Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on March 9, 2016, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.
10 Cloverfield Lane both is and isn’t a sequel to the 2008 monster-attacks-New-York hit, in ways that will not be revealed here. Suffice to say that fans will be able to draw a line between the two films by the end, while non-fans and newbies alike will find plenty to appreciate.
In a sense, what producer J.J. Abrams and his team have done here parallels John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s ambitions for Halloween III back in 1982: establish a franchise connected not by plots and characters, but by basic DNA. That one didn’t work out, but 10 Cloverfield Lane is good enough to make further entries in this series more than welcome.
For now, join Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an aspiring fashion designer fleeing a bad relationship—and a strange rumbling that shakes her apartment just before she leaves—who gets into a bad accident late at night in the middle of nowhere, Louisiana. She awakens to find herself apparently the prisoner of Howard (John Goodman), a grizzled bear of a man who has brought her to an underground bunker, to rescue her, he claims, from some kind of catastrophic attack that has left the surface world uninhabitable. Michelle isn’t having any of this, and right away proves herself a resourceful, determined heroine, with Winstead—a longtime presence on the genre scene, from Final Destination 3 to Grindhouse to the Thing premake—bringing equal parts guts and sympathy to her role from her earliest scenes.
She has an excellent foil in Goodman, whose role is elevated well above a stock paranoid nutjob by both his performance and the well-thought-out script by Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and Damien Chazelle. At first, it’s easy for us and Michelle to see Howard as a loon, one who has clearly devoted an awful lot of obsessive time to setting up his refuge; it has every comfort of home, save a door one can exit/escape through and communication with the outside world. As the movie goes on, though, the writers introduce strong suggestions that he’s telling the truth, and that the two of them, along with Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a young man who helped set the place up and fought his way in when disaster struck, are much better off staying down there until it’s clear they can return topside safely.
As much as Michelle and Emmett seem to owe Howard their lives, it’s clear that he’s still the monster of the piece, one with a volatile temper and a fixation on rules that are absolutely not to be broken. Goodman’s swings from concern to rage and back are perfectly tempered every time, and Howard stands as both a great modern genre antihero and a new high-water mark on the actor’s résumé. As the third in this triangle of survival, Gallagher brings his own effective shadings to his part—and is having a heck of a week, as he’s equally good in a very different role in Mike Flanagan’s nerve-frying Hush, which premieres at SXSW this weekend (see review here).
10 Cloverfield Lane is the first feature effort for its director, Dan Trachtenberg, but you’d never know it from the ruthless confidence and assured pacing he brings to the film. Those who found the shaky found-footage aesthetic of the first Cloverfield hard to take will be relieved by the more grounded visual style here, with Trachtenberg and cinematographer Jeff Cutter (whose previous credits include Orphan) making fine use of the widescreen frame to show off Ramsey Avery’s perfectly appointed production design, while maintaining consistent spatial coherence and a sense of claustrophobia. Trachtenberg is equally attentive to his cast, and while all three leads get their big moments, there are also numerous instances where small gestures and reactions register just as potently.
The attention to detail is also there in the script, which unfolds in a series of surprises and revelations that keep the story moving and the sense of trust varying between Michelle and Howard—and, most crucially, always seem plausible and rooted in what we learn about the characters. Similarly, their actions and reactions to each new development unerringly make sense; nobody acts foolishly or unreasonably just to further the plot or create artificial suspense. Although the bulk of 10 Cloverfield Lane plays as a psychological battle of wills, there are more graphic and overtly shocking moments sprinkled throughout that provide intense punctuation and serve to further up the stakes.
Once the film arrives at its final-act destination, the emphasis changes significantly, yet the place the scenario goes to proceeds logically from what has gone before, and maintains the topnotch technical craft. It wraps up with a shot that directly recalls a past science fiction classic, and a suggestion of a way Abrams et al. might continue the Cloverfield saga. Or perhaps they’ll strike out on a completely different tangent next time. Either way, if the results are as riveting as 10 Cloverfield Lane, this reviewer says keep ’em coming.