A woman packs her bags hurriedly, anxiously. She’s made a decision to leave, though whom or what isn’t exactly clear until she ditches her keys and engagement ring on the way out the door of her New Orleans apartment. As she drives her car into the Louisiana night, her phone rings, flashing the name “Ben.” “Michelle, please come back,” he implores. “Running away isn’t going to help anything.” She hangs up. As the car radio warns statically of a “power surge,” Ben calls again. Tearful, distracted, Michelle loses control of the vehicle, smashing through a guardrail and into blackness.
When Michelle awakens, she’s on a thin mattress on the floor of a cinder-block room. Her injured leg is in a brace that is chained to the wall; her belongings are just out of reach. A steel door clangs open heavily, and a man comes in bearing a tray of scrambled eggs. “What are you going to do to me?” she asks. His ominous response: “I’m going to keep you alive.”
The man explains that they are in an survivalist bunker beneath his farmhouse. There’s been an attack above, “a big one.” Maybe chemical, maybe nuclear. It could be the Ruskies, or it could be Martians. Regardless, “Everyone outside of here is dead.” He estimates that they’ll have to remain in the bunker for a year, or possibly two. Almost as an afterthought, he adds: “My name is Howard, by the way.”
Thus opens 10 Cloverfield Lane, a wicked, witty thriller by the first-time director Dan Trachtenberg. Is Howard a psychopath holding Michelle captive toward his own degenerate ends? Or has he truly saved her from a global Armageddon? Or maybe … both? The film dances nimbly between explanations, maintaining its balance even as it delights in knocking viewers off theirs.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead (The Thing, Smashed) is excellent as Michelle, self-sufficient without being superhuman, her eyes alert to any opportunity to escape. And as Howard, John Goodman gives one of his best performances in years, offering up a helping of the quasi-genial menace he deployed to such great effect in Barton Fink. Rounding out the tiny principal cast is John Gallagher Jr. (who was great in Short Term 12), as Emmett, a handyman who helped construct Howard’s bunker and now shares it with him and Michelle. (Bradley Cooper has a sub-cameo as the phone voice of Ben.)
10 Cloverfield Lane alternates moods seamlessly, ratcheting tension to the breaking point and then deflating it with black humor. One moment, the film raises uneasy questions about who exactly is the “Megan” to whom Howard keeps referring, and what became of her. The next, it segues into its cheery soundtrack of oldies, courtesy of the jukebox Howard has installed in the bunker: “Hey Venus,” “Tell Him,” and, most cunningly, a day-to-day montage of life underground set to “I Think We’re Alone Now.” This is a film savvy enough to recognize that there is nothing more intrinsically nerve-fraying—not abduction, not apocalypse—than a car alarm. And while it is not openly satirical in the vein of the terrific Cabin in the Woods, it shares that movie’s sharp, knowing sensibility. (Little wonder that the Cabin director Drew Goddard is one of the producers.)
The original script for the film, by Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken, was titled The Cellar. When J.J. Abrams’s Bad Robot Productions began developing the picture in 2012, it brought in Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) for rewrites, and in the process noticed tonal similarities to the 2008 monster movie Cloverfield, which Abrams had produced. The new film’s name was altered accordingly, with Abrams explaining that while it is not a sequel to Cloverfield—nor even taking place in the same fictional universe—it is a “blood relative” and “spiritual successor.” It’s also a considerably better movie, and I say that as someone who enjoyed Cloverfield.
So, has the Earth been invaded? Is it all a monstrous hoax? I surely won’t tell. (Though be advised: Others—including the film’s own promotional materials—have not been so circumspect, and this is a movie best enjoyed with a minimum of foreknowledge.) I will merely recommend 10 Cloverfield Lane as a clever, canny thriller, and endorse an insight that Howard offers in a moment of uncharacteristic self-knowledge: “People are strange creatures.”