Film Review | 10 Cloverfield Lane

Though he doesn’t always hit the jackpot, J.J. Abrams sure knows how to cleave close to the entertainment sweet spot in a way that still elicits surprise and sometimes, even awe.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
26 April 2016, 7:37am
Don't anger the bear: John Gallagher Jr, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman are at the top of their game in this twisty, claustrophobic genre-bender
Don't anger the bear: John Gallagher Jr, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman are at the top of their game in this twisty, claustrophobic genre-bender
Producer J.J. Abrams has proven himself to be something of a franchise-builder extraordinaire. Ever since he mid-wifed the hit series Lost into existence, down to his most recent handling of the Star Wars franchise (he directed The Force Awakens himself), Abrams has shown that he’s got his finger on the pop-culture pulse, with enough nostalgic chops to appeal to the hearts and minds of fanboys (see his E.T./Close Encounters of the Third Kind tribute, Super 8) and an efficient way with storytelling. 

Though he doesn’t always hit the jackpot – his Star Trek reboot series is patchy at best – he sure knows how to cleave close to the entertainment sweet spot in a way that still elicits surprise and sometimes, even awe.

One of his better projects as producer was Cloverfield (2008), directed by Matt Reeves – a sort of Godzilla-via-Blair Witch Project in which a group of hapless youths run for their lives while an alien creature devastates their city, with one of their number recording the experience for shaky-cam posterity. 

Starting off as an entirely unrelated spec script, The Cellar, 10 Cloverfield Lane gradually grew into an oblique sequel to the original referenced in its title. A feature film debut for director Dan Trachtenberg, the way it twists our expectations around – and the necessary secrecy it was shrouded in before release – is pure Abrams. But it’s also a film that allows itself to be enjoyed on its own merits. A refreshing proposition in age of endless, tightly interconnected sequels and ‘shared universes’. 

A young woman, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up after a car accident to find that she’s locked in a cellar with Howard (John Goodman), a doomsday conspiracy theorist who has built a vacuum-sealed bunker to protect himself and those he’s rescued – like the young man Emmett (John Gallagher Jr) – from some kind of apocalyptic fallout that has apparently made the ‘surface’ world unsafe to wander. Instantly skeptical of Howard’s claims, Michelle tries to convince the credulous Emmett to bust out of the underground enclosure, but the truth may in fact be more disturbing than she imagines. 

10 Cloverfield Lane is a difficult film to review, because any revelation of or discussion about its plot details threatens to spoil this inspired and suspenseful – but necessarily fragile – construction. But the fact that I care enough not to spoil it for you should speak volumes. After all, if a jaded reviewer has enjoyed a film so much that he wishes others have a similarly rewarding experience, that should count for something, right? 

We can however speak about just how effective Trachtenberg’s film is in building up its atmosphere of dread and discomfort. Because beyond the machinations of the plot, the minimalistic set-up requires both the director and actors to be at the top of their game and squeeze the most of the claustrophobic arrangement. Cinematographer Jeff Cutter certainly creates the right tone and light balance to evoke claustrophobia, but Howard’s bunker is also necessarily cozy. Which of course only makes the proceedings all the more uneasy, but also allows some humour to seep in. The fact that Michelle and Emmett can snigger at Howard’s fanciful conspiracy theories one moment, and cower in fear of him another, is a strong enough conceit to justify the film’s running time. 

But it’s John Goodman’s masterful performance that pushes the proceedings from good to great. We could probably peg this to Abrams’s influential reach in Hollywood, but it would really be difficult to imagine any other actor occupying the same role: Goodman possesses the unique ability to be both loveable and menacing at the same time, and he works in perfect tandem with Trachtenberg’s vision to deliver a small chiller that packs big ambition. 

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...