There’s exactly one relevant moment in 10 Cloverfield Lane, the new paranoid thriller described by producer J.J. Abrams as a “blood relative” to 2008’s monster movie Cloverfield. In that moment, a character ominously notes, “People are strange creatures. You can’t always convince them that safety is in their best interest.” And that’s why some of you reading this review won’t heed its warning and will waste 105 minutes watching 10 Cloverfield Lane. But I have to try, people. I have to try.
Though framed with slightly more expansive sequences, 10 Cloverfield Lane is essentially a chamber drama, mostly unfolding inside a smallish bunker set, with three actors, at a budget in the neighborhood of $5 million (the film derives from John Campbell and Matt Stuecken’s deliberately contained script called “The Cellar,” rewritten by a pre-Whiplash Damien Chazelle). Befitting our age, the picture turns out to be a pop-culture mash-up of “genre” entertainment: not a monster movie like Cloverfield, but not not a monster movie. Starting out as a cut-rate Misery, this first feature from Dan Trachtenberg quickly comes to resemble an old Twilight Zone half-hour padded to feature length, partly through a climax that, well, spoilers!
Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) plays Michelle, just your typical leggy aspiring clothing designer who, after running off from her fiancé, crashes her car and awakes to find herself chained up in an underground bunker. According to the bunker’s owner, a deeply disconcerting, mentally unstable man named Howard Stambler (John Goodman), the bunker is a haven from some kind of chemical or nuclear attack. They cannot leave, not for a few years anyway, so they might as well make the best of it. Everyone else is dead.
As you might well expect, not all of Howard’s story is strictly speaking true. For starters, there’s at least one other fella alive (an agreeable sap played by John Gallagher, Jr. of The Newsroom), who may yet prove a useful ally to Michelle in escaping the “doomsday bunker.” Meanwhile, the three not-so-fast friends not-quite-bond over board games, couch surfing (Howard has a collection of DVDs and VHS cassettes, including Pretty in Pink), and annoyingly ironic music pumped from Howard’s jukebox (“I Think We’re Alone Now”…tee hee).
Now, it is possible to enjoy 10 Cloverfield Lane for what it is, especially given the strong acting (when is John Goodman not good, man?). And sure, Trachtenberg does whip up some tense moments. But essentially the picture is one tease after another, misdirecting as fast as it can and amounting to the “Emperor’s New Clothes” vacuousness of mid-period M. Night Shyamalan. When the big finish arrives, it’s not so much exhilarating as something else to wait out until the lights come up and we can make our own escape to the safety of our best interests.