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Josh Reviews 10 Cloverfield Lane

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I feel like 2008’s Cloverfield has been somewhat forgotten and/or dismissed in recent years, but I loved that film when it came out.  Back in 2008 I wasn’t yet fed up with J.J. Abrams’ “mystery box” schtick and it was fun going into seeing that movie without really having any idea what the heck it was about.  That was cool, and the movie didn’t disappoint.  It was a tremendous big-screen experience, with the “found footage” device used to great effect to put the viewer right into the thick of the action.  Subsequent viewings at home can’t live up to that original big-screen presentation, but I’ve watched Cloverfield a few times over the years, including just last month, and I think the film holds up well.  The skill of screenwriter Drew Goddard (who also helped create Netflix’s Daredevil and wrote & directed the great The Cabin in the Woods) and director Matt Reeves (who directed the spectacular Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) created in Cloverfield a fun, thrilling, and gorgeous-to-look-at monster movie.

Cloverfield felt like a completely one-off thing, and so like everyone else I was stunned when news broke a few months ago that J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot production company was releasing a new film called 10 Cloverfield Lane.  First of all, my cap is off to Mr. Abrams and co. for somehow managing to produce this movie entirely in secret.  They only announced the film’s existence a few months before its release!  I don’t know how they did that, in this day and age.  And, of course, they once again decided to keep almost everything about the movie very secret.  Trailers for 10 Cloverfield Lane didn’t tell much about the film’s story, nor did they reveal whether the film had any connection, other than the title, to 2008’s Cloverfield.  Was this a sequel?  A prequel?  A totally new story?

Here is an example of Mr. Abrams’ secrecy-heavy approach to movie-making really worked for me.  I was intrigued by the mystery around 10 Cloverfield Lane just as I had been with the original Cloverfield.  I had felt burned by Mr. Abrams’ “mystery box” technique in the past, most especially by Star Trek Into Darkness, not only because of everyone involved with the film’s flat-out lying to audiences for months (claiming that Khan was not the villain), but that the film’s story was stupidly structured to keep the identity of Khan a secret until the final 30 minutes, thus defeating the whole idea of bringing back one of Star Trek’s greatest villains.  (Why use Khan if for most of the movie you’re going to have him be pretending to be some other guy??)  But I digress.  My point is that this approach can actually still work, and the release of 10 Cloverfield Lane was one such example.

Ok, well that’s all great, but is the film itself actually any good?

It most definitely is.

10 Cloverfield Lane focuses on Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young woman who, when we first meet her, has decided to leave her fiancé after an argument.  Driving alone at night, she gets in a car accident and is run off the road.  She awakens in a nearly empty basement room, locked to a bed frame, though her injured leg has been tended to.  Eventually she meets her captor, Howard (John Goodman) who tells her that he found her and brought her back to his home.  It turns out that Howard had built and stocked an underground bunker in preparation for a catastrophe that he feared was coming.  Though he releases Michelle from her room, he tells her that a deadly virus or nerve agent has been released by a foreign attack and that, if she leaves the bunker, she will die.  Michelle is initially distrustful of Howard, suspecting that he is the one who ran her off the road.  But when she witnesses a local woman die of what appears to be an airborne infection right outside of the bunker, she begins to suspect that Howard has been telling the truth.  It looks like she and Howard and Emmett (John Gallagher), the young man who helped Howard build the bunker, will be living together underground for some time.  But then Michelle discovers something that changes everything.

Forgetting all of the pre-release mystery, 10 Cloverfield Lane stands on its own as a wonderfully taut little thriller.  For the most part the film is almost a stage play, with just three characters together in a very confined location, the handful of rooms in Howard’s bunker.  The film takes its time to let us get to know these three characters and to develop their relationships with one another.  All the while the story is carefully constructed to slowly, slowly tighten the screws on Michelle and the audience.  It’s great.

All three main actors do terrific work.  I fell in love with Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the magnificent (and terribly underrated) Scott Pilgrim vs the World, and she does terrific work here as Michelle.  She is the audience surrogate character, and I liked that she is written smart enough so that she’s never doing anything to make the audience groan at her doing something only a dumb character in a dumb horror movie would do.  She’s distrustful of Howard in the way that we the audience are of course feeling too, and as new information is presented her feelings shift just as ours do.  But Ms. Winstead doesn’t let Michelle become a blank cipher, she develops her nicely into a flawed but strong woman who is a fully-realized character, and also someone who we can easily root for as the story progresses.

John Goodman could play this role in his sleep, but that’s no criticism of the movie, rather it’s a testament to Mr. Goodman’s great skill.  This role is right in his sweet spot, and Mr. Goodman kills it.  He presents Howard as a figure to be mistrusted and perhaps even feared, all the while giving the audience reason to hope that maybe he’s not the villain that he at first appears to be.  That’s a subtle and delicate line to walk, and the film wouldn’t work if Mr. Goodman wasn’t able to achieve this.

I’m impressed at John Gallagher Jr.’s range in that, although I watched him for three seasons of The Newsroom, I absolutely did not recognize him here.  He creates a great character in Emmett, dim but endearing.  If I was being cynical I could say that Mr. Gallagher is just doing a terrific Sam Rockwell impersonation — seriously, at times he looks and sounds exactly like Mr. Rockwell — but I’d rather just say that Mr. Gallagher does exactly what he needs to do as the third figure in this story, a character caught between Michelle and Howard.

Watching the film unfold I was, of course, wondering about what sort of connection the film would or would not wind up having with 2008’s Cloverfield.  Would we find out that this story was taking place in the same universe as that film?  Could the airborne attack in this film have something to do with the monster attack from that film?  Or would these perhaps turn out to be totally separate stories, with perhaps just some thematic connection?  Did having Cloverfield in the title suggest that this film would also turn out to have a paranormal element to it?  Or was the use of Cloverfield in the title just meant as a catch-all name for these “secret” thriller/horror films produced by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot production company, with nothing more than that to connect the films?

I won’t spoil the answer to any of those questions here in this review.  I will just say that I was completely satisfied by the answers I was given by the time the closing credits rolled on 10 Cloverfield Lane.  This is a film that could have would up being disappointing in the end, and I can imagine that some might get thrown by the film’s last 15 minutes.  Myself, I adored those final 15 minutes, and I thought the film’s very ending was absolutely perfect.

10 Cloverfield Lane is a small film, and though I’m not as “wow you’ve got to see this on the big screen” excited as I was by 2008’s Cloverfield, this film left me very happy and satisfied.  I enjoyed the heck out of it.  I’m impressed by what director Dan Trachtenberg, working with screenwriters Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle (who wrote and directed Whiplash) have created.  I very much hope that a few years down the road, Mr. Abrams and his team might yet again surprise us with the release of a third Cloverfield film…

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