Mystery Box Meets Monster House

Beneath a sagging farmhouse, the only one around for miles, sits the last safe place on earth. A bunker, built by hand and buried beneath the firm soil with enough supplies to last years. Above ground an attack has taken place, one of unknown origin, rendering the air poisonous and life uninhabitable. That is, if we’re to believe what we’ve been told. And 10 Cloverfield Lane is exactly the kind of experience that calls for doubt, paranoia and an escape plan.

Despite its namesake, 10 Cloverfield Lane bares no immediate resemblance to the Matt Reeves directed Cloverfield (2008). In fact, aside from a few visual cues, nothing links the two films other than their intention of telling small budget science fiction stories that feel larger than they actually are.

Cloverfield Lane comes from first time feature director Dan Trachtenberg, best known for his short film, Portal: No Escape, based on the Portal game franchise. To Trachtenberg’s credit, the film never once feels like a directorial debut. His direction is calculated, elevating the material at every turn and reveling in the restraint of the narrative set-up.

We follow Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the victim of a car crash that leaves her disoriented and chained to the wall of a fallout shelter. The shelter is occupied by two others: Howard (John Goodman), the ever shifting overlord and reluctant savior, and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a country boy from the town over. Divulging any further details would be ruining one of Cloverfield Lane’s greatest triumphs, the uneasy verbal and physical alliances these characters balance and break throughout. Not knowing where the other occupants stand and the reality of the situation above ground, provides the right amount of tension, continuously threatening to boil over at any moment.

Winstead centers the film through strength and sheer problem solving. Not every answer comes easy, and Winstead’s Michelle pushes forward for herself, assuming no allies are guaranteed.  John Goodman in particular, gives a frightening and magnetic performance that unravels in layers, keeping his true face just around the corner.  Gallagher’s Emmett is the thinnest of the bunch, but he makes a competent foil, with ties to both Michelle and Howard.

Because much of the action is contained to the bunker, both Trachtenberg and cinematographer, Jeff Cutter, have limited tricks to fall back on. So instead, the focal point is enhancing the claustrophobia and giving the bunker depth beyond the immediate foreground. It’s an assured move and one that pays off immensely in the long run, allowing the performances to carry the film but also establishing the bunker as an economical space.

The relationship established between the bunker and its occupants is a physical one, expressed through constant upkeep and compromise. Almost every solution can be found within, providing  a tenuous push and pull. It’s a relationship that is rarely seen on screen, one that would feel like a gimmick had the environment not been properly established early on. So when the film switches gears and abandons this formula, things break down for the worse.

Much has been written about the decision to include this film under the Cloverfield banner (think a Twilight Zone style anthology). It began life as a spec script known as The Cellar, which would eventually undergo re-writes by Whiplash writer/director Damien Chazelle. Some argue it was consolidated for marketing purposes due to the non-sequel nature and because it wasn’t until late into the production that the shift was ultimately made.

Either way this is evident in the film itself, which suffers a slightly jarring third act change that feels tacked on. Rather than the resolution to the narrative it acts almost as a self-contained set-piece, affirming the lead’s growth but doing little to provide a proper conclusion. It’s impersonal, undermining the stakes built up over the course of the film. That’s not to say it doesn’t work, but given the contrast of what has come before, it’s an unsatisfying end that borders on the generic genre fare we’ve seen time and time again.

Despite its weak ending, 10 Cloverfield Lane is by no means a disappointment and should instead be viewed as a triumph to all those involved. It announces the debut of an exciting new director with Dan Trachtenberg, and proves that small and smart ideas have a place on the big screen. While J.J.’s mystery box isn’t always the best approach, Cloverfield Lane is better for it. If anything it will hopefully give the Cloverfield franchise more room to grow and expand through the strength of its stories.

And maybe living above ground might not be so poisonous after all.