10 Cloverfield Lane – Film Review by David Turpin
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg
Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher, Jr.
J. J. Abrams, who serves as producer of Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, is in many ways the quintessential modern commercial filmmaker. With directorial credits including 2009’s zesty Star Trek ‘reboot’, and last year’s curiously timid Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Abrams seems hell-bent on resolving ‘event’ cinema into a series of interlinked ‘franchise properties’ – an approach shared by the many-headed Marvel Entertainment hydra. 10 Cloverfield Lane is both the logical conclusion of this approach and an odd-man-out – an obviously unrelated original screenplay that has been re-worked and re-branded (and ‘branding’ is the operational term here) into a ‘franchise partner’ with the moderately successful 2008 ‘found-footage’ monster movie Cloverfield, also produced by Abrams.
The story involves Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who awakes after a car crash to find herself imprisoned in an underground bunker by the unhinged Howard (John Goodman), who insists that some kind of chemical attack has rendered the outside world uninhabitable. While Michelle is naturally sceptical, another co-habitant, Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), is a willing subscriber to Howard’s doomsday ranting – even as Michelle’s presence sparks tension between the men. To reveal more would be to spoil 10 Cloverfield Lane’s secrets, which this reviewer would never dream of doing. The filmmakers have no such scruples, though, since the title itself lays the film’s ‘gotcha’ moment bare from the get-go. Cloverfield itself was by no means a memorable film, but one would have to be positively amnesiac not to feel that, by invoking it as they do, the filmmakers have fully defused the ‘is-he-delusional-or-isn’t-he’ time-bomb that ought, by rights, tick away until the climactic developments.
The result is a suspense film with many incidental pleasures, but an overhanging question that cannot, by definition, be suspenseful. While Trachtenberg stages a number of terrifically nasty sequences within the brilliantly designed confines of Howard’s bunker, the effect is weakened rather than enhanced by the fact that the question is not whether the film will resolve into science-fiction, but simply what the incidentals will be when it does so. Unravelling the exact nature of the film’s thematic and tonal relationships to Cloverfield may well engage Abrams trainspotters, but this guessing game comes at the expense of what could have been genuine surprise for non-acolyte viewers.
The greatest contradiction of 10 Cloverfield Lane is also its saving grace. While Abrams’ approach is to create overarching ‘brands’ that supersede old-fashioned filmmaking values like star power, what works best of all in Trachtenberg’s film is its trio of central performances. John Goodman is simply a joy in this part – his imposing physicality and his disarming childishness coalescing into something genuinely sinister, and oddly sympathetic. Winstead matches him scene for scene. A frustratingly underserved actress, Winstead has a tremendous sincerity and likability often wasted on throwaway fare like The Thing (2011) and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012). Here, she comfortably carries the film – and, if the final act developments are groaners, it’s still difficult to imagine any other actress pulling them off with quite the same combination of next-door-neighbour charm and action-heroine steel. Ultimately, what Abrams would no doubt like to characterise as a bold experiment in ‘world-building’ reveals itself as evidence of how the right cast, and a steady directorial touch, can bring the kiss of life to even the most compromised of projects.
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