Taut and tense, “10 Cloverfield Lane” is a surprisingly effective sci-fi thriller.
With a strong trio riveting us in a doomsday scenario, it’s a wild ride from the get-go. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) rushes out of her place, headed in a new direction, but is thrown a sudden crazy curve.
The thoughtfully constructed story is filled with jolts, jump-scares and twists, toying with our emotions at every turn, so I do not want to give too much away.
The plucky young woman finds herself, trapped, in some kind of subterranean shelter. Howard (John Goodman) is her captor, claiming he rescued her in the nick of time.
There was an attack — but whether it was chemical, nuclear or alien — is unclear. Howard is convinced the air outside is contaminated, and thanks to his forward thinking and survivalist skills, has created a fully functional underground space to ride out the apocalypse.
They’re not alone, though. Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a genial handyman who helped build the bunker, scurried there for safety at the first sign of trouble.
They make the best of a bad situation, although Michelle is skeptical of Howard’s motives. Is the terror outside worse than the monster that might be indoors?
Two of our finest young actors and a first-rate character actor excel at keeping us on the edge of our seats. As the determined Michelle, Winstead (“Smashed”) emotes through her eyes, furtively glancing around, trying to figure out what’s really going on, her suspicious mind in overdrive. Hopefully, her career will get a bounce from this, because she deserves more recognition.
Gallagher, Tony winner for “Spring Awakening” and part of HBO’s “Newsroom” ensemble, is endearing as a good ol’ boy regretting the rut he took comfort in, now contemplating the end of days.
One of St. Louis’ favorite sons, Goodman seizes this meaty role with gusto. He conveys just enough menace to raise red flags, hinting that he’s looney tunes, yet he shows fatherly concern for his houseguests.
Producer J.J. Abrams’ penchant for layered mysteries and clever clues permeates the entire work, although the set-up is ultimately more satisfying than the payoff.
But the man who gave us the mind-bending “Lost” and a richly rewarding “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” possesses Rod Serling’s innate ability to reel us in, hook, line and sinker.
He has assembled a sharp creative team for this follow-up to the 2008 “Cloverfield.” although it’s not a sequel, rather like part of a “Twlight Zone” trilogy. The guys who worked on that — Matt Reeves, Drew Goddard (“Ex Machina”) and Bryan Burk — are back here as executive producers.
First-time director Dan Trachtenberg varies the mood with ease, expertly building suspense and diffusing the claustrophobia. Just when you think he’ll zig, he zags. Editor Stefan Grube skillfully advances the action, eliciting gasps from the audience.
The screenplay, rewritten by Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) from a story by Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken, is smart and cunning, with flashes of wit, and doesn’t rely on gimmicks or gore.
The production design by Ramsey Avery is particularly captivating, a mix of yard sale and discount store decor.
What Doesn’t Work
The revelation is rather anticlimactic, and that fumble is reminiscent of another Abrams’ film, “Super 8.” It’s also reminiscent of the first “Cloverfield,” which promised so much in its trailer, but ultimately did not live up to expectations.
“10 Cloverfield Lane” is superior to the first effort, and has enough genuine thrills to impress even the most jaded horror movie fan.
One wouldn’t think fanning fear, however fictional, in these unsettling times would provide juicy entertainment, but it does. Wherever J.J. Abrams boldly goes, I’ll gladly follow.
‘10 Cloverfield Lane’
- Director: Daniel Trachtenberg
- Cast: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.
- Rated PG-13 (material including frightening sequences of threat with some violence and brief language)
- 105 minutes