By BOB GARVER
“10 Cloverfield Lane” has been billed as a “spiritual successor” to 2008’s “Cloverfield.” This is an infuriating term that conjures up images of either a glorified remake or an unrelated film trying to cash in on the “Cloverfield” name.
To be fair, it does somewhat fall into the latter category. From that perspective, it probably brings to mind “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” also a barely related steady-cam successor to a shaky-cam original. This movie is better than “Book of Shadows,” but that’s not much of an achievement. What is an achievement is that it’s better than “Cloverfield.”
Gone is the grand scale of “Cloverfield.” You won’t see the decapitated heads of any national landmarks rolling down the middle of a busy street here. Instead we get an underground bunker in rural Louisiana populated by three people. Howard (John Goodman) is the owner and master of the shelter. Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) is a well-meaning neighbor who forced himself inside at the last minute. And Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a young woman fleeing from her boyfriend who got in a car accident near the shelter. Howard pulled her from the wreckage and brought her to the bunker right before an attack on the planet left the surface uninhabitable.
As outlandish as it sounds, there’s evidence to back Howard up, not the least of which is confirmation from Emmett and affected animals visibly rotting outside.
But Howard’s a hard guy to trust. He may be a survival expert, but he could do with some lessons in tact. He doesn’t have a clue how to be sensitive and reassuring to the scared Michelle, whose head is swimming with questions and who woke up chained in an unfamiliar setting (for her own good, according to him). Pretty much the best he can do is soften his voice to a whine, and that’s when he’s not being gruff or downright threatening. He clearly has a screw loose, and may be the last person on Earth you’d want to have power over you, even if he is one of the last people on Earth. It’s easy to dislike Howard, but more than that you’ll just really want him to be wrong.
The film is a very tense and suspenseful cramped-quarters movie. Michelle desperately wants to escape, even though she’s constantly told that there’s nothing to escape to. But it’s just so tempting to want to get away from Howard, who’s an unpleasant control freak at best and something much more dangerous at worst. He manages to turn a simple party game into the scariest scene in the movie (but also the funniest). Mind games abound, and you’ll wonder just how long these three will be able to tolerate each other.
It gets to a point where it doesn’t seem to matter what’s outside — anything has to be better than what’s inside.
Of course, then there’s the matter of having to deal with what’s outside.
The end of the film is disappointing, not because there’s nothing to it (as one might suspect), but because it devolves the film into the kind of hide-and-chase movie that we’ve all seen before. It might have done well to ditch the “Cloverfield” association so there’s more of a mystery as to what’s really going on (then again, it would be admittedly harder to get people interested in this movie without the franchise name recognition).
But otherwise this is a tight low-budget thriller that is one of the better low-budget thrillers I’ve seen in a while. Winstead is sympathetic, Goodman is terrifying and I wouldn’t mind seeing a follow-up involving the survivor(s) of this movie.
Both “Cloverfield” films do a good job of being unnerving, and while the first one does a better job of seeming spontaneous, “10 Cloverfield Lane,” with its smarter script and more interesting characters, is the superior film.
(“10 Cloverfield Lane” is rated PG-13 for thematic material including frightening sequences of threat with some violence and brief language. Its running time is 103 minutes. Robert Garver is a graduate of the cinema studies program at New York University. Feedback is welcome at email@example.com.)