10 Cloverfield Lane is a fantastic reminder of why the mystery box works


On the night of January 14th I was staying up a little later then I probably should have been, when I saw an alert come across my phone: Paramount had just uploaded a trailer for something called 10 Cloverfield Lane. The existence of a film related to writer Drew Goddard’s found-footage monster hit Cloverfield came totally out of left field — Goddard himself had said there were no plans for a follow-up just three months earlier — but this is the land of J.J. Abrams and his production company Bad Robot, where misdirection and secrecy are often part of the creative process itself.

In the months since, only the most minor of details have been unearthed. Abrams confirmed it’s a “blood relative” to Goddard’s film, whatever that means, and we’ve learned that the project began life as a spec script titled The Cellar before Bad Robot got involved. But in terms of plot details and twists, everything else has been safely tucked away, and when I saw 10 Cloverfield Lane I knew nothing other than what had been revealed in the trailers. I’m confident in saying that’s the precise conditions under which to see the movie, so I’m not going to spend any time here revealing big surprises or spoiling secrets. What I am going to do is talk about one of the most entertaining genre movies I’ve seen since Cabin in the Woods, and why you absolutely need to see it.

Warning: Extremely minor spoilers for things like, um, character names below.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle, a young woman who’s running from a failed marriage when she’s caught up in a mysterious car crash. When she comes to, Michelle finds she’s stuck in a small concrete room with a massive locked door, her leg shackled to the wall. It’s a set-up straight out of Saw, and it’s the first time the movie throws us off balance. It all feels a little too serious, somehow; too reminiscent of gritty, low-budget horror for a movie with Abrams’ name on it. Then Howard (a hulking John Goodman) enters, and explains to Michelle that he’s actually rescued her: there’s been some sort of attack, he tells her, and everybody outside is dead. But they’re tucked away inside his underground bunker, where they’ve got enough supplies to stay safe and sound for as long as is necessary.

The first question the movie plays with is Is Howard crazy?, and thankfully, that’s the exact same reaction that Michelle has. Winstead plays her as scrappy, inventive, and clever; she may be terrified and have no idea what she’s dealing with, but she has no qualms about confronting Howard, or manipulating his wounded pride to get exactly what she wants. It’s a inversion of what you’d normally expect with this kind of set-up; usually the captor would drive the narrative, while the captive would play along until (maybe) ending up in a fight for their life in the closing moments. In 10 Cloverfield Lane, it’s Michelle that pushes the story forward at every turn, and she comes off as a fully-realized, flesh-and-blood human being because of it.

For his part, Goodman proves once again why he’s one of our most underrated actors. Howard is unnerving, yet somehow noble, particularly in the film’s early stretches. He’s a lonely father that misses his daughter, who just can’t understand why people don’t appreciate how hard he’s trying to work to save them. The only other lead character is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr. from The Newsroom), another survivor stuck in the bunker with the pair that adds some complexity to the family dynamic that evolves. He’s a good foil for Winstead, but at times it’s hard to not see the smugness of Jim Harper seeping into what is otherwise intended to be a blue-collar, Louisiana local boy.

10 Cloverfield Lane

(Michele K. Short / Paramount Pictures)

The film barrels through a variety of emotional colors: scares, laughs, moments of emotional vulnerability, and it’s a testament to director Dan Trachtenberg that the pieces fit so seamlessly together. Trachtenberg first got widespread attention online for a short film based on the Portal video games — which also happened to open with a woman waking up in a featureless concrete room under mysterious circumstances — and while he’s continued to work on short-form, web-based projects 10 Cloverfield Lane is remarkably deft work from a first-time feature director. His action sequences and pacing are tight, yet effortless, and he’s able to take a story that’s largely just three people hanging out in three small rooms, and make it feel surprisingly dynamic and alive.

That’s in large part to the fact that Trachtenberg understands exactly what genre conventions he’s playing with and how he can use them to his advantage — which takes us back to that initial question of expectations. I name-checked Cabin in the Woods earlier, and there’s a reason: it was another film that many people saw without any preconceived notions, and was well aware of how it was playing with the genres it was mashing up. (It was also a film of rather particular sensibilities, and like it, 10 Cloverfield Lane will appeal strongest to a very specific kind of moviegoer.) While 10 Cloverfield Lane has its share of laughs, it’s most certainly not a comedy the way Cabin was, but it is similarly smart in that it knows exactly what the audience is going to expect from its initial set-up. And from there, it can use those expectations in whatever way it wants to — to upset the audience, frighten them, or to engender their sympathy in surprising ways.

It’s a kind of meta-genre work that a film can only really pull off if it is given a clean slate to work from — one untainted by dozens of trailers, TV spots, and all of the preconceived notions those bring with them. Whenever we see a commercial for a movie, somebody’s making a promise: come pay $10, and you’re going to get this kind of experience. For certain movies, it works wonderfully: if I want to go see superheroes punch each other, I know exactly what two films to see this year. But it’s also inherently reductive, practically encouraging filmmakers to avoid telling stories that can’t be neatly summed up in the span of a two minute and thirty second trailer.

10 Cloverfield Lane was given the chance to succeed because it was afforded the opportunity to surprise. That’s not a mystery box gimmick. That’s just good storytelling.

J.J. Abrams about the latest Bad Robot project and how — or if — it’s related to Cloverfield