10 Cloverfield Lane

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Mar 11, 2016
Mary Elizabeth Winstead in '10 Cloverfield Lane'
Mary Elizabeth Winstead in '10 Cloverfield Lane'  (Source:Paramount Pictures)

A woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds herself trapped in an elaborate underground bunker with an erratic survivalist (John Goodman) and a sweet, but clueless, bumpkin (John Gallagher, Jr.). They tell her that the outside world has been destroyed, though they are light on the details. It could be nuclear war, they say, or a chemical attack, or even Martians! Those who have seized upon the title's similarity to "Cloverfield" will have other suspicions, but how, exactly, those suspicions will square with what's going on here adds to the film's various puzzlements.

Remember "Cloverfield?" That was the 2008 movie in which a gaggle of twenty-something friends scurry around Manhattan trying to avoid a gigantic monster, only to cross paths repeatedly with the beast. It was a "found footage" movie purportedly made up of video recovered from Central Park after a massive bombing campaign. Hence the code name, Cloverfield, applied to the footage.

Okay. Memory refreshed, your next question will probably be: What does "10 Cloverfield Lane" have to do with the earlier film? Well, that's the question mark that's been turned upside down and used as a hook on which to hang this film -- and also snag viewer interest. I'm not one to spoil the party so I won't reveal the answer. But I will say that this is a film of a completely different genre -- imagine "Misery" gone wrong(er).

This film is directed by Dan Trachtenberg and written by a committee that includes Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken (credited of the story and the screenplay) and Damien Chazelle (credited for screenplay only). This is different crew from the creative talents that brought you "Cloverfield," which was directed by Matt Reeves and written by Drew Goddard. The main point of contact between the films is J.J. Abrams, who served as producer in both cases.

"10 Cloverfield Lane" plays on your expectation that a ginormous creature is going to come stomping through at some point, and composer Bear McCreary builds rumbles and thumps into his score, which serves to tease and titillate from the very first moments, when the young woman in question -- her name is Michelle -- takes flight after an argument with her boyfriend Ben (never seen, but voiced by Bradley Cooper). In a tearful huff, Michelle heads off in her car. Miles of cornfields roll by; no monster heaves into sight.

After driving all day and into the night, Michelle ends up in an crash. (Has the monster given her car a kick? It's hard to tell what the cause might be, because the crash sequence is interrupted by the title credits.) When she wakes up, Michelle finds herself in a bunker where she's been chained to the wall and given a saline drip. Welcome to the lair of a madman. Or is it really the only safe spot for miles around?

Here's where things get mildly interesting. There's evidence either way. Goodman's character, in charge of the bunker and its inhabitants, is named Howard. He's not only a conspiracy theorist, he's also someone with the general disposition of an alcoholic, given to outbursts of sudden violence, episodes of self-pity, and endless iterations of self-justification. You can see why Michelle finds his claims that the world has ended to be just a little suspect.

A more credible witness is Gallagher's character, a young fellow named Emmett, who verifies that something terrible has happened -- though he can't say exactly what. Emmett is not a prisoner in the bunker; rather, he's the local who Howard hired over a period of years to help build the bunker. When everything started going wrong topside, Emmett made a beeline for the safety of the bunker, where Howard welcomed him in. (Just how and when, in this timeline, Howard happened upon Michelle's wrecked car and dragged her home is unclear.) As time goes on, and Howard's eccentric moods turn more and more threatening, two things become clear: The outside world really has undergone some sort of cataclysm, and life with Howard in the snug little bunker is liable to become a nightmare - quite possibly a short and cruel one.

The film manages intermittent moments of suspense, and a few genuine shocks. McCreary's soundtrack helps here, though there are too many times when his throbbing score feels like a mismatch to mundane and even tedious images. When answers finally present themselves, they do so in a series of jolts, some of which feel air-dropped from another film entirely. You can say this about "10 Cloverfield Lane" -- it confounds your expectations. As to whether the trip is worth taking, that's another question. "Cloverfield" was silly and left far too many questions unexplained, but it had a sense of blackly comic fun. This not-really-a-sequel lacks that fun and only fitfully manages much real engagement. Surely you have a better use for ninety minutes of your time.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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