Until just a few months ago, almost no one had heard of the movie "10 Cloverfield Lane." In an era of years-long production and promotional campaigns, it was startling for a movie to suddenly materialize, especially from powerhouse producer J.J. Abrams. The filmmaking team was presumably looking to emulate the nimble digital-era freedom of Beyoncé or Louis C.K. to just drop something new and fully formed on an unsuspecting public and let people figure it out for themselves.
The new movie is loosely connected in spirit, if in neither tone nor style, to 2008's "Cloverfield," another film that trafficked in pre-release mystery and misdirection. Not a sequel in any conventional sense, the new film exchanges the original's found footage confusion and frenzy for the more composed, constrained look and feel of a tense suspense thriller. Abrams has likened the films to siblings, similar but individual, while director Dan Trachtenberg said recently that the films are on different timelines within the same universe.
So "10 Cloverfield Lane" arrives on a wave of enthusiasm generated partly by its serial connection and also by its rushing momentum of surprised discovery. As with its predecessor, the movie manages to be smart and shallow at the same time, satisfied with a disposable showman's flair rather than pushing on to something deeper and more resonant. It is designed to be fun, efficient and accessible and delivers precisely and exactly on that and nothing more.
The film follows three people, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Howard (John Goodman) and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), taking refuge inside an underground survivalist bunker after what may or may not have been some kind of attack from an enemy of unknown origin. (Bradley Cooper makes a voice cameo on the phone as the man Winstead's character is leaving behind as the story begins.)
Howard built the well-stocked retreat and brought Michelle down there after a car accident, but as he slowly reveals himself to be an unreliable source of information, Michelle questions if she is there for her protection or his paranoia and pleasure.
Having been retrofitted to the realm of "Cloverfield" from a project originally called "The Cellar," the film's script is credited to Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and "Whiplash's" Damien Chazelle from a story by Campbell and Stuecken. The film is at its best when it settles into being an uneasy chamber drama, as unfolding events confirm one interpretation of what is really happening until an equally believable counter-fact comes along. And it is at its worst when it feels compelled to start answering its own questions and forced to satisfy the imperatives of conforming to a new franchise.
With so much of its story whittled to three people alone in a warren of rooms, the performances are of unusual importance here. Winstead nicely unites the dynamic dramatic work she has done in films such as "Smashed" and "Faults" with that from more conventional action and horror roles in movies like "A Good Day to Die Hard" and "The Thing." Gallagher's role is largely thankless and vaguely functional, which makes Goodman the film's not-so-secret weapon. He handily pivots, in ways sometimes subtle and sometimes not, between seeming like a polite, harmless conspiracy nut and/or a disturbed creep.
"Cloverfield" mobilized charged allusions to post-9/11 imagery of urban dread and disaster without finding much of anything to do with them, transforming foreboding real-world terrors into the relatable scare-and-release of a monster-horror movie. "10 Cloverfield Lane" posits that perhaps the real damage is to be done not by outside invaders but by those already among us; that perhaps the greatest danger comes from those who are not as they present themselves to be. The movie is sharp and exciting in the moment but also content to allow anything more genuinely troubling to disappear on the way out the door.
Follow on Twitter: @IndieFocus
'10 Cloverfield Lane'
MPAA rating: PG-13, for thematic material, including frightening sequences of threat with some violence, and brief language
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes
Playing: In wide release