“10 Cloverfield Lane” Movie Review


     There’s no doubt the timing in releasing “10 Cloverfield Lane” has a lot to do with the studio’s ability to affix J.J. Abrams’ producer credit all over promotional materials at a time when his name happens to conjure up images of filmdom’s most popular and successful franchise.  After launching one of the first found footage films with 2008’s “Cloverfield”, Abrams again returns to the producer’s chair for the sequel, which seems to fall into more of an “anthology film” category rather than functioning as a direct follow up.  Making his feature directorial debut, Dan Trachtenberg, who immediately inserts signature Abrams lens flare just two minutes into the first scene, has successfully crafted a nifty low budget thriller which has just enough originality to keep perspective audiences satisfied throughout several notable twists and turns.  The writers this time around, which include “Whiplash” scribe Damien Chazelle as well as newcomers Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken, abandon the found footage format of the first film in favor of an old fashioned pot boiler.  A move that proves to be wise given the amount of found footage films released since “Cloverfield” introduced the genre in 2008.

     Exploring human emotion and decision making amongst characters inserted into confined spaces is always an interesting way to put a plot in motion.  In this case, an opening scene shows Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young woman who has just broken up with her boyfriend, driving toward Lake Charles, Louisiana, but her destination is unknown.  When she is abruptly sideswiped by a passing vehicle, Michelle loses control of her car and is knocked unconscious when the vehicle crashes through a guard rail and flips over an embankment.  When she awakens, Michelle finds herself lying on an old mattress and handcuffed to the wall of a plain looking room with cinder block walls and a steel security door.  Considering the world we live in, she instantly fears the worst.  Has she been kidnapped? Where is she?  Who brought her here and why is she handcuffed?  Michelle also sees she has benefited from medical care, as her right knee has been braced and an IV is dripping fluids into her arm.  It’s not long; however, that she hears the foot steps of someone coming.  And then the door opens.

     There are those who spend considerable time preparing for the worst, and Howard (John Goodman) is one of those people who has taken preparation to the extreme.  Howard, as he explains, has predicted an attack from one of America’s enemies for some time now, and in order to be ready for this day he has constructed an underground bunker capable of sustaining life for years while protecting from the attackers outside.  Howard tells Michelle he rescued her from the accident scene and brought her to the bunker just as the war he readied for had begun.  By his estimation, the area has fallen victim to a chemical attack, killing everyone on the surface.  In addition, a neighbor named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) was also given refuge by Howard as the alleged attacks started, leaving the threesome to cope with life underground as everything seemingly falls apart outside.  And this is where “10 Cloverfield Lane” begins to excel with a series of scenarios within the bunker which test the limits of each character’s paranoia.

     While Emmett seems laid back and goes with the flow, Howard is hell bent on enforcing several rules he believes will allow the group to survive as long as possible.  It’s clear he doesn’t trust his co-inhabitants as he continually lashes out with frightening outbursts designed to ensure there is always a blanket of fear covering Michelle and Emmett’s every move.  Michelle, being the more curious of the three, doesn’t handle well the uncertainty of not knowing and actually observing what is happening on the surface.  She asks Howard to simply call the police, but when he answers “There are no police anymore”, she doesn’t exactly buy it and concocts a plan to get Howard’s keys in order to see for herself what has happened, if anything.  In practically every scene, the characters try to make nice by occupying themselves with board games, puzzles, and music, but what they exude non verbally tells us everything we need to know about the level of trust in play.

     Heightening these scenes is the fine work of composer Bear McCreary (“The Walking Dead”, “Battlestar Galactica”), whose music works with the claustrophobic settings to create tension and suspense even when there is nothing really going on.  The elements of music, dialogue, and sound design are skillfully assembled by Trachtenberg and his editor, Stefan Grube, to ensure there is maximum impact when and if they decide to hit the audience with something out of the ordinary.  And while the third act may not necessarily measure up to the various goings on within the bunker, the audience ultimately expects there to be some explanation as to why Howard has proclaimed the outdoors are now uninhabitable.  The writers, while working with a cast of three, have ensured Goodman, Winstead, and Gallagher Jr. are each given plenty of moments to shine as they work toward a conclusion, with Goodman being the clear standout playing a character who blurs the line between a do good survivalist and a mentally ill zealot.  The answers eventually come, but when they do, it’s hard not to remember how much fun it was getting there.  GRADE: B