Review: “10 Cloverfield Lane”

John Gallagher, Jr,, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and John Goodman star in "10 Cloverfield Lane," here reviewed by film critic James Frazier.What is “10 Cloverfield Lane”? A helluva marketing gimmick, first and foremost, and a movie second. Produced and announced with impressive stealthiness, it arrives on the back of a brilliant advertising campaign that tantalizingly teases a frightening sci-fi mystery. Or is it a hostage thriller? And what’s the connection to the 2008 found-footage hit “Cloverfield”? The fun in “10 Cloverfield Lane” largely rests in finding out.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle, the heroine, who awakens from a car wreck to discover herself handcuffed to a pipe in an underground bunker. She’s the captive of Howard (John Goodman), a survivalist who claims to have rescued her from a catastrophic enemy invasion outside. “Ruskies, maybe Martians,” he explains, giving Michelle more than a little reason to be skeptical of Howard’s professed altruism.

Howard shows Michelle around. The bunker is part stronghold, part living room, well-stocked with food and entertainment (“I have films on DVD and VHS cassette,” Howard says with a hint of pride). There’s also Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr,), a local handyman who has known Howard for years, and who, despite acknowledging that Howard is a less than ideal host, fully supports his apocalyptic narrative.

Originally a script titled “The Cellar” with no “Cloverfield” connection at all, producer JJ Abrams and the filmmakers have molded the project into something related to the 2008 found-footage monster flick. Its humble roots are present in the cramped setting and small cast, but a modest Hollywood budget imbues it with the cinematic spit-polish trifecta: crisp cinematography, appealing production design, and thunderous sound and visual effects. I haven’t read the original script, but I also suspect that it’s that same Hollywood influence that results in a brazenly derivative action sequence, as well as some beats that eschew the striking fatalism of the original “Cloverfield.”

It’s a three-person show, with the script tightening and loosening the screws as it goes along. There are questions galore, both of the ultimately answered and unanswered variety, which drive the narrative. Winstead, a sympathetic actress who hits that sweet spot between girl next door and beautiful, makes for a sympathetic protagonist, though the script’s emphasis on the plot’s mysteries leaves her underdeveloped, meaning the anxiety generated by the plot never quite reaches peak nerve-rattle.

Goodman’s performance is key. It’s the tightrope he walks that charges the proceedings with a considerable amount of its suspense. Able to play the monstrous and cuddly with equal effectiveness, Goodman wisely refuses to go to either extreme. His Howard somehow always seems simultaneously dangerous and vulnerable, his soft moments carrying menace, his angry ones tinted with compassion. It’s a bravura effort from an actor who would have had an Oscar nomination by now in a world where the Academy recognized great work in genre films.

It’s rare that a film needs to be seen with few to no spoilers, but “10 Cloverfield Lane” qualifies. Fun while it lasts, its reliance on secrets ultimately makes it solid but disposable. Buy a ticket and enjoy once, because this isn’t the kind of movie anyone wants to watch twice.