I like 2008’s Cloverfield. It was a solid monster movie that took advantage of the found footage approach before weak imitators drove the sub-genre into the ground, and it also had the benefit of a well-crafted marketing campaign. Its follow up, 10 Cloverfield Lane, has been billed as a “spiritual sequel” and a “blood relative” to the original, but on a fundamental level and at its strongest moments, 10 Cloverfield Lane couldn’t be any more different from Matt Reeves’ film. Instead of a big, bad monster movie, director Dan Trachtenberg has focused on an intimate human horror tinged with supernatural elements. For the majority of the film’s run time, you could call this film by one of its original titles (“Valencia” or “The Cellar”) and it would be more than fine. It’s only at the end when “Cloverfield” truly comes into the mix that the film starts to go off the rails.
The film follows Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is leaving her fiancée but on her way out of town she gets into a car accident. She wakes up chained in a cellar where she meets creepy Howard (John Goodman), who tells her that there’s been an attack of some kind and that it’s not safe outside of his doomsday cellar. The only other inhabitant is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a young local who helped build the shelter. Given Howard’s off-putting demeanor, crazy beliefs in doomsday scenarios as well as Martians, and waking up chained to a mattress on the floor, Michelle is extremely reluctant to believe her jailor/savior’s story that the air outside is contaminated, but eventually she’s put between a rock and a hard place in that the threat inside the cellar may be more dangerous than whatever’s lurking outside.
For most of its runtime, 10 Cloverfield Lane is the anti-Cloverfield. It has no plot link to the 2008 movie, it features established stars like John Goodman as opposed to a group of unknowns, and most importantly, the tension doesn’t come from supernatural creatures who are ready to attack. The tension comes from how much Howard can be trusted. That’s the core mystery for 10 Cloverfield Lane, and while it plays with that a little too long in the middle (the movie tries to reestablish a sense of normalcy after it’s abundantly clear that Howard is, at best, deeply unstable), the film still works best when it goes fully into being a psychological thriller rather than trying to bring in Cloverfield elements.
Those Cloverfield elements—which, again, are fine in their own movie—become a distraction when you have such a fascinating dynamic within the bunker, especially thanks to Goodman’s tremendous performance. Goodman once again shows why he’s one of the greatest screen actors of all-time as he makes Howard a threat but never cartoonish or predictable. His performance is perfectly measured so that he knows when to be physically imposing, or let his voice go small, or even be vulnerable despite the fact that he holds all the power in the bunker and Michelle and Emmett are his “guests”. He’s absolutely riveting and while Trachtenberg’s direction is impressive, he gets a huge assist from his cast.
But once the movie turns away from intrigue into the bunker and starts indulging its Cloverfield elements, Trachtenberg loses his way. The tone is completely different, and it feels like the film is pandering to producer J.J. Abrams’ desire to turn a film that would have stood alone perfectly well on its own merits into part of a larger universe. While I admit that tacking the name “Cloverfield” onto the title and throwing in some Cloverfield-ian elements will help boost the film’s box office, it comes at the expense of crafting a stronger movie.
While the final 10 minutes of the movie aren’t enough to drag down all the strong work that’s been built up before, it’s still a shame to see a movie try to fit into a box it was never designed to fill. I don’t have a problem with more Cloverfield movies or trying to create a Cloverfield anthology. But reworking Valencia/The Cellar into 10 Cloverfield is an odd fit, especially at the end when it forgets that the more terrifying monsters are the ones among us.