There’s no denying that Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane is better than its sort-of ancestor Cloverfield (2008), but then I’ve seen home movies that were better than Cloverfield. What we have here is basically an artificially enlarged Twilight Zone episode — from an “original” and unrelated script that has been retrofitted to tie in with the Cloverfield story in the final reel. And it’s all served up with a lacquer coating of J.J. Abrams’ particular brand of “secrecy,” which is to say that none of the promos supposedly tell you what the film is about. Banana oil. The truth is that, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve got a pretty good handle on the story and the kind of movie this is. The tacked-on Cloverfield-iana is little more than the sort of twist you might expect from M. Night Shyamalan — except, of course, that you’ve been primed to expect a link to the earlier movie, so it’s not really a twist.
With or without the Cloverfield business, 10 Cloverfield Lane isn’t a bad movie, merely a predictable and largely mediocre one. It’s a little like Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter (2011) minus any pretense to artsiness. The setup is pretty basic: Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is in a nicely staged car accident and wakes up on a mattress in a bare room, with a brace on her leg and a chain holding her to the wall. This is not the sort of thing to engender a feeling of safety or good fellowship. As a result, she’s naturally wary of the motives of her benefactor-captor, Howard (John Goodman), who explains he rescued her from the wreck and brought her here. “Here” is a survivalist’s dream bunker — scads of food, electricity, running water, creature comforts, diversions — where they are holed up following some cataclysmic event in the world above. Howard vaguely postulates that it’s some kind chemical or nuclear war, but maintains that they — and a third, self-invited companion, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr., Short Term 12) — are quite safe and can wait out however long it takes for the world to become habitable again.
This aspect of the film is serviceable enough, assuming you have a taste for rather claustrophobic games of cat and mouse. It’s clear from the onset that Howard — right or wrong about the outside world — is, at the very least, mildly deranged. He’s obviously not entirely truthful, and his slightly puritanical view of things — a demented Norman Rockwell-like vision — tends to make him prone to strange outbursts. But then, knowing what kind of thriller we’ve come to see, we already know his outward bonhomie is a deception. And if we don’t, the fact that John Goodman plays Howard much the way he played Karl “Madman” Mundt in Barton Fink (1991) might provide a clue. The major questions are: how long it will be before mayhem ensues; and, of course, what really lies outside. How you’ll feel about the latter is open to question.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including frightening sequences of threat with some violence, and brief language.