Expectations are deadly. When it comes to the movies, high expectations can ruin an experience, while low expectations can make even a bad movie somewhat enjoyable. Marketing is largely responsible for creating and managing audience expectations, and of course, J.J. Abrams is a self-styled master manipulator of them. The campaigns behind Cloverfield and Super 8, in particular, generated wild speculation by holding back information as much as possible - which put expectations all over the place.
The marketing campaign for 10 Cloverfield Lane did almost the opposite. All footage released suggests the kind of unassuming thriller you’d expect to see at festivals, yet it’s saddled with a title that makes it a franchise entry. By putting Cloverfield in the title, audiences expected a monster movie, or at the very least a movie holding back secrets like Cloverfield was thought to (but didn’t). The actual movie is sort of both, and yet sort of neither. But to judge it based on expectation is unfair - it’s a tight, well-constructed thriller that’d be worthy regardless of franchising.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Michelle, a smart, resourceful, and untrusting wannabe fashion designer who, in the film’s opening minutes, gets into a car accident and wakes up in an underground bunker owned by apocalypse-prepper Howard (John Goodman), who claims that everyone on the surface is dead. We don’t really know much about Michelle. She’s running away from a relationship at the start of the film, but that barely factors into the story - the focus is very much on the here and now.
As Howard, John Goodman is intentionally inscrutable, much like the sense of reality in the film. He can act sensitive, funny, or terrifying, but it’s difficult to tell what’s really going on behind the facade. That’s crucial to the success of the film - much of it involves trying to decipher what Howard wants and whether he’s telling the truth about what’s going on above ground. The film plays into our assumptions about men who put women in basements, subverting them at times and agreeing at others, and though it occasionally shows signs of turning into an abduction-and-abuse thriller, it never really goes down that road. As the primary mechanism for that see-sawing trust, Goodman is terrific.
John Gallagher Jr’s Emmett is an additional cog in 10 Cloverfield Lane’s machinery of truths and untruths. A hapless sort, he’s a generally agreeable ally of both Howard and Michelle, providing support to both as they need it. It’s a thankless role for Gallagher, as Emmett is essentially a go-between for the two leads, but his likeable screen presence adds further question marks around the integrity of Howard’s apocalyptic claims.
10 Cloverfield Lane’s story is exceptionally tight, with no excess baggage. Multiple mysteries unfold over its running time. Director Dan Trachtenberg, along with writers Josh Campbell, Matthew Suecken, and Damien Chazelle, keep the audience guessing and re-guessing throughout. Everything introduced early on has a payoff later, sometimes in an unintentionally hilarious fashion: again, Michelle is resourceful to a MacGyver-esque extreme. You’ll wonder who’s in the right, what the situation is, and even what genre the film is, but by the end, everything makes sense. There are no unsolved mysteries in this film, which should please Abrams’ detractors.
Dan Trachtenberg got this directing gig off the back of a Portal fan film, but you’d never guess it. 10 Cloverfield Lane is restrained and functional, letting the cast, the screenplay, and the edit do the heavy lifting. There are a number of memorable setpieces that offer legitimate edge-of-seat stuff, evoking everything from disease thrillers to Hitchcockian claustrophobia. Trachtenberg smartly lays out the bunker’s internal geography throughout the film, so that when the third act turns spectacular in unexpected ways, there’s no wasted time and zero confusion. And no: for those nauseated by Cloverfield’s cinematography, there is barely any handheld camerawork at all in 10 Cloverfield Lane.
If there’s anything that will spark debate about 10 Cloverfield Lane, it’s the ending. If it feels tacked on, it’s because it sort of is: the film was originally conceived and shot as The Cellar, with no franchising at all, and up until the end, it certainly feels like its own thing. Does the ending turn the movie into a Cloverfield sequel? It depends on what your expectations are. My instinct would be to say “not exactly,” but I don’t think it’s intended as a sequel per se. Rather, I think Abrams is retroactively building either a thematically-linked series, a la Halloween III, or a full-on shared universe with Cloverfield and possibly even Super 8. All three are high concept, Twilight Zone-y movies that stand on their own (if shakily, in Super 8’s case), but could conceivably link up in the future. Certainly, 10 Cloverfield Lane’s final image suggests such a thing may not be so far off.
10 Cloverfield Lane’s insertion into a franchise is likely to be controversial. It’s a sign of the times: this is the kind of movie - a single-location, three-hander thriller with no A-list cast - that would ordinarily get festival praise but barely any audience. It’s only the title, and elements of the climax, that put it into franchise territory and thus on the mainstream radar. What if The Guest had been called The Bourne Activation? What if Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter had been advertised openly as a sequel to Fargo? Or what if Grand Piano had evoked Phone Booth in its title? Would it be worth it to get more punters along to those wonderful indie films?
It’s an interesting question. Does 10 Cloverfield Lane’s title devalue the film underneath as mere franchise fodder? Or does it smartly elevate a clever little thriller to “must-see” status with the stroke of a pen? In this case, I’m leaning towards the latter. 10 Cloverfield Lane plays on expectations most blatantly in its title, but it’s the smaller, story-related twists and subversions that matter. If slapping Cloverfield on top of The Cellar gets more people to see this kind of movie, and this movie in particular, I think I’m okay with it. It’s a fun, tense, and exciting hundred minutes, regardless of where the monsters are.