Fans of movies generally don’t want to hear the sort of thing we started hearing about 10 Cloverfield Lane when its existence first became known a few months ago: that producer J.J. Abrams took a spec script called The Cellar that had been floating around for a while and rejigged it into a movie that would maybe kinda work as a sequel to 2008’s Cloverfield (on which he also served as producer). This sounds like the worst sort of Hollywood folly: bad enough when movies are created as franchise cutouts, but now they’re shoving preexisting stories into franchise boxes*? Can’t movies just be their own thing anymore?
But here’s the thing about 10 Cloverfield Lane: even when it has said everything it has to say and the end credits are rolling, we still have no idea if or how what we’ve just seen is connected to Cloverfield. Lane could be occurring in the same universe as the earlier film, and if it is, well, there’s a whole lotta fun to be had in speculating what that means, fun that extends to a reconsideration of the first film, which is pretty brilliant; I definitely want to watch Cloverfield again now. (First-time director Dan Trachtenberg has flat-out stated more than once during the PR tour for Lane that the two movies do not occur in the same universe, but given Abrams’s penchant for messing with us — see also: Lost — I don’t think there’s any reason we have to take Trachtenberg at his word on this.) But Lane also stands entirely on its own… which makes the film’s title something akin to the “mystery box” of storytelling that Abrams has discussed in the past. Why use the word Cloverfield if there isn’t a connection? What would that mean?
Unless — and this would be pretty sneaky — it was to get moviegoers who are supposedly averse to checking out original stories to check out an original story. I’m not sure I approve of such deceit… but if it helps make a little movie a big success that it might not otherwise have been, that’s only a good thing.
And this is a marvelous little movie, compact and efficient and at moments almost unbearably intense. (I may have whimpered out loud once or twice while watching.) It is three people in a small space in a pressure-cooker situation… and for a long while, we don’t know what is really going on or who can be trusted. We trust Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Kill the Messenger, Alex of Venice), because she is the vulnerable one here, not just physically but psychologically: she’s the one who has questions that are not getting answered in a satisfactory way. After a car accident knocks her out, she wakes up to find herself chained to a pipe in a dingy cinderblock basement, with Howard (John Goodman: Love the Coopers, Trumbo) explaining that he rescued her from the crash and has kept her safe in his survival bunker while World War III or something worse has been raging above them. The fact that she is chained to a pipe leads her — and us — to doubt this, and to suspect that his insistence that the air outside is toxic or maybe radioactive but most definitely deadly is nothing more than mere gaslighting, to keep her inside and to himself. Sure, there was news on Michelle’s car radio, just before the crash, about widespread power outages, but that doesn’t automatically mean terrorism or war. But then there’s the third person in Howard’s bunker, a young man called Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.: Short Term 12, Jonah Hex), who says he helped Howard build the place and had to fight his way in when something bad was going down up top, though he is hazy on the details and may have even misinterpreted something benign through the prism of his friend Howard’s paranoia: “Howard’s like a black belt in conspiracy theory,” Emmett admits to Michelle. Indeed, Howard’s ideas about who launched “the attack” he keeps talking about range from Russians to North Koreans to “Martians.”
Through all of this, we know that the one person we really cannot trust is J.J. Abrams with his mystery box. That Cloverfield in the title really does not give you any useful clues about anything. But, you know, there’s something really fun in that, too. Abrams is playing with our expectations about how movies are sold to us, and with how movie marketing has become an art entirely separate from the movies themselves. We can often feel these days as if the movies themselves are experiences entirely superfluous to their marketing, that we don’t even need to see the movies in the end. That’s not the case with Lane, the marketing of which — up to keeping its mere existence secret until only weeks before its release — has been a masterclass in genuine tease.
But not only does Lane stand apart from 2008’s Cloverfield, it also exists as its own entertaining thing apart from the unexpected pleasures of how it was sold to us. If it had remained The Cellar, it would still be a glorious treat of movie-movie pulp genre entertainment. There is superb suspense in the overt story about three people learning to cope with one another and with life in a bunker. And there is a superbly smart, unspoken undercurrent that I wonder if the three male screenwriters — Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken, who wrote the original Cellar script, and Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, Grand Piano), who was brought in by Abrams to Cloverfield-ize it — even realize is present. Michelle’s plight is a microcosm of how women are always navigating a minefield with men: it can be tough to know whom to trust, tough to tell the genuinely good guys from the narcissistic creeps. Emmett seems harmless enough, and Howard makes absolutely no attempt to not be menacing (if you thought cuddly Goodman couldn’t be sinister, think again), but could either or both be other than their surface appearances? (Or could they be in cahoots for some terrible purpose, tag-teaming her, playing good cop and bad cop to confuse and unsettle her?) Winstead makes recognizably palpable the unease with which women tiptoe around a man’s sense of entitlement to a woman’s regard, as Howard does, and the finesse with which she must manage his temper when she fails to be sufficiently grateful in his eyes. He saved her from the apocalypse! She should be a lot nicer to him!
None of this is so transparent that it drowns out the rocky moodiness of the film — we ride out huge emotional swings with Michelle as she relaxes only to grow suspicious again — or the suggestion that perhaps that if there’s a “monster” here, it is purely of the human sort. Though who’s to say that there can be human monsters and monster monsters at the same time? I kind of love 10 Cloverfield Lane’s contention — perhaps an accidental one — that whatever is going on, it’s all just the same old crap for a woman to put up with.
*This has happened before, with mixed success, the best known — and perhaps just plain best — example being ‘Die Hard with a Vengeance,’ which was spun out of a John McClane-free spec script called ‘Simon Says.’