The best way to describe watching 10 Cloverfield Lane is like eating chocolate ice cream with lemon-infused olive oil: it’s unusual but tastes absolutely delicious. Audiences expecting a Cloverfield spin-off will be greatly disappointed. There’s no giant monster wrecking a city, no shaky-cam, and no T.J. Miller screaming “Oh my god!” It’s a smaller, more humble film that resembles an apocalyptic thriller more than a monster-disaster movie. J.J. Abrams made it clear on several occasions that this film would be a “blood relative” to the original Cloverfield and not feature the first film’s monster. The only thing these films have in common are their extraterrestrial and horror themes. It’s much like what John Carpenter tried to do with the Halloween films by having several films with different stories all set during the holiday (before audiences decried the third film’s lack of Michael Myers). Much like Halloween 3, 10 Cloverfield Lane focus on crafting a new story instead of rehashing an old one. As a result, the sheer quality and ambition of 10 Cloverfield Lane is absolutely enough to make it even better than the film that spiritually preceded it.
In 10 Cloverfield Lane, a woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) runs away from her husband and into a situation she never asked for. After a car accident, she wakes up in a bunker built by a short-tempered and unstable man named Howard (John Goodman). Howard claims that he brought her to his bunker to save her from a mysterious chemical attack. However, as the story goes on, Michelle learns more about Howard and eventually discovers the horrifying reason why he captured her.
About 85% of the movie takes place in Howard’s bunker. However, because of Dan Trachtenberg’s excellent direction, this film makes the best out of its claustrophobic setting. From the dark storage hall to Michelle’s dungeon-like bedroom to the retro living room, the bunker is one of the most interesting and engaging film sets in quite some time. It truthfully wouldn’t be that bad of a place to wait out the apocalypse; even without any internet, there’s VHS tapes, DVDs, board games, jigsaw puzzles, and plenty of food. Of course, what would ordinarily be a decent place to live during the apocalypse constantly feels like a confined prison of paranoia on screen thanks to Howard himself.
John Goodman gives one of the best performances of his career as Howard, a conspiracy nut that you don’t want to piss off. He runs his bunker like a modern-day Hitler, demanding that his guests should be grateful for his “generosity” and behave. His mind is full of paranoia and he is constantly on the verge of snapping. Goodman portrays these character traits flawlessly, and is also able to bring a hint of tenderness to the character as the audience questions how trustworthy he is throughout the story. Is he a good man mentally torn apart by the apocalypse or was he always a madman? Is it a better idea to stay in his bunker or try to escape him and get help? Goodman’s complex performance makes these question hard to answer throughout much of the film. He is the heart of this movie, and perhaps one of the most intense characters on screen in quite some time. It’s too bad that this movie was released in March; a November release would give Goodman a better chance of getting a much-deserved Oscar nomination for this film.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead isn’t half bad either. Throughout the film, her character is just as unsure about Howard as the audience is. As the events of the film unfold, she reacts with shock, terror, confusion and sadness. An intense mystery-thriller like this requires an actress who can seamlessly switch between these emotions, and Winstead delivers in every respect.
The excellent performances in this film are only boosted by how well its written. There are countless nail-biting moments in this film that are balanced well with a few moments of levity. For instance in one scene, Michelle is discussing Howard’s past with another one of his guests named Emmet (John Gallagher Jr.). After a shocking discovery is made, Howard enters the room and declares that he is in a musical mood, proceeding to dance to the music on his jukebox. Howard’s dancing is amusing, but the tension remains as the audience still fears his potential insanity.
Pretty much the only negative thing about this film really depends on your personal preferences. Without spoiling anything, the ending does get pretty outlandish. Some may be put off with how the ending contrasts with the claustrophobic-thriller aspect of most of the movie. On the contrary, the film gives a few subtle hints to how it will end, so the craziness that happens can easily feel like a satisfying conclusion to such a consistently intense film.
Even if you’re dissappointed that 10 Cloverfield Lane isn’t a sequel to Cloverfield, you can still easily get enjoyment from it. It’s impeccable acted, directed and written, helping it stand on its own without the Cloverfield name on it. Its dedication to ambition is something that should truly be admired, and will hopefully open the gate to a new kind of franchise.
Final Rating: 9/10