BY JERRY DEAN ROBERTS | April 8, 2016
10 Cloverfield Lane is alternately fascinating and frustrating at the same time. It is fascinating in the moment but frustrating in that it takes so long to get where it’s going that it arrives at an ending that should have been the beginning of the second act. That’s doesn’t make the movie bad exactly, it just leaves you wishing someone had switched things around so that we could get to the big picture a little sooner. Ultimately, the biggest frustration is that when you get to the end, you realize that you’re going to have to wait for a sequel to get to the things that this movie promises for two hours.
The movie is a sort-of side-sequel to 2008’s Cloverfield, not directly related but existing in the same universe, or as producer J.J. Abrams calls it “a blood relative.” Unlike the earlier film, this is not a found footage movie (which is good) this is a Bottle Movie, a story that confines its characters to the same location for much of the running time while the events outside remain a mystery to us and to them.
But let’s stop for a second for just a word of friendly warning . . .
I must address an important issue. As every critic in the country has already done, I’m going to be as tactful and respectful as I can. As is the nature of my craft, I must discuss the story without giving away specific plot points. This is a movie that requires you to know as little as possible going in and, if you’re like me, you like to know almost nothing about the movie you’re about to watch. Before continuing I’ll say this – it’s a good movie and worth seeing but it’s probably best if you go in cold. Go see it then come back and read my review.
I realize that what I’ve just said is ridiculous. I’m supposed to praise the film and make you want to see it, but the nature of this film is making my job a bit more difficult. J.J. Abrams has become the reigning king of spoiler country. His films demand that you keep your lip buttoned; a tactic that has been attached to “Lost”, Star Trek Into Darkness, and most recently The Force Awakens. He’s a master of marketing – often his trailers are more impressive than his movies.
Such is the case here. It takes talent to pull the wool over the eyes of the average 21st century moviegoer, which is probably why 10 Cloverfield Lane feels like such an enigma. Through a brilliant and stealthy production, here is a movie that managed to get made without anyone really knowing it was coming – seriously, nobody knew this was a thing was coming until the trailer dropped in January causing millions to lean over in the darkened theater and ask their significant other, “Is this a sequel?”
As I said before, it takes place in the same universe. It begins benign enough, with a young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) waking up, getting dressed and then driving somewhere. Where she’s going we’re not sure but in a series of shots reminiscent of the opening of The Shining she drives all day and into the night. Then something happens. She has a serious accident and wakes up in a bare room hooked to an I.V. Plus, as if the terror of this situation wasn’t bad enough, she’s also chained to the wall.
Seriously, if you have any intention of seeing this movie stop here.
Through the door comes the imposing figure of Howard Stambler (John Goodman), who has the look and manner of a lumber yard foreman with daddy issues. Based on her circumstances she reasonably thinks he’s there to do her harm until she realizes that he’s brought her food. Michelle has no earthly reason to trust the unsmiling Howard who explains that she’s been brought to his underground bunker because the rest of the world has been wiped out by a chemical attack (I’m giving nothing way – this was in the trailer). With an even voice he announces that neither of them can leave for at least another year. His unsmiling countenance does not give her confidence, neither does the gun strapped to his hip.
Also in the bunker is Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), a kindly home handyman who is one of Howard’s neighbors but confesses that he doesn’t know Howard all that well. He’s at least a sane figure to communicate with. The bunker is well furnished and comfortable – it’s clear that Howard (who is ex-Navy) has spent years putting it together. There’s TV, a jukebox, board games, puzzles and all the amenities to stay comfortable for quite a while. The situation might be okay were it not for Howard who is twitchy, nervous and – Michelle discovers very quickly – prone to extreme paranoia and fits of domestic violence.
What follows is a cat-and-mouse scenario as Michelle and Emmett begin to find holes in Howard’s story. Slinking around behind his back, she begins doing an investigation to find out if the world is really depopulated or if Howard is just keeping her captive because, well, he’s nuts. More I cannot say, nearly the entire movie has the trio trapped in that bunker which is a great movie set, we really feel as if we’re in a man-made bunker. Just as The Shining gave us the confusion of claustrophobia of that hotel, this movie gives us the feeling of the tight spaces and tiny corners – we’re in that bunker with the characters, especially when Michelle begins to uncover clues about Howard.
The trouble is that the movie spends a lot of time getting where it’s going. What is actually happening will surprise no one who understands that this takes place in the same world as Cloverfield. Knowing that, you kind of sit there waiting for the movie get on with it. Yes, the cat-and-mouse game is intriguing, but when it gets to its reveal, the movie is just about over. If you don’t know much about Cloverfield then this movie will come off as a frustrating question mark. This is a movie, ultimately, that you just have to enjoy in the moment. You can’t lean on expectation or you come up feeling a little gypped.
So, where do I stand? I enjoyed what I was watching but I was frustrated by the result. I recommend that you see it, but with the warning that you will walk out scratching your head. Is that recommendation? I’m not sure.