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10 Cloverfield Lane

D: Dan Trachtenberg / 103m

Cast: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr, Suzanne Cryer

Much like its unofficial predecessor, 10 Cloverfield Lane arrives out of the blue with little fanfare but carrying the huge weight of anticipation. In these days of overhyped mega-budget superhero-thons and the perception that the public needs to know everything about a movie before it’s released, the fact that this latest from producer J.J. Abrams has slipped so easily under the radar is a very welcome fact indeed. While some movies thrive on the hype that accompanies them, this blend of claustrophobic thriller and sci-fi action movie has been released to a world that barely knew it was waiting for it. So how does it fare?

Well, the first thing to mention is that this isn’t a sequel to Cloverfield (2007). Yes, Cloverfield is in the title, but this exists in a different world to that movie, and while the notion of marauding aliens is present – in the final twenty minutes at least – what we have here is a decent thriller that pulls off a couple of neat narrative tricks on its way to an unnecessary, tacked-on finale. It begins with Michelle (Winstead) deciding to leave her husband, Ben. She takes off in her car and is soon driving through some very deserted countryside. It gets dark and as she navigates both the road ahead and calls from Ben, a truck collides with her and her car goes off the road. When she comes to she’s in a small, bare room and her right leg, which is strapped up, is chained to the wall.

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Her rescuer proves to be called Howard (Goodman), a survivalist who tells her that she’s in a fallout shelter that he’s had built, and that there’s been an attack which has left the atmosphere poisonous and unsafe. Disbelieving at first, Michelle learns that she and Howard aren’t alone. Also there is Emmett (Gallagher Jr), a young man who helped Howard build the shelter, and who “fought” his way in when Howard was about to seal it up. He corroborates Howard’s story of an attack, but it’s clear that he doesn’t really know what’s happening above ground, and as Michelle increasingly suspects, neither does Howard.

In time, Michelle manages to steal Howard’s keys and incapacitate him long enough to reach the shelter’s main door. As she does so, a woman (Cryer) appears at the door, apparently suffering from radiation burns and demanding to be let in. Now afraid that Howard has been right all along, Michelle retreats back down into the shelter. In the days that follow, Howard makes mention of his daughter, Megan. He shows Michelle a picture of her and laments that his wife left him and took Megan with her to Chicago. But a problem with the air filtration unit leads to Michelle finding an earring that Megan was wearing in the photo. She tells Emmett what she’s discovered, but he has further worrying news for her, news that prompts them to collude in getting one of them out of the shelter and going for help.

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What’s fresh and exciting about 10 Cloverfield Lane is the very fact that it’s not taking place in the same world as Cloverfield, and where that movie was one long example of undesirable shaky-cam, this has been made under more traditional means, with carefully composed shots and fluid camerawork throughout. For some this will be a relief but in reality the storyline doesn’t support such an approach, and it would have looked idiotic. And the movie’s tagline, “Monsters come in many forms”, has a neat vibe to it that underlines the events that happen in Howard’s shelter all too cleverly.

Thanks to a well-constructed screenplay by Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken, with input from Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), the movie works well as a tense thriller, and a survivalist drama. Once inside Howard’s shelter, Michelle’s back story is abandoned, and deliberately so; it’s her life now that’s important. Along with Emmett she has to adjust to being confined for possibly two years with a man who has violent mood swings and a Messiah complex. Howard is a frightening creation, his ability to justify his actions with an icy yet contemplative calm one of the main things the movie gets completely right. Goodman is superb in the role – his finest for quite some time – and he takes full advantage of a part that allows him to flex his considerable acting muscles and remind people just how good a dramatic actor he is. Whether he’s being sociable or psychotic, Howard is someone you just can’t take your eyes off of, and Goodman makes sure you don’t.

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Winstead is equally impressive, imbuing Michelle with a resourcefulness and a determination to survive that matches Howard’s. Gallagher Jr has the smaller role, and while Emmett isn’t as pivotal to proceedings as Howard and Michelle are, the actor is still able to make the character’s presence in the shelter both credible and necessary. Otherwise, there are a couple of minor roles and for viewers with a good ear for voices, a cameo by Bradley Cooper as Ben. By paring down the cast and concentrating on the dynamics of living underground with someone who may or may not be a homicidal monster, the movie ratchets up the tension and proves completely absorbing.

And then, it all goes wrong. The last twenty minutes find Michelle outside the shelter at last but now faced with fending off a creature attack that changes both the movie’s tone and its sense of purpose. The unlucky viewer now has to contend with a crash course in action movie clichés that all hurt the movie, and leave the ending feeling like the set-up for a third entry (The Final Cloverfield, perhaps?). It’s as if the makers have suddenly remembered that the connection to Cloverfield needs to be addressed, and they’ve scripted accordingly. And Trachtenberg, who has done a sterling job up til now, doesn’t have the answer to combat this uneasy transition. It’s unfortunate, and undermines everything that’s gone before.

But there’s still plenty to recommend the movie, not the least of which is a killer sound design that emphasises the effects of loud noises in the shelter, as well as external sounds that are both ominous and sinister at the same time. And Ramsey Avery’s production design, allied with Michelle Marchand II’s set decoration, gives the shelter a degree of verisimilitude that benefits the movie greatly. There’s always something to look at, and the level of detail is very impressive indeed.

Rating: 7/10 – two separate stories spliced together to make an unfortunate whole, 10 Cloverfield Lane quickly runs out of ideas once it lets its heroine out of the shelter; however, Goodman’s performance is worth the price of admission by itself, and there’s a sense of impending doom that the movie maintains effectively throughout its time below ground.