Late one night in the middle of January, a new trailer "leaked" on to the Internet that had plenty of reasons to get people talking: starring turns from John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a premise that pulled on the primal fear of being caged up and the distinct feeling that much of the plot was shrouded in mystery. And then the kicker: Credits that revealed it was produced by J.J. Abrams and included the almighty watchword "Cloverfield" in the title. Here was "10 Cloverfield Lane," a film that was set to hit theaters a mere two months after its first bit of marketing appeared in the public space.
Rumors of a "Cloverfield" sequel have persisted for years, kicked up almost immediately after Matt Reeves’ 2008 found-footage monster movie hit theaters, and enduring on long after Reeves and Abrams both moved on to larger things (from the revitalized "Planet of the Apes" franchise to a little something called "Star Wars"). But it was hard to imagine what exactly a "Cloverfield" sequel would look like, who it would follow or how it would actually fit into the interestingly assembled universe. Dan Trachtenberg’s "10 Cloverfield Lane" wades through that conundrum with a clever strategy: Not a direct sequel to Reeves’ original feature, it’s been touted as both a "spiritual successor" and a "blood relative" to the first film (though it does leave open the opportunity for "Cloverfield" fans to deconstruct and analyze plenty of material, and they will surely be able to draw connections and conclusions from their findings). It should please both hardened fans and thrill-seeking newbies.
Simply put, if you like "Cloverfield," you’re going to like "10 Cloverfield Lane." But the films don’t share a direct storyline, any characters or even similar filming styles. Instead, the films are kindred spirits.
Reportedly retrofitted from a previous script known as "The Cellar" (penned by John Campbell and Matt Stuecken, who get both a "story by" credit and a screenwriting nod on the feature), "10 Cloverfield Lane" was eventually reworked into its existing version with help from Damien Chazelle under the codename "Valencia." The film follows Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who we first meet as she’s quickly packing her bags and getting the hell out of metaphorical Dodge (the film is set in Louisiana, a nice counter-balance to the city-set terrors of "Cloverfield").
But Michelle isn’t fleeing any outsized monsters; she’s actually just leaving her fiance, who promptly calls her up and begs her to come home. Answering while driving is never a great idea, but that point is hammered home quite swiftly when Michelle is knocked off the road in a snappy car accident that sets the tone for the rest of the rest of the film. Michelle’s nightmare is only beginning, however, because when she wakes up from the accident, she’s chained up in some dude’s creepy basement bunker. John Goodman’s Howard is a study in extremes, one who demands that Michelle thank him for his generosity in saving her (because the world outside has seemingly ended, conveniently while Michelle was unconscious) while also so very clearly harboring a nefarious agenda
Trachtenberg ratchets up the tension with ease, and even small things — the way Howard makes a fist, the appearance of a photograph, an oddly jammed air shaft — are filled with a stomach-turning dread that keeps the film chugging along until its explosive last act.
"10 Cloverfield Lane" doesn’t dance around the truth for too long, but the film is built to force its audience to draw quick conclusions about Howard and his aims. Is he a doomsday loony who got lucky and helped out a woman in need at the most opportune of times? Or is he a lying psychopath who has cooked up one hell of a story to tell his latest captive? The film eventually explores other options, but keeps its central framework unchanged. It is, like most things sprung from Abrams’ so-called mystery box, hard to explain without spoiling, and so much of the joy of Trachtenberg’s film is its many surprises, twists and change-ups.
Despite the bizarre situation she finds herself in, Michelle remains a relatable figure as the suspense continues to build. Essentially functioning as the "final girl" of horror movie lore for the duration of the movie, Michelle makes entirely rationale decisions that will have no impatient viewers yelling that the screen. (This is not the kind of character who runs up the stairs when everyone in the audience screams at her to scoot out the door.)
Filled with considerable dread and mystery, "10 Cloverfield Lane" functions just fine as a standalone genre title. But as a spiritual sequel to the original, it builds out the so-called "Cloververse" far better than could be expected from even the most straightforward of tales.
"10 Cloverfield Lane" opens in wide release on Friday, March 11.