Before we get started, let’s get one thing straight. If you’re the type of spoiler-averse moviegoer who has a tendency to write angry letters to the editor or hammer out irate, CAPS LOCK comments below reviews, do us both a favor and just stop reading now. Seriously. I’m not really planning on spilling super-important plot points here, or telegraphing any surprise third-act twists (if, in fact, there are surprise third-act twists). But let’s just agree that if your potential enjoyment of 10 Cloverfield Lane rests on knowing as little as possible going in, then click on over to some of the other fine stories on EW. Okay? Okay.
Disclaimers like the one above are getting to be a bit of a habit with J.J. Abrams productions, like Lost, Star Trek Into Darkness, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and now this one. The man has constructed his cult around mystery. And he seems to get off on making us all complicit in his secrets. Not that I have a problem with that. Writing a spoiler-free review is simple enough (if a little limiting). Plus, I’m a believer that there’s nothing more satisfying than walking into a movie theater knowing next-to-nothing about the film you’re about to see and getting the rug pulled out from under you – assuming, of course, that it’s a decent enough rug, warranting all the tap-dancing and obfuscation. Abrams’ latest film, the quasi-/semi-/kinda-/not really-sequel to 2008’s Cloverfield is a decent enough rug. But it’s not a great one. It’s like a solid Twilight Zone episode or second-tier M. Night Shyamalan movie like Signs. It’s lean, and taut, and tense, and moves with Swiss-clock precision. Still, it’s not as scary as you want it to be. Honestly, the best thing about it may be its buzz-building top-secret tease of a marketing campaign.
The movie opens with a young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who’s frantically packing and rushing out the door of her apartment. Whatever the reason, she needs to leave and she needs to leave fast. She drives into the night, gets into a terrible car accident, and wakes up in what looks like a concrete cellar. She’s got an I.V. drip injected into her arm, but this is definitely not a hospital. And, oh yeah, she’s also chained to the wall. She’s someone’s prisoner. Before you can say Room II (or Saw VII), in walks John Goodman, with a tray of food in his hands and a gun on his hip. He tells her that he’s not her jailer, but her savior. He pulled her out of the wreckage. He also explains that she can’t leave because there’s been some sort of terrorist chemical attack, or nuclear Armageddon unleashed by the Russians, or, who knows, maybe it’s a Martian invasion.
Seriously, stop reading here if you don’t want to know more…
What happens next doesn’t have very much to do with Abrams and Matt Reeves’ stealthy found-footage monster mash from eight years ago. Abrams himself has cryptically referred to 10 Cloverfield Lane as merely a “blood relative” of 2008’s Cloverfield, and thankfully, that doesn’t include a similar first-person shaky cam M.O. But apart from a similar what-is-happening air of anxiety, you have to squint to connect it to the Cloverfield universe apart from the fact that it’s arrived at the multiplex with next to no advance warning. (Then again, there may be connecting threads that I’m not willing to divulge…Abrams isn’t the only one who can be a tease). For a lot of people, though, the Abrams signature, the shared tone, and the publicity machine’s veiled come-on may be enough to get them to fork over their ten bucks and roll the dice. But will they get their money’s worth?
Directed by first-time feature filmmaker Dan Trachtenberg, the film puts Goodman’s twitchy Howard, Winstead’s skeptical Michelle, and a third bunker dweller (John Gallagher, Jr.’s Emmet, a young handyman neighbor of Howard’s) into a claustrophobic subterranean space waiting for a sign that all is clear back on the surface. But slowly, Michelle and Emmet find holes in Howard’s story. For the record, everything I’ve just described takes place in the first-third of the movie. But I think it would be churlish to say any more, not because the studio would prefer it that way, but because the small handful of thrills in 10 Cloverfield Lane are of the jump-scare variety. They work best when you don’t see them coming. The movie doesn’t have anything deeper on its mind than shouting “Boo!” But sometimes a well-timed “Boo!” can be enough. After all, it’s why they still make jack in the boxes.
For a rookie director, Trachtenberg appears to be a real craftsman, even if what he’s crafting doesn’t add up to as much as you hope it will. Like Shyamalan’s Signs, it’s 90 minutes of anticipation — ominous trap-setting that leads to a big pay-off that is well staged but also a little anticlimactic and hokey. In the end, I wished there was a better payoff to warrant all the mystery. B