It’s hard not to go into 10 Cloverfield Lane without first remembering the previous installment, with its giant shaky-cam monster and its giant shaky-cam ambitions. However, the newest J.J. Abrams film is an entirely different beast, bringing us a psychological, cerebral experience. Where the first film had a feeling of open-world exploration, this one strips all of that away, leaving us with one claustrophobic bunker for the three main characters to inhabit.
How did they get here? Through various means: for Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), it’s a rude awakening from a car crash; for Howard (John Goodman at his most paranoid (if you can believe that)), it’s preparation for an attack that his postwar PTSD saw coming years ago; and for Emmett (John Gallagher Jr) it was an attempt to flee what he describes as an “attack.” It is with these three characters that our film’s plot hinges on, and questions of trust are quickly raised.
Such a high-stakes, psychologically-driven concept like this wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for the impeccable performances of all three of the afore-mentioned leads. The film basically only has three characters in it (with various voices here and there from radio broadcasts throughout), so it’s their performances that drive the movie; oftentimes, it feels like we’re watching a one-act play unfold (the casting of John Gallagher Jr, who has an extensive stage career, is not accidental). These are real people, with fears and wants, whose personalities pop off the screen; as the characters discover more and more about each other and the world they’re now living in, we as an audience attempt to work out what’s happening as the characters do.
This is something that 10 Cloverfield Lane does so well – it constantly toys with our expectations of what the movie is going to be and do, even what genre it is. With the first Cloverfield’s viral marketing campaign, we were given a similarly vague-but-compelling teaser, but we pretty much knew what territory the movie was going to cover (namely, a Godzilla-esque found-footage adventure). Here, the marketing for the film gave us much less to work with: are there monsters at all? Is all the action in the bunker? What exactly is going on? It’s exciting and unexpected, because J.J. Abrams knows the expectations you have from the trailer, and uses that to his advantage in the various twists and turns the film throws at you.
The film isn’t without its faults, however minor; in particular, Bear McCreary’s score doesn’t know whether it wants to be a quiet, menacing pull of strings (super effective whenever it’s invoked) or a bombastic, Hollywood-esque brass swell (admittedly less effective). There were times when the sound cues threatened to give something away, like Lassie trying to tell us that Timmy fell down the well. But ultimately, the score is most affecting when it works with the action on-screen; it tends to forget that it’s a psychological thriller and not an action movie (at least, for the majority).
Overall, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a surprisingly refreshing turn from J.J. Abrams, normally known for his massive sets and fantastical worlds, but here choosing something much closer to home. The result is a film that will stick with you, with memorable performances and a great sense of build and drama. If you liked the first Cloverfield film, see this one; if you didn’t, see this one anyway. It’s well worth the trip.