Bad Robot studios return to the world of their singular 2008 monster movie Cloverfield with a peculiar film, both in content and mere existence. Announced by surprise as late as January this year, Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane appears tonally unrecognizable to its predecessor but it’s an enthralling captivity thriller nonetheless. It follows a young woman who is captured (perhaps rescued) by an eccentric conspiracy theorist and locked in a bunker as an extra-terrestrial invasion, maybe, unfolds outside.
Our heroine Michelle comes in the form of actress Mary Elisabeth Winstead (a performer who has threatened a mainstream breakout for over a decade, here in a rare lead role). We meet her fleeing a city by car in a state of distress but an accident will soon fling her off the road. She awakes in a bunker in chains. Michelle will occupy this new home for the rest of the film, shared with the earnestly paranoid man who built it, Howard (John Goodman), and the somewhat more level headed Emmet, who helped him out. Michelle’s early apprehensions are gradually replaced by cautious acceptance as a rag tag family unit is first formed and then settles in for a long haul. VHS and board games provide entertainment; Emmet provides a love interest; Howard’s temper provides a threat.
Along with the fine performances and geeky production design, this counterpoint between cozy and crazy is 10 Cloverfield Lane’s greatest strength. Our knowledge of events that the characters aren’t privy to is its inherent weakness. Indeed, in a move uncharacteristic of the notoriously tight-lipped studio, most hard fought attempts at building mystery and ambiguity are made puzzlingly redundant by that 11-letter giveaway in the film’s title. Michelle’s unconvinced by Howard’s rhetoric but the audience knows better.
If the original Cloverfield was the Blair Witch of its genre then perhaps this film – with its woman-on-the-run and quasi Bernard Herman score – is attempting to be its Psycho. The problem, of course, is that we’ve already been told what horrors sit rocking in this movie’s basement, and we can be certain its hard-nosed heroine will survive the first act. A pleasing romp nonetheless.
10 Cloverfield Lane | Directed by Dan Trachtenberg (USA 2015) with John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr. and Douglas M. Griffin. Starts March 31.