Despite what its cumbersome title might have you believe, 10 Cloverfield Lane is neither a direct sequel to 2008’s Cloverfield, nor does it share that film’s found-footage format. Related to its shared namesake more in the way Tales From the Crypt or National Lampoon titles are related, 10 Cloverfield Lane is its own sleek, stand-alone beast.
The film deftly combines two similar, but separate, realms of the thriller/suspense genre: apocalyptic bunker drama with kidnapped-woman-kept-in-the-basement horror. After surviving a car crash, Michelle (Winstead) awakens in an unfamiliar room with her leg chained to the wall. Her captor/savior is the hulking, wheezing doomsday-prepper Howard, menacingly portrayed by John Goodman. Once unchained, she is given a tour of her new home (the bunker) and introduced to the third member of their family, Emmet (Gallagher Jr.).
Howard goes over the rules of the house, many of which revolve around trust and his lack thereof, but the main one is that they can never leave. There has been an attack of unknown origin that has left the air outside poisonous. The threat of apocalypse outside somehow pales to the ominous air of foreboding within the fallout shelter. Howard is a lumbering goliath of barely contained rage and paranoia, and the film plays off these two opposing threats, one from outside, the other from within, to great effect.
The film’s biggest strength is its economy. The three-person primary cast is uniformly excellent and engaging. The script is concise, never under- or over-expository, while leaving out just enough detail to keep the audience guessing. First-time feature director Dan Trachtenberg, along with his crew and the backing of J.J. Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot, manages to make a compelling and suspenseful film by relying on technique and storytelling without resorting to overkill editing choices, sound design or camera tricks that telegraph to the audience, “Feel suspense!”
Like most projects connected, however tenuously, to Abrams, 10 Cloverfield Lane has that intangible quality of 1980s Spielbergian nostalgia, right down to its pushing the PG-13 envelope. 10 Cloverfield Lane is at times darker and more brutal than one would expect. It’s also better than expected. But more importantly, it is a strong argument that spectacle is only as spectacular as the story behind it, and that less is sometimes a whole lot more, awkward titles aside.