Trapped with a Mad Man
10 Cloverfield Lane
I think for many of us, those that saw Cloverfield and understood its basic charms, any proposition of a sequel would lead us down a specific speculation path. The film would be found footage, but that's how the first movie was filmed. It would follow a new group of survivors as they tried to escape an attack by a giant space monster. And it would likely add depth and story to the invasion of the monster so we'd know where this franchise was headed and what it was all about.
Of course, anyone that has seen anything produced and overseen by J. J. Abrams has to acknowledge that the famed creator has a very specific storytelling style: the puzzle box. The mystery is the thing, in essence, and it doesn't really matter where the story is going so long as the mystery is maintained and milked for maximum impact. At least, that's the theory anyway. Sometimes it works well. Sometimes the puzzle box approach to storytelling and create really cool twists and turns. Sometimes, though, the need for that mystery precludes actually solving the mystery, and when it comes time to pull back the curtain we realize there was never a wizard behind it all.
10 Cloverfield Lane is not the sequel anyone expected for Cloverfield. All those expectations I listed above are totally not addressed in this film. That's not a problem, per se, because once you get sucked into the setup and plot of the sequel you forget all about the first film and just enjoy the ride. The problem is that, at a certain point, the film actually has to address why it's a Cloverfield movie and, once that happens, that's when 10 Cloverfield Lane falls apart entirely.
Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a woman fleeing a bad relationship and an abusive fiance, Ben (Bradley Cooper). When we meet her she's packing up her bare essentials and leaving the apartment she shares with Ben. She hits the road, wary that Ben might somehow find her. But then her car is struck on a backwood road and it rolls down a hill, injuring Michelle and knocking her out. When she wakes she finds she's trapped in an underground bunker, kept there by doomsday prepper Howard Stambler (John Goodman) who believes the end of the world has occurred.
But, has it? The third member of the bunker, Emmett DeWitt (John Gallagher, Jr.), certainly thinks so. He saw a bright flash in the night, something more than just a fire or a flare. He immediately ran for the bunker and managed to get in just as Howard was closing it up. And when a woman comes to the bunker, desperate to get in, Michelle sees first hand that something was certainly going on. But there's still something off about Howard and this whole setup, and as more and more evidence piles up, Michelle begins to doubt Howard, the stories he's telling, and that the world truly has ended while she's been trapped in this underground prison.
In comparison to the first Cloverfield film, which was a big and bombastic monster horror movie, the sequel (if you even want to call it a true sequel) is a smaller affair. Most of the action happens in one place, the bunker, and there's only five real characters throughout (counting the voice of Ben and the one neighbor who briefly shows up). That makes it a tight, controlled, and more personal affair than the events of the first movie. Far more focused and carefully plotted.
It is, in essence, a locked room film, just with all the characters locked on the inside instead of out of the room. What happened? What's going on? Is the world really dead? These are the questions the film poses at the start, and the mystery that the film plays with for its whole first act is all about whether Michelle should really trust Howard and the crazy stories he's telling about the end of the world. Of course, those concerns are dismissed by the end of the first act, once that woman shows up outside, trying to get in. From there the film acts like Howard was correct... right up until it twists everything again.
What makes the film impressive is how much tension its able to build around an end of the world scenario where we never actually see the end of the world. We're only told about it, shown the barest of evidence (that, at times, could have been planted), and are forced to decide about doomsday all on our own. It's a sci-fi conceit that actually requires little in the way of the trappings of true sci-fi. Tiny set, tiny cast, no special effects. Just tension, eroding trust, and personal horror. It's masterful.
This is powered, in no small part, but the fantastic cast. Winstead does a fantastic job as Michelle, going through the various stages of her character's evolution when put into this situation: distrust, anger, grief, acceptance, and then back around to distrust again. Her character gets a full arc, all about her rebuilding herself after her terrible relationship, all against the backdrop of a doomsday bunker built by a crazed prepper. On that front, we have to acknowledge that it's Goodman's Howard that acts as the true backbone of the film. The actor finds ways to make Howard both the creepiest monster in the movie (while still being a human being), and also a man with wants and desires and humanity. It's an impressive performance that was rightly lauded when the film originally came out.
Where the film stumbles is in its last act. This is where the true Cloverfield elements come in, and its where everything good about the film is basically thrown out the window. I won't spoil this, as the film is less than a decade old at this point, but I will point out that the film is based on a script called "The Cellar", and it was only turned into a Cloverfield film during the production process. You can feel that with the last section of the last act as the film feels like it's straining to be a Cloverfield after being an unrelated film for most of its runtime.
I don't think the last bit of the film ruins the movie entirely, but I do think there's a version of this film where Michelle finds a way to escape her prison and, instead of answering anything or even trying to connect to the previous film, the movie just ends. She throws open the door, rushes out into daylight, and we're left to wonder if she escapes or not. The movie is about the bunker (or cellar, if you will) and everything that happens after isn't really material to the tension of the film. Michelle made it out. Whether that was good for her or not should be up to the viewer.
10 Cloverfield Lane is about nine-tenths of a good film with a tacked on section right at the end that, depending on the viewer, maybe doesn't need to be there. It doesn't ruin the movie for me but it is also the point where I tune out. It takes an A-plus tense thriller and turns it into a B-minus sci-fi goof. That's till a passing grade, but it's hard not to lament what could have been if this hadn't been a Cloverfield movie at all. But then, if it wasn't connected to that first film, would we even still be talking about it at all?