New & Now: “10 Cloverfield Lane”

My name is Gena, and I’m a Cloverfield apologist. Despite all the grumbling about how the audience never learns anything about the monster, or how dumb the characters supposedly are, I’m fine with all that. It wouldn’t have made sense, narratively speaking, to have the action stop just to provide some extraneous dialogue, and much of it was provided in the clever, very elaborate online marketing campaign anyway. As far as dumb characters are concerned, I’ve been watching horror and sci-fi for more than thirty years, and it’s still a pleasant surprise when a character doesn’t do something completely stupid, if for no other reason than to move the plot along. Cloverfield was not the first movie to feature people trying to escape Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge (which is the last direction you want to go if you’re looking to get out of the city), and it will not likely be the last. If you want pure, rollercoaster ride entertainment that pulls you in within the first ten minutes and doesn’t let go until the last one, it really can’t be beat.

The first thing you need to know about 10 Cloverfield Lane is that you don’t need to have liked Cloverfield to enjoy it. For that matter, you don’t even need to have seen Cloverfield to enjoy it. Almost entirely different in style and tone, it’s merely a “spiritual sequel” to the earlier film, only existing within the same universe. Even without the Cloverfield name attached at it, it could stand perfectly well on its own. While it does eventually tie into the earlier movie, to a certain extent, it’s done in a way that doesn’t seem forced or silly. If anything, it’s unsettlingly puzzling–is this supposed to take place before, after, or even during the events of the first movie? We never really know, but we’re sure left wanting to find out by the end.

The movie opens with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an aspiring fashion designer, hitting the back roads of Louisiana after breaking up with her fiance (and ignoring the unsettling news reports about widespread blackouts along the Eastern and Southern seaboards). Just as she may be having second thoughts about leaving, she gets into a devastating car accident. When she awakens, she discovers that she’s being held in an underground shelter by Howard (John Goodman), a former Navy man and conspiracy theorist who claims that he just happened to encounter her overturned car on the side of the road and rescued her. Howard then goes on to tell her that she can’t leave the shelter, because around the same time as her accident happened an unexplained “event” occurred, killing virtually everyone above ground and leaving the air too toxic to breathe. Stepping outside even for a minute could cause infection and imminent death.

Not surprisingly, Michelle doesn’t buy this story (and it doesn’t help that Howard is a control freak simmering with barely restrained rage). However, a horrifying encounter with an infected woman while trying to escape makes her realize that Howard might be right. Left with no other alternative, she settles into uneasy domesticity with Howard in his startlingly well supplied, even cozy bunker, along with Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.,), Howard’s neighbor, who forced himself into the bunker when the “event” happened. As time passes, though, it becomes clear to Michelle that just because Howard wasn’t lying about why she’s there doesn’t mean he isn’t still dangerous.

If the original Cloverfield was just one long monster attack, then 10 Cloverfield Lane is more like an episode of The Twilight Zone. The suspense comes not just in what Michelle eventually figures out about Howard, but in how much he knows about what she knows. The height of this tension comes when they play a board game with Emmett, in a scene that manages to be both hair-raising and hilarious at the same time. It remains, up until the last ten minutes or so, a character study, in which we throw together a savvy young woman, a man seething with anger and sorrow at his inability to create a family dynamic with his captive, and a third wheel whose role is mostly comic relief (but with a touch of knowing cynicism) in a claustrophobic setting and see what happens.

The “out of the frying pan and into the fire” ending does feel like it was tacked on from a completely different movie, and yet, curiously, it works. Or at least, it did for me–I’ll allow that it walks a very fine line between working and seeming utterly arbitrary, and it’s not all that surprising that it’s meeting with a considerable amount of audience backlash. Let’s just say that, with or without the ending, it’s still well-crafted and entertaining.

It goes without saying that it’s a crime (a crime, I tell you) that John Goodman has not a single Academy Award nomination to his name, let alone an actual win, but why isn’t Mary Elizabeth Winstead the biggest star on the planet right now? For a female lead in a horror/sci-fi movie, there’s a refreshing lack of helplessness to her character, even when she’s leg chained to a wall. Even in her quiet moments, you can sense the wheels turning in her mind as she figures out both what she needs to do next, and the best way to do it. Howard seems to figure out pretty early on that he might have picked the wrong girl to “rescue,” and now there’s nothing he can do about it.

10 Cloverfield Lane is currently in theaters

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