After getting into a car accident in an attempt to run away from a relationship, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up to find herself chained to a bed in an underground bunker. Her captor, Howard (John Goodman), explains that everything above them has been scorched in a civilisation-ending attack, a story that fellow ‘captive’ Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) willingly believes. She however, can’t quite buy into. Is Howard a malicious crackpot, or could he actually be on to something?
Occupying the quiet corners that its predecessor eschewed in favour of, you know, destroying New York City, 10 Cloverfield Lane thrives on stringing out its tension to levels that would make Hitchcock giggle with pride. As a ‘sequel’, it’s a fascinating beast; sharing the visceral, vaguely extra-terrestrial paranoia of Cloverfield and absolutely nothing else, Dan Trachtenberg’s film gets by on merits that are entirely of its own making. The closest comparison that I can think of is that this is like a tense, pared-down Alien to the first one’s balls-to-the-wall Aliens, yet even this is to deny the complete lack of reliance that this has on its source. If it is a successor, it is in the same way that each season of an anthology show is: It occupies the same basic genre, it explores similar themes and sometimes even covers the same concepts, but its yarn is of its own spinning.
Which, in truth, makes complete sense. Picked up by J.J. Abrams’ production company Bad Robot after living on ‘The Hot List’ for a number of years, it wasn’t until part way into production that the Star Wars director figured out that it could easily fit into the incredibly vague Cloverfield mythology. His adamance that this is a ‘blood relative’ instead of a straight follow-up is crucial to your enjoyment. If you come to this looking for more of the hyper-suspenseful dramatic withholding, deliciously sinister mystery and expert genre re-working, you’re going to be very happy. If you’re here for more shaky-cam monster mashing, you need to manage your expectations accordingly.
See, chances are that Trachtenberg’s marvellous little concoction would’ve been just as breathlessly enjoyable without the Cloverfield banner. As cool as it is to imagine this occupying a nook that existed offscreen last time, this is on top of, not at the expense of, its other qualities. More than anything else, this is a flawlessly orchestrated fun ride. Shifting genres at the twist of a knife, the movie morphs from relationship drama to psychological thriller to ominous chamber piece to sinister game of cat and mouse to… something else entirely, and not once does it miss a beat. So confident is it with its craft that it momentarily blinds you to its infrequent missteps, occasional duff beats and sometimes-questionable leaps in logic. The breakneck twists and turns do start to show a strain once the cinema lights come up and you’ve had time to digest it, but, honestly, it’s far too damn entertaining in the moment for this to be a deal-breaker.
It would be remiss of me, too, to not point out that a large reason for 10 Cloverfield Lane standing proudly on its own is its tremendous cast. As our window into this world and surrogate throughout, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is perfectly cast as the not-quite-damsel in physical and mental distress. Echoing the fear of her situation in her eyes and wavering deliveries, Winstead commands your sympathy by never once letting you question the rationality of her decisions (no small feat in these kinds of movies, believe me). She is given endearing support by John Gallagher, Jr., a softly-spoken waif who is frequently amusing and perpetually heartbreaking in his naive willingness to believe that somebody, anybody, knows what’s going on.
But the true props have to be given to the towering John Goodman. Having long coasted on his persona like many respectable stars of his age, he really hasn’t been this imposing a presence since the early-90s (although even Barton Fink’s unhinged maniac would think twice before crossing his character here). With a face that can shift from cuddly to murderous in the literal blink of an eye, he pulls off the incredible juggling act of making you question him at his most vulnerable and perversely understand him at his most questionable. When you factor in the fact that Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle was brought in to do rewrites, this is hardly surprising. It’s nothing, unfortunately, that will net him any trophy gold, but it’s riveting to see a seasoned actor thriving in such spaces.
Even so, the presence of the brand really is exciting when you think about it. Here we have a film billed as a sequel to a super-effective stylistic, narrative and marketing experiment that has the confidence to be its entirely own entity. If this is a success, the doors could be open to generations of Abrams (and by extension Spielberg) proteges being given the chance to hone their chops on conceptually-gripping thrill rides. At the same time, the tantalising mysteries of the world that we were immersed in eight years ago could be gradually explored and teased out. If not, no biggie. We’d still have a nifty thriller that honours its predecessor while offering something new and well worth your time.