>>> 10 Cloverfield Lane

J.J. Abrams has said he sees 10 Cloverfield Lane and its predecessor as “two different rides at the same amusement park,” and that’s a perfect way to frame it.

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (Dan Trachtenberg). 103 minutes. Opens Friday (March 11). See listing. Rating: NNNN

I have a feeling the experience of watching 10 Cloverfield Lane might be better if producer J.J. Abrams had released his latest mystery-box movie under the script’s original title, The Cellar. The escalating tension and thorny psychology would still be intact, the performances of Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman would be just as strong, and we wouldn’t spend most of the movie’s running time trying to figure out how this taut locked-room thriller lines up with Matt Reeves’s 2008 found-footage monster movie. 

Abrams has said he sees the movies as “two different rides at the same amusement park,” and that’s a perfect way to frame it. Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane aren’t related in any narrative or structural fashion, but they do share the same purpose: presenting a large-scale disaster from the perspective of a handful of civilians attempting to survive with minimal information and limited resources.

10 Cloverfield Lane is even more restrictive than its predecessor, which used most of Manhattan as its canvas. It’s the apocalypse as bottle episode, taking place in an underground bunker somewhere in rural Louisiana, where a young woman named Michelle (Winstead) regains consciousness after a car wreck to find herself in the care of a very serious man named Howard (Goodman).

Howard is a little on edge, but he has good reason. There’s been some sort of attack – chemical, biological or nuclear, he doesn’t know. But the air is toxic, and they have to assume that everyone above ground is dead. Michelle, Howard and Howard’s farmhand Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) might be the last people on Earth… if Howard is telling the truth, of course.

Sharing any further details about the plot would spoil the fun. Like its predecessor, 10 Cloverfield Lane plays with the requirements of its chosen genre, actively subverting our expectations and using its characters’ limited viewpoint as a tool to generate suspense. But unlike Cloverfield, which used its camcorder perspective to fix an unimaginable event in a credible reality, it’s shot with almost Hitchcockian precision. Director Dan Trachtenberg and cinematographer Jeff Cutter establish a fluid, glossy aesthetic, using longer takes to let us explore the bunker’s rooms along with their resourceful hero.

This movie is about its characters rather than its situation, and the actors are quick to fill the emotional space. Winstead gives Michelle a sense of readiness and competence even when she’s cuffed to a cot, and Goodman invests the beady-eyed Howard with just enough warmth to keep us questioning whether he’s especially pragmatic and task-focused or dangerously unhinged. (Gallagher doesn’t have much to do as Emmett besides be charming and a little dim, but he does both of those things really well.)

The longer the movie goes on, the more we invest in these characters and hope they’ll figure out a way to live together and survive whatever’s happening up top. Of course, that’s just what Trachtenberg and Abrams want us to do: it lowers our guard to their larger machinations.

And this is where the whole Cloverfield thing works against the movie: the temptation to look for clues and uncover a larger plot is distracting. Yes, there are tiny connections here and there: a Slusho sign in a gas station, an envelope from Bold Futura, one of the subsidiaries of the first film’s peripheral Tagruato Corporation. They’re fun Easter eggs, I guess, but they took me out of the movie each time I noticed them. 10 Cloverfield Lane will probably play a lot better the second time through, when you know what you’re watching and can just focus on the story being told. 

That said, if Abrams’s master plan is to just drop weird little genre movies on us every few years and use the Cloverfield title to announce their arrival – well, he’s setting a pretty high bar for himself. But I’m in.

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