I’m not a fan of gimmicks. Gimmicks can get folks into a theater to see a movie, but they can rarely sustain interest for 90 minutes. The original “Cloverfield” was the ultimate gimmick movie: a found-footage folly that tried to create a realistic survival horror where New York was plagued by a rather nasty city-stomping monster. The marketing was slick enough to get audiences excited, but the actual film was a creative disaster. So when I heard about another film spawned from the idea of “Cloverfield,” my expectations were lower than a clinically depressed scuba diver in the Mariana Trench, suffering from an iron deficiency, who’s also a fan of every sports team from Cleveland.
“10 Cloverfield Lane” can only be considered a sequel in two ways: First, it’s another sci-fi story with a gimmicky premise. Second, it’s a film marketed more on what audiences don’t know about the story than what they do. Thankfully it’s not a direct sequel. The “Cloverfield” aspect of the title feels more like an attempt at creating an anthology of science-fiction stories of terror.
This installment tells the story of Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who gets in an auto accident while heading to Houston. When she wakes up, she’s locked in a bunker with a busted leg and a sinking feeling she’s been kidnapped by a crazy person. Her instincts are spot on. This particular crazy person is named Howard (the great John Goodman), who claims he has actually saved her life because an attack of unknown origin has poisoned the air and killed everyone outside his bunker. It’s a convenient story when trying to keep someone docile and uninterested in escape. Michelle is naturally skeptical. The whole scenario seems implausible and she immediately begins plotting her escape.
Howard doesn’t make her attempts easy. He’s paranoid, delusional and convinced the outside world has been transformed into an uninhabitable toxic wasteland. Trapped in between Howard’s apocalyptic narrative and Michelle’s skepticism is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). He’s a local who helps shed some light on Howard’s penchant for panic. It turns out there’s more to his past than planning for the end of days. There’s a certain mystery surrounding what happened to his family that lends itself to the idea that maybe it wasn’t the world that ended—but Howard’s world.
The surprises in “10 Cloverfield Lane” are good enough to warrant omitting them from a review that could detract from readers’ enjoyment. There are some fun twists in store for those patient enough to wade through a baby pool of grade-A bullcrap to get there.
“10 Cloverfield Lane” is a great little claustrophobic thriller with some fantastic performances from Goodman and Winstead. There’s a constant state of tension bleeding through every frame. It’s the perfect setting for a super-tense potboiler. It drags a little in the middle, but Goodman is so convincingly insane he helps carry the film through some rougher patches. While it swerves in and out of mediocrity, it’s ultimately redeemed by an absolute sucker punch of an ending.
Even though the film ends up being a lot of set-up, the eventual payoff is so satisfying I’m able to forgive it for being the slow burn that it is. “Bullcrap” might be a bit strong, but like its predecessor, “10 Cloverfield Lane” is a movie with a very visible gimmick: Either Howard is a crazy madman who is the architect of a devious plot to hold Emmet and Michelle against their will, or he’s actually protecting them from a potential world-ending event that has all but ended the human race as we know it. It’s fun delving into the psychology of Michelle and Emmett as they try to figure out what to believe. The truth is nebulous and they struggle to figure out which hell is better—the bunker or the potential devastation of the outside world.
Director Dan Trachtenberg makes an impressive feature-film debut with a movie far better executed than the absolute monstrosity from which the film derives its title. This is an above-average thriller and has some real fun with an extremely tense and over-the-top premise.