfort so as to feel uneasy, is designed to keep you off balance, as if behind any shelf or around any corner might lurk a hidden menace.
This feeling of uneasiness is magnified by just how little is known about the film. The decision to announce a “sequel” to an eight year old film just two months before release, with a trailer that explained nothing at all, seemed like an odd choice, but it actually goes a long way towards building anxiety within the movie itself. We never really know what sort of a movie we’re watching. On the surface, 10 Cloverfield Lane feels like a psychological thriller, with a bit of a serial killer vibe mixed with a potential post-apocalyptic flavor. We never know if the enemy is outside the bunker, inside the bunker, or both, whether this is a survive the end of the world movie or an escape from a psychopath movie. And the Cloverfield connection, which has no bearing on the film when taken at face value, adds another layer to the experience of watching the movie for the first time. Knowing that Cloverfield was a monster movie, and that it has some connection to 10 Cloverfield Lane, leaves a metaphorical monster-shaped shadow over every scene. There’s always that nagging suspicion that some kind of monster could burst from the darkness at any moment, even if the film itself never gives any indication that that might happen. Perhaps the most clever part of the movie is that while 10 Cloverfield Lane does not need to be connected to its “blood relative”, the very act of connecting the two through title and the media greatly changes what it’s like to see the film.
But make no mistake, 10 Cloverfield Lane can, and perhaps should, stand completely on its own, and its ability to surprise and to scare does not rely in any way on its ties to Cloverfield. This is a film about three people trapped in a bunker, and it has as little in common with a found footage-style movie about a giant monster attacking New York as possible, and its driven entirely by its characters and the actors behind them. John Goodman absolutely steals the show as Howard. He makes Howard creepy yet believable, so that when he tells you something about himself or their situation you don’t know whether to believe him or not. He’s menacing but also somewhat pitiable, and you’re never quite sure if he’s just slightly unhinged or seriously dangerous, confused and misled or a deceiver, a crazy savior or a psycho kidnapper playing games with his victims. John Gallagher, Jr.’s brings humor and pathos to Emmett, a man with surprising regrets in life whose belief in Howard starts to erode as time passes. And then there’s Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whose shoulders carry the weight of the film, and who turns in her most impressive performance to date. Michelle easily could have been a simple victim character, a sort of standard slasher-movie bait, despite how rounded the character is written, but Winstead gives her plenty of layers beyond the page. Her Michelle is certainly a victim, but she isn’t defined by that, and her movements, actions, and decisions, have the feeling of a chess player engaged in a match against Howard rather than someone simply looking for a way out. There’s an element of empowerment to her story, even as it plays on a fear of abduction that is uniquely and understandably female, and as time passes in the film she not only learns to survive her situation but starts to grow in spite of it. Where others might shut down and simply avoid making waves, she’s not satisfied with accepting the hand she’s dealt, and her reasons for fighting back have surprisingly deep roots.
I love being surprised when I go to the movies, although it doesn’t happen as often as I might wish. 10 Cloverfield Drive is one of the biggest surprises I’ve had at the cinema in a long time. There’s no reason that a seemingly random spinoff of a mediocre, if interesting, monster movie from 8 years ago should be this good. Elevated by three excellent performances, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a suspenseful, intense, unexpected thriller, which profits from its connection to Cloverfield while seemingly disregarding it completely. It always keeps you guessing right until the very end, it’s frightening without resorting to cheap scares, and it has emotion at its core thanks to an engaging protagonist. It’s a movie that one should go into unspoiled (though I have many spoiler-filled thoughts about the movie that may appear in another article) in order to fully enjoy the ride. In an era where bigger is seemingly always better, and the box office is dominated by super heroes bashing away at each other, it’s refreshing to see a movie so small that packs a punch to rival the blockbusters. It’s the triumph of storytelling over spectacle, of character over costumes, and of mystery over the mundane. It represents the potential of science fiction as a genre, without playing to what audiences expect from sci-fi. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a film that calls not to simply be watched but to be experienced, in the dark on the big screen if at all possible.