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10 Cloverfield Lane has had a preposterously short run from its January announcement to its March release date. Developed, shot and edited under the fake moniker of Valencia, the world only learned that there would be a follow-up to 2008’s Cloverfield two months ago. Being the follow-up to such a cult and discussed film obviously comes with undue pressures to not just live-up to the original but also somehow not be overwhelmed by it too. But after the opening 20 minutes of 10 Cloverfield Lane, these concerns are reduced to a distant memory, as it immediately establishes itself as its own commodity.
The film's title and the looming unknown threat that’s teased but never verified mean that the links to Cloverfield are always in the back of your mind, but director Dan Trachtenberg and writers Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) use this to their advantage. While Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle is constantly tempted to break free from the bunker that she has randomly found herself enclosed in, the dramatic irony is that what potentially lurks beyond the wall increases the suspense and tension whenever she looms near to leaving.
Michelle wakes up in the bunker after surviving a car crash thanks to Howard Stambler (John Goodman), an odd, emotional, physically imposing man who tells her that an attack has left Earth’s surface completely uninhabitable for at least a year – possibly two. It’s not just the pair of them, though. Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr.) a local who helped Howard construct his impenetrable bunker, also headed to the shelter after the attack occurred. Can Michelle trust the two men? Has the world really been attacked? Or is the reality that it’s actually more dangerous inside the shelter than out?
These aren’t just questions that Michelle finds herself asking, but they constantly swirl inside the audiences’ mind as well. Wisely, Dan Trachtenberg keeps the viewpoint firmly on Michelle, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who is in every scene, works as perfect conduit as she increases the anxiety, tension and suspense through her performance.
John Goodman is the real reason why 10 Cloverfield Lane works so splendidly, however. As Howard, Goodman teeters on a knife’s edge between insanity and sweetness, selling each and every scene he’s in and adding more depth to mystery. It’s the kind of role that no-one else would have been able to play, as despite the loony conspiracy theory nonsense that he regularly sprouts, the audience also wants to believe him. Especially since we know what’s actually outside… Probably.
Director Dan Trachtenberg, whose economic storytelling creates a smart balance of exposition and backstory, keeps 10 Cloverfield Lane’s big revelations at arm’s length, but uses the audience’s desire to see the mystery unfold to his advantage, luring us into situations where we finally think we’re getting real answers, only to then raise further questions that take the narrative in a different direction. It's a risky move that could annoy movie-goers, but there's enough in the twists to keep us intrigued. As the stakes are raised and these new tensions emerge, the movie gets tighter and more claustrophobic. This only means that its climax is only more exciting and satisfying.
There are one or two spoiler-y plot holes that you’ll unravel later when you begin to think about 10 Cloverfield Lane a bit harder, and there is a degree to which Emmet is ultimately largely extraneous, but the film still hooks, enthralls, and thrills, all while playfully toying with its audience, tipping its hat to its past, and teasing its future.