Silver Screen: Ten Cloverfield Lane **1/2
Ten Cloverfield Lane would have been a better movie if it had been called anything other than Ten Cloverfield Lane. Still not a great one, but better.
First-time feature director Dan Trachtenberg makes great use of the movie’s claustrophobic setting, which offers a deliciously (and frustratingly) tiny glimpse into a larger mystery beyond its own narrow parameters. The movie leans heavily on psychological horror and implication, allowing the pressure difference to expand between its two worlds: a fortified bomb shelter and the possibly fatally contaminated world outside.
Trouble is, the movie has Cloverfield right there in the title, which basically answers the “Is something more going on?” question before it’s even posed.
Let’s imagine seeing Ten Cloverfield Lane under ideal circumstances: A group of well-meaning cinephile friends kidnaps you from work and drives you directly to a movie theater to see a film of their choosing, but they refuse to reveal what it is. Despite going to all this trouble, they manage to get the showtime wrong and you all walk in a couple minutes late, just after the title sequence.
You’ll have missed a bit of prologue in which Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) leaves her boyfriend without giving him an explanation and is then run off the road by a mysterious vehicle.
That’s fine. You’ll catch up.
All you really need to know is Michelle wakes up in a dingy, windowless room, pants off, chained by a leg brace to a wall. Her mostly silent captor, a hulking survivalist named Howard (John Goodman), takes a good long time to explain the details of her incarceration.
According to Howard, the world above has been decimated by some kind of catastrophic attack, be it aliens, the Russians, or whomever. Luckily, paranoid Howard has been anticipating just such an event and has constructed a fully stocked, self-sufficient bunker that can sustain them for years.
With them in the bunker is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a more willing captive who helped Howard build the bunker and insisted he be allowed in when Howard claimed trouble was brewing. He can’t entirely confirm what may or may not be happening overhead. According to Howard, there need be no confirmation. Even if his story doesn’t always add up, or if he can’t always explain why there’s another woman’s things already down in the bunker.
Trachtenberg constructs a suspenseful captivity narrative complete with clandestine escape plots clashing with flickers of doubt-fueled Stockholm syndrome. Winstead is terrific, far too flinty and resourceful to be a mere damsel. Goodman has no problem conjuring menace but struggles to lend the erratically, implausibly written Howard any consistency; his mood swings and needlessly enigmatic speeches feel more like plot devices than character traits.
Yet even in this ideal experience of the movie, the final minutes would fall flat. There is a twist to be sure, and if you didn’t know the movie had Cloverfield in the title, that twist might pack a punch. Even if the hoodwinking is successful, the climax is both too much too fast and too little too late. You can’t add something so much larger and more interesting in the final six-hundred seconds of the movie and not leave viewers wishing they’d spent a little less time chatting it up in the bunker and a little more time dealing with the situation aboveground.
Like some of M. Night Shyamalan’s interesting but less-successful films, it’s highly reminiscent of The Twilight Zone (which certainly loved bomb shelters and characters in confined settings) but withers in the expansion. Even The Twilight Zone, after all, sputtered when it was expanded from twenty-four minutes to forty-eight.
The question of whether or not Ten Cloverfield Lane is directly related to the superior 2008 shaky-cam Godzilla riff Cloverfield, or is instead just a thematic sequel, is fairly unimportant. An argument could be made for a pretty specific link between the two, or the Cloverfield concept could be a specific approach to sci-fi storytelling where grand events are viewed from an extremely limited perspective. Either way, Cloverfield worked on its own merits, whereas Ten Cloverfield Lane would have been a frustrating experience by any other name.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.