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.”