There's this great old movie called 36 Hours (1964) where the Germans capture an injured American officer and, when he wakes up in hospital, they try to convince him it is several months later, the war is over, the Allies won, and so there's no reason for him to keep military secrets any more. And that kind of elaborate ruse and subterfuge is what sets the stage for the latest from J.J. Abrams, Drew Goddard, Matt Reeves and Bad Robot productions, 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), a piano-wire taut tale of tension and suspense.
Here, a woman has a horrific car accident and wakes up in an underground doomsday bunker under the care and watchful eye of a paranoid older man, who refuses to let her go. As to why, from there, the audience is left to decide if there really is some kind of deadly chemical first-strike invasion going on outside (the source of which ranges from terrorists to Martians) or is this guy some kind of serial-pervert conditioning his latest acquisition that there is no escape to make her more pliant, who may or may not have killed his last female "guest".
Adding another layer of intrigue to this microcosm is a third wheel, a young neighbor who helped build the bunker, claiming he sustained his injuries while trying to get in, not getting out, saying he saw strange lights in the sky and a huge explosion on the horizon and assumed Armageddon was upon them. Clues abound to back up both theories, and once one version seems to be locked-in, another clue pops up, or some dire technical difficulty must be overcome, and then allegiances shift, and another attempt at escape fails, sending everyone back to the blackboard to mark time and rethink things for a while.
The small cast of three does a remarkable job in this locked room mystery, very claustrophobic, with a few blasts of humor to give the audience a breather, over-compensating for a script that was less concerned about character and more concerned about the situation. All we really know about Michelle (Winstead) is that she just broke up with her boyfriend and she wants to be a fashion designer. That’s it. And all we really know about Howard (Goodman) is that he was once in the Navy, used to be married, and a firm believer in conspiracy theories. He also might be a killer. Or he might just be socially awkward. Only Emmet (Gallagher) is allowed some room to breathe in this small space, a well-played out scene that sheds some light on who he really is in a rare intimate moment with Michelle. He also might be in on it with Howard. Or, he might just be trying to get into Michelle’s pants.
Again, it really didn’t matter and we’re given just enough details by scriptwriters Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle and just the right amount of heat from director Dan Trachtenberg to bring this all to a slow, frenzied boil.
And boil-over it eventually does but, alas, the film kinda lost me during the climax where, essentially, every version of the truth was true, making the viewer swallow a ten-car coincidence pile-up as, turns out, --SPOILERS AHOY FROM HERE ON OUT – Michelle's host is a deranged kidnapper, and who knows how many bodies he’s disposed of in a handy barrel of acid. And, the Earth is currently being invaded by extraterrestrial (and highly combustible) squid-monsters, making our protagonist one of the unluckiest people on the face of the planet as she finally escapes one monster, rather deftly, only to face another and engineer another escape, rather ridiculously, with a trusty Molotov cocktail -- always the aliens Achilles’ heel, amIright?
I won’t lie; I was kinda disappointed by the big, ultimate reveal of 10 Cloverfield Lane at first glance, which came off kind of trite after all that intense drama; a letdown. To me, the climax would’ve worked better if the big reveal played out like I had initially thought it would once it is clear hostile aliens had landed.
See, for a minute there, I thought this thing was gonna go all Don Dohler on me, an early influence on Abrams, with a huge nod to The Alien Factor (1978), where the alien panther-leech in the cornfield was actually the real target of the crop-dusting UFO and not our heroine. All part of some alien menagerie – a cosmic zoo, lost in transport (which could also explain the creature that attacked New York several years prior, connecting the two films), which the UFO / zookeeper is just trying to round back up – collateral damage be damned. I mean, how awesome would that have been if Michelle escapes Howard, is then attacked by the panther-leech, only to be inadvertently rescued by the UFO, which promptly flies off once the monster is in custody? (Or maybe the monster eats Howard during the escape? And is then captured just as it's about to eat Michelle? *shrug*) Instead, we get kind of a weak-sauce mash-up of Signs (2002) and Battle: Los Angeles (2011).
Thus, I can't say I loved it, but 10 Cloverfield Lane had me pretty riveted from the opening car crash through the closing credits. Time and distance also has me softening up on that ending quite a bit. Definitely worth a watch on the big screen, I think. Just don't expect any giant monster attacks like Cloverfield (2008) because there aren't any. Well, sort of. Eh, it's complicated and I’ve already spoiled enough.
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) Bad Robot :: Paramount Pictures / EP: Bryan Burk, Drew Goddard, Matt Reeves / P: J.J. Abrams, Lindsey Weber, Bob Dohrmann, Ben Rosenblatt / LP: Ted Gidlow / D: Dan Trachtenberg / W: Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, Damien Chazelle / C: Jeff Cutter / E: Stefan Grube / M: Bear McCreary / S: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.