“You need to eat. You need to sleep. And you need to start showing a little appreciation.”
Let’s address the elephant in the room first: 10 Cloverfield Lane is not a sequel to Cloverfield no matter what the title and media suggest. The filmmakers simply thought the script (developed by Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken; rewritten/polished by Damien Chazelle before embarking on Whiplash) felt a lot like Matt Reeves and Drew Goddard’s handheld alien invasion thriller. J.J. Abrams agreed, added a Slusho sign, recruited his “Alias” buddy Bradley Cooper for a little voice work, and slapped on a title that would sell tickets. So rather than dissect it for connections or declare Abrams a genius for finding this film on the shelf (he didn’t), let’s give credit where credit is due. Dan Trachtenberg knocks his debut feature out of the park.
Best known for his Portal: No Escape fan short that went viral a few years back, Valencia (Don’t the production name and its original moniker The Cellar sound much cooler than a shoehorned address gag?) actually introduces us to Howard’s (John Goodman) bunker much the same way as Chell’s cell. Four walls of concrete block, a single light, and a box spring-less mattress form aspiring fashion designer Michelle’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) new abode—an IV drip and leg brace handcuffed to the wall new additions to her ensemble since first meeting her as she spiraled into a car crash. Yes she was kidnapped, but it was for her own good. Something happened. The air outside is toxic and life underground is salvation. Or is it?
This is the question we ask throughout the film as distrust turns to gratitude and back again once we become accustomed to each. Howard’s just too creepy and domineering to be doing this from the kindness of his heart, right? If he truly saved Michelle and doesn’t mean her harm, why does his temper flare so regularly in order for her to fear him regardless of what he says? We can’t even really give him the benefit of the doubt that an attack has occurred leaving everyone above ground dead because he too quickly rifles from unknown nuclear warfare to the “Ruskies” as though they’re still battling the Cold War to eventually Martians without one iota of irony. He must be a crackpot—unstable and extremely volatile.
Or perhaps he’s just a bit touched with a mixture of Asperger’s and PTSD from the Navy to render him devoid of the social skills necessary for trust sight unseen. After all, the third member of this isolated party (John Gallagher Jr.‘s Emmett) willingly joined—fighting his way in and receiving a broken arm in the process. Perhaps Michelle (and us) doesn’t have all the facts yet. Maybe the truth will surface if we give Howard time to come clean about a few details. Unimpeachable physical proof won’t hurt either, but finding some is difficult when communing with the outside world is forbidden. But even if Howard reveals himself forthright as far as the “invasion” is concerned, it doesn’t mean he’s a pillar of mental health.
To say much more is to ruin the film’s effectively tense structure, so I won’t. Thankfully the trailer for the film set to Tommy James & the Shondells‘ “I Think We’re Alone Now” (one of the best mood pieces in years) doesn’t overextend its reach either. That bottle smash chase to the bunker door happens very early on and everything afterwards is fresh, untainted suspense to thrill and chill you until answers are revealed. So there really is no way to guess the trajectory, no way to hypothesize this trio’s complex backstories, and no way to know exactly how far they will go to survive. Three-quarters of the story occurs in this claustrophobic bunker and those walls shrink closer together every single second.
Trachtenberg shows some flair too in putting his stamp on a project he came to after Chazelle’s departure. He isn’t afraid to shroud the first five minutes in deafening silence masked by music so we can focus on Michelle’s emotional pain leaving her apartment for the road. Even when the sound enters, she still doesn’t speak. We simply hear the sounds of life around her, feel the jolt of metal on metal from the crash, and hold our breath during the staccato black screens cross-cutting her fall to deliver production company names. Now that’s how you invest your audience—a complete sensory experience wherein we do some of the heavy lifting to read his visual clues and understand what’s happening before the scenery is forever altered.
And he gets to play with some memorable CGI characters, but discussing those ruins the fun. Instead I’ll applaud him for facilitating a set with fantastic performances. Gallagher Jr. is great, but the others are better. Winstead’s an authentic bundle of nerves, tensed up and ready to uncoil on whomever tries to keep her down. Her Michelle is also imbued with a sense of loss and longing in those few moments of safety where what’s happened can be looked at subjectively—half survivor’s guilt, half lament for the life she knew. And Goodman is a force. His Howard switches from cold indifference to warm nostalgia to menacing predator on a dime. Whether extraterrestrials have arrived or not, he proves at least one monster was already here.
courtesy of Paramount Pictures