'10 Cloverfield Lane' Review: Hunker Down in the Bunker
I'm going to be honest: I was not and am still not a fan of the original Cloverfield film. It's one of those films that rode its immensely successful alternate reality game ad campaign all the way to the bank with a below average found footage film. So, when the trailer for 10 Cloverfield Lane was released, I wasn't particularly excited to see the next entry into the film franchise even as J.J. Abrams had said claimed that it's only a "blood relative" to the original film. With the "blood relative" denomination in mind, the newest Cloverfield film outperforms the original in every imaginable way but manages to fall just short of a genre classic.
The film tells the story of Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who gets into a car accident after leaving New Orleans due to an argument with her fiance. She is rescued by the mysterious Howard (John Goodman) who takes her to his underground bunker to protect her from a nationwide attack. Along with Michelle and Howard is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a local who helped Howard build his bunker before the attacks. Michelle then attempts to determine the veracity of Howard's claims of a nationwide attack along with trying to figure out a way to escape the bunker.
Unlike the previous entry into the franchise, 10 Cloverfield is a character drama at its core with three fantastic performances Mary Elizabeth is great as always as the conflicted yet strong Michelle. Even when she is in movies that aren't that great, cough cough The Thing, Winstead still manages to deliver a believable and memorable performance. It's reminiscent of a young Sigourney Weaver; she is beautiful yet more fierce than her male counterparts in the film. Believable heroines are a hard role to do right but Winstead delivers. Having never seen John Gallagher Jr. in anything before, he also does a fantastic job as the naive Emmett. He's the country boy with an introspective side that breaks some of the conventions expected with that kind of character. His interactions with Winstead prove to be some of the highlights of the film. Also keep your ears perked up for a well-known actor as Winstead's fiancée.
While Winstead and Gallagher Jr. are great as their respective characters, John Goodman is a force to be reckoned as Howard. There was an opportunity with his character to either play it full tin-hat paranoid or strict disciplinarian but Goodman walks the line between the two. There are moments in the film where he is actually quite sympathetic as well which speaks to Goodman's abilities as an actor. You never quite get the full picture of what his character is all about which does allow for the audience to fill in the gaps and draw their own conclusions. His on-screen moments fill not only the characters but the audience with dread as he is always one second away from violence. The best villains are the ones that exist in the gray, and Goodman's Howard operates in that space with aplomb.
All of the fantastic performances aside, 10 Cloverfield has one problem that it cannot escape: the Cloverfield name. The initial script for the film was titled The Cellar and was picked up by Paramount Insurge, the indie brand of the main Paramount Studios. Damian Chazelle, director and writer of Whiplash, was then brought in to help with the script before it went into production. During filming, it slowly morphed into the "blood relative" to Cloverfield yet the film does not take place in the original film's universe or have any connections other than sharing a similar title.
What earns the film the "blood relative" moniker and it's connection to the original film tonally is the absurd and goofy ending that feels wholly different than the previous 90 minutes of the film. It takes a very contained reserved character study and sullies it with a low-budget Syfy channel CGI-fest. With the original ending hitting the internet days after the release of the film, it's hard not to feel cynical about the "blood relative" connection that exists due to the film's ending. It's the equivalent of eating at a three Michelin star restaurant only to have dessert laden with sparklers come at the conclusion of the meal. It's a divisive ending that, depending on the future of the franchise, could pay off if there are plans for more films down the road. Right now, however, the ending stands as a misguided attempt at giving the audience a payoff rather than telling a compelling story.
10 Cloverfield Lane is an anomaly in our cinematic universe-laden world of 2016. It shirks conventions and expectations until, unfortunately, it tries to be the rightful heir to the Cloverfield name. Would the film have been the financial success it's on track to become without the recognizable name? Maybe; maybe not. The name evokes Tagruato, giant kaiju, and an inferior film that isn't half as successful as 10 Cloverfield Lane. The expectations tied to the name shape the latest film final act into a mess that, thankfully, didn't harm the overall film.