If you’re like me, you enjoyed “Cloverfield” a great deal and were shocked to see its spiritual sequel sneak up on America one day in February of 2016. It’s definitely a spiritual sequel in every way in the same idea that “Halloween III” was a spiritual sequel to “Halloween.” Director Dan Trachtenberg supplies a steady stream of surprises without ever really making audiences feel cheated. “10 Cloverfield Lane” is a masterful dramatic thriller that asks the big questions about survival. Its biggest themes about the setting feels like something out of a random survival website to arouse conversations. If something was going down in the real world, would you go outside and brave whatever was waiting for you, or would you live in a bunker with all the supplies and luxuries, but have to be under the watchful eye of a very unhinged individual who may or may not be lying to you? What hell is more managable?
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“10 Cloverfield Lane” enhances the idea of an anthology of films, and I hope we see many more movies of this ilk. To say I was surprised by “10 Cloverfield Lane” is an understatement. I was thrown for a loop and excited because the year before “Cloverfield” premiered, I was obsessed with the viral marketing. “10 Cloverfield Lane” is a short but sweet apocalyptic thriller involving three characters facing a large dilemma ahead of them. After breaking up with her husband Ben, Michelle finds herself on the road to grieve for her relationship ending. After crashing in her car, she awakens to discover she’s been chained to a wall and is injured. Convinced she’s been kidnapped and taken hostage, she meets the very unusual Howard. John Goodman is excellent as Howard, a simple farmer with an unbalanced temperament that makes his entire motive ambiguous from beginning to end. When Michelle meets him, Howard explains that something terrible has happened in the outside world, and that he saved Michelle and has brought her back to his bunker.
After failing to escape, Michelle realizes she might not be in a hostage situation as she meets fellow survivors Emmett (a charming John Gallagher Jr.), who is also injured. He corroborates Howard’s claims, explaining that he begged to be let in to the bunker, and that he witnessed something truly unexplained outside that caused him to flee in terror. Now locked inside and seemingly surrounded by the luxuries of everyday life, Michelle struggles to cope with her new environment alongside Emmett. Both strangers form a tight bond when they realize Howard isn’t exactly the most mentally sound man alive. Surely, he is clever, and quick witted, and an A+ survivor, but in the end, he might be more frightening than whatever is happening outside of the bunker. The tension is thick and the mystery unfolds skillfully, as Michelle struggles to live within her confines, while also finding it difficult to ignore the clues she’s witnessed while living in the bunker.
She could hear helicopters, and someone calling for help, and despite Howard warning that nuclear fall out has made the environment inhospitable, she spots her cellphone going off in her dormant truck. What questions arise is if Michelle has been saved or is being held hostage after all. Did Howard really save the pair from something horrific, or did concoct and elaborate and well staged story just to keep him from going stir crazy as he hides out in his hole? Much of the direction is quite brilliant as director Dan Trachtenberg slowly delivers clues and ideas, and then allows us to go along with the narrative. John Goodman is probably one of the most inadvertent movie villains conceived in years. He’s simultaneously horrifying and endearing, and a man who clearly has hidden a lot of about his past, but seems to be using this opportunity as a sense of redemption by keeping Michelle and Emmett in his bunker, no matter what they do.
Their survival doesn’t just hinge on staying inside, but staying on Howard’s good side and pleasing him by following his very rigid series of rules. Once Michelle decides she’d rather tempt fate, it’s a wonderful bit of tonal shifting from survival thriller, to thick mystery, to a game of cat and mouse, right in to a veritable version of “War of the Worlds.” Director Trachtenberg keeps the film perfectly meta with a nice subtle tongue in cheek dark humor that also helps enhance the menace of the thriller. Michelle’s mumbling of “Oh Come On” upon viewing an alien war ship in the distance is reflective of possibly how the audience will respond, and the final note the film ends on is a satisfying book end with a humongous character evolution that closes much like an extended episode of “The Twilight Zone.” If this is how JJ Abrams and Bad Robot intends to treat the “Cloverfield” premise, I’m excited to see what’s lurking around the corner.