By now you’ve heard the obligatory spiel about 10 Cloverfield Lane; how the J.J. Abrams-produced project was kept under wraps using a different name and then suddenly thrust upon the public on an unassuming January evening only months before its release. How it’s not exactly a sequel, but more like a “blood relative” to the found-footage Cloverfield from 2008.
What isn’t clear from any of that, though, is how the connection between the two films’ titles lends to the story itself, and how that speculation about the relationship between the films fuels the viewer in a way that would never have been possible with a title like “The Cellar”, the name of an earlier version of the script.
10 Cloverfield Lane stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle, a woman leaving her city life and fiancee behind in search of a fresh start. The film opens with Michelle’s road trip escape to who-knows-where, and by the time the opening credits roll, she’s already been in a car accident and peeled off the road by a stranger named Howard (John Goodman). After chaining her to a wall, Howard says he’s done Michelle a favor by saving her life and bringing her down into his fallout shelter right as the U.S. was subject to a mysterious attack that has left the air toxic and unsafe.
John Goodman’s portrayal of Howard is golden. He’s terrifying one moment and kind the next, all the while capable of small moments of genuine charm. It’s a complex role – one I could imagine no one else in after seeing Goodman’s performance – and one that gives Michelle constant doubt as to the truth behind Howard’s claims of the apocalypse. But what gives the movie even more of a push into the mystery genre is, as mentioned, the title itself. Anyone who’s seen Cloverfield knows that the attacks Howard mentioned, if this movie is the same world and at the same time, are completely plausible – that going outside might be even more dangerous than being trapped in a fallout shelter with someone you don’t trust. But is it? Or is Howard just losing it? Without the title connection, I likely would have just assumed the latter, but because of it, I was constantly second-guessing what was really happening.
There are very few actors in this film, and they’re all perfectly cast. Goodman nails the role in a way that will probably be used as a yardstick to measure other actors in similar parts, and Winstead is an appropriate mix of defiant and fearful in a role that is likely to spark yet another cosplayed character in future convention-goers. John Gallagher Jr. (who you may recognize from The Newsroom) is the only other player with significant screen time, and is almost unrecognizable from previous roles.
The real star of the whole production, though, is first-time film director Dan Trachtenberg. Trachtenberg’s first feature-length film comes after directing a fairly well-known short, Portal: No Escape, but it’s miles away from amateur. The way the film was shot, edited, and paced all give credence to Trachtenberg’s rising star, and it’ll be interesting to see where he heads next.
In fact, let’s just go ahead and call it here and now. By the year’s end, he’ll probably be announced as a director for a future Marvel film.