Billed by producer JJ Abrams as a “spiritual successor” to 2008’s found-footage monster-movie gem Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane is in some ways a victim of the decision to fashion a sequel-of-sorts from very tenuous beginnings. Originally a spec script called The Cellar doctored by Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle to tie it to the original, it’s an effectively claustrophobic, character-driven thriller that benefits only in prestige from its afterthought shackling to the first film, and sometimes feels like a cynical attempt to cultivate a franchise where the potential for one never really existed.
Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is on her way to meet her boyfriend, and the film’s opening sequence handles the calm before the storm nicely. She takes a call from him in the car, and is settling in for the drive when she is suddenly involved in a dramatic collision where her car is knocked off the road. It’s an effective opening: 10 Cloverfield Lane sets a tone of easy tranquility and immediately shatters it, and its jarring effect leaves you disorientated. It’s a nicely pitched pace-setter for the film, because from when Michelle comes to and finds herself shackled to a pipe in the basement of the mysterious Howard (John Goodman), the film’s tension never lets up.
Sharing the underground bunker with Howard and Emmett (The Newsroom‘s John Gallagher Jr.), Michelle learns of Howard’s motives for bringing her there. He claims he found her in the aftermath of her accident, and brought her here to protect her from an airborne attack from unspecified foes. He claims that nearby civilisation has been wiped out by the assault, and that the air above them is contaminated. As the trio gear up for a long stay, what follows is an often superb and always well-acted character study that becomes progressively intriguing as Michelle’s suspicions of Howard begin to mount and she wonders if the story of how and why she got here is quite as it seems.
***warning*** Vague spoilers ahead, if you’ve seen Cloverfield.
The central problem with 10 Cloverfield Lane, though, is a simple one. The film sets itself up with the central mystery of whether Howard is all that he seems to be, and in turn, if his story about the threat above them has any truth to it. The trouble is, then, that while the film offers several examples of ambiguous evidence that Howard may well be demonstratably insane, because we know this is a Cloverfield film, the question of the nature of the threat is one whose eventual answer can’t ever be particularly surprising. As a result, its final revelation feels more inevitable than shocking, and the tension is progressively undercut in the leadup to it. That being said, this is still an endearing and enjoyable blend of searing performances, impressive visuals and proficient jangling of nerves – it’s just difficult not to wish that the name that ended up on this thing wasn’t such an inherent foreshadowing of its ending.