The surprising drop of a trailer for 10 Cloverfield Lane left me smiling. There is no one when it comes to keeping secrets and playing his hand perfectly than Bad Robot Productions’ devious mastermind and owner, J.J. Abrams. In a current movie milieu where test footage gets leaked and IMDb has pages for rumored movies, Abrams and his team managed to parade this movie down a side street past the main parade of the release and hysteria of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
And while there is little to tie this movie to the original 2008 Cloverfield, which debuted under even more surreptitious circumstances, the team behind the original all had Executive Producer credits and helped this movie morph from a Twilight Zone-like spec script called The Cellar, into a movie with “similar DNA”. After hiring Damien Chazelle to beef up the script and make his debut as director, only to have him leave the project when his Sundance-winning short film, Whiplash, get picked up for a feature-length film, Abrams hired Dan Trachtenberg on the strength of his 6-minute short film, Portal: No Escape, a riff on the video game Portal.
And it is here the similarities between the script and Trachtenberg’s short film are as eerie as if Rod Serling himself narrated the production meetings. Portal: No Escape features an unnamed young woman, played by Danielle Rayne, waking up under mysterious circumstances in a hospital gown, blood on the back of her head, and no way out. Similarly, 10 Cloverfield Lane starts with our main character, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), waking up in a mysterious, underground room, hooked up to an IV, and in a cast after an opening scene ending with her spinning off the road from a car accident. She has no windows, no way to get out, no cell reception, and no answers. Only after some ingenuity to force her captor/rescuer’s hand, she is able to get some answers from Howard (John Goodman) and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who both claim an unknown attack has wiped out humanity and to have locked themselves in Howard’s underground bunker.
There is nothing else really to add to the synopsis. It’s a genius ploy by Abrams and company to put together a movie that thrives largely on what we don’t know about the movie. If we now think Abrams’ “mystery box” device might have been dead and buried, especially given the ending of LOST (sorry, had to say it), it is resurrected quite nicely for this mystery thriller largely contained to the aforementioned bunker and three characters. It’s all about the mystery, the unraveling of the story, and the banter between the three characters that largely informs what you think what has happened to humanity and why the three of them are together.
And it is all under the steady, capable hand of Trachtenberg as he directs the movie’s tensions. With a cleverly written screenplay that gradually peels back some, but not all, of the layers of the three character’s motivations and reasons for being in this bunker, Trachtenberg is largely toying with how we normally expect horror movies and thrillers to go. One particularly great early scene is Michelle’s ploy to get out of the room she is in. She fashions a sharp object from what she has in the room and waits for the door to open. The music swells and she waits and it cuts back and forth to her and the door. As the music reaches a fevered climax we expect the door to clank open, but nothing happens. It’s a clever tip we won’t be getting the normal treatment with this movie, but a lot of our expectations will be played with like a game of cat and mouse where the audience is the mouse and the director is a giant orange tabby. And the best part is we never receive that final, climactic chomp that ends the game. After the movie’s conclusion, it feels much more like we were swished around and left wet, dirty, and slightly worse for wear. I mean that in the best possible way.
And as previously mentioned, the script is phenomenal. While I am sure the credit can largely be given to screenwriters Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken, I can sense hints of Damien Chazelle’s razor sharp dialogue, especially in Goodman’s interactions with co-star Winstead in and Emmett’s wry wit that reminds me of Teller’s smirking, self-assured Andrew.
However, of all the great work by Goodman and Gallagher Jr., the real star of the movie is, as one other fellow reviewer described it, the Riley-esque performance of Mary Elizabeth Winstead. With an inquisitive confidence, at no point in the movie does Michelle take her current situation sitting down, even when being put back into place by the burly fuming of Goodman. She is not going to take pat answers from the off-putting reassurance of Howard, or even the more timid Emmett, but is determined to extricate herself from the bunker and find out for herself. Not only is it refreshing in the face of a very dominant and scary performance from Goodman, but it is fun and exciting to see her take risks, get answers, and eventually science her way to more answers and the climactic reveal.
At the risk of spoiling this delightful movie for most of you, we’ve decided to save spoiler conversation for our podcast. Look back soon to get our take on this fabulous film!